Notebooks, electric cars and their relation to the Congo – Status and perspectives of cobalt mining

28.11.2011

Between 67,000 and 108,000 workers are involved in the extraction of cobalt in mostly unregistered mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They frequently work under dangerous conditions; fatal accidents are the order of the day. Each year more than one hundred people die in Congolese mines as a result of landslides, shaft collapses and flooding. Child labour is also common: 19,000 to 30,000 children under the age of 15 extract or wash the ore, and separate the extracted minerals.

These are key findings of a study conducted by Oeko-Institut on the social impacts of cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “The working conditions of cobalt production in the Congo have to be substantially improved”, says Andreas Manhart, researcher at Oeko-Institut. “Both the Congolese government – which is to be elected today – and the large buyers of this valuable metal should bear the responsibility for improving these conditions.”

Manufacturers around the world need large quantities of cobalt for the production of batteries for electric vehicles and mobile electronic devices. The Democratic Republic of the Congo supplies 45,000 tons of cobalt each year; and hence, constitutes a little over half of cobalt mining worldwide. At least 60 per cent of this is mined, washed and separated by artisanal miners using the simple tools and methods, after which it is sold to the world market via traders. If this amount of work is perceived at the level of products of our daily consumption, a notebook, for instance, contains ten minutes of labour at artisanal mines in the South-East Congo. For modern hybrid cars, more than six hours of labour at the artisanal mines is needed for each car.

In this crisis-ridden and impoverished country, artisanal mining constitutes an important part of the economy. It creates significantly more jobs than mechanised mining methods and it feeds many families. “The Congolese government has already recognised this potential and initiated some reforms”, says Manhart. “But despite such initiatives to support the workers – for example by establishing an assistance and supervision service for the mining community – cobalt mining in the Congo still has a long way to go before it can be termed as sustainable.”

Oeko-Institut recommends a stepwise improvement of working conditions at the sites: The formation of miners’ cooperatives, for example, should be supported. There should be simple technical support to improve worker safety and general aspects of the trade of raw materials should be addressed. Workers should have better access to up-to-date market information like ore prices. Currently they are frequently at a systematic disadvantage in price negotiations because they often do not know the real value of the ore they are extracting.

Such measures require engagement not only by the Congolese government but also by international buyers of cobalt and cobalt containing products. On the one hand this is because companies are increasingly held responsible for the sustainability impacts of their products – even when the impacts occur in remote regions. On the other hand this is to insure the security of supply in the case of so-called “critical raw materials”. Eventually the conditions of the trade – including working conditions and environmental impacts – will determine which player gets the upper hand in the competition for raw materials.

Notwithstanding the poor working conditions, a boycott would be the wrong approach: “A general boycott would be very difficult logistically since many links along the processing and trade chain would have to be certified and regularly monitored,” says Manhart. “Ultimately a ban on trade would only lead to large customers being able to distance themselves from poor conditions. At the same time, the Congolese miners would lose an important sales market, meaning that they either become even more dependent on other market segments or would completely lose their income.”

Oeko-Institut’s study “Social impacts of artisanal cobalt mining in Katanga, Democratic Republic of Congo” can be downloaded here 

Contact

Andreas Manhart
Researcher, Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division
Oeko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology)
Phone: +49 89 125900-77
Email: a.manhart--at--oeko.de

Öko-Institut is a leading independent European research and consultancy institute working for a sustainable future. Founded in 1977, the institute develops principles and strategies for ways in which the vision of sustainable development can be realised globally, nationally and locally. It has offices in three cities in Germany: Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin.

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