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Around 60% of global cobalt production is concentrated in two southern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo: Lualaba and Haut-Katanga, home to a number of industrial-scale copper-cobalt mines operated by a mix of state-owned, Chinese and multinational companies. Decades of water and air pollution from these operations is responsible for widespread respiratory illnesses and toxic concentrations of metal in the blood for the many communities living near mine sites. This contamination has also led to the loss of vegetation and farmland, thus impeding the growth of agriculture and tourism, sectors that could help diversify the region’s economy and reduce its dependence on mining. Cases of corruption, tax evasion and other improprieties by large mining companies have reduced what little economic benefits the sector offers the country and affected communities.

Artisanal cobalt mining

While only producing an estimated 20% of Congolese cobalt, the artisanal cobalt mining sector has attracted the lion’s share of international scrutiny—primarily over child labor. The challenges and dangers associated with artisanal mining have been exacerbated by corruption and abuse from external actors (including cobalt traders, government authorities, security forces and mining companies), as well as a lack of investment and support for the sector to be safer and more just. Meanwhile, unlike industrial-scale mining, artisanal mining sustains hundreds of thousands of workers and their families in an area with few alternatives. Without structural changes to address economic inequality and material needs, artisanal mining—including child labor—will only continue.

Artisanal miners and their cooperatives are developing solutions and calling for the formalization of the sector. Increased access to technology, credit and fair pricing—as well as broader poverty reduction measures and economic diversification—are also among the demands of artisanal mining cooperatives. The NGO Afrewatch is working to bring their voices to decision-making spaces such as the OECD Forum.

Industry response

Rather than listen to these concerns and help support the solutions proposed by those most impacted, many mining companies and downstream buyers have focused on eliminating artisanally-mined cobalt from their supply chains, some seeking cobalt outside the DRC entirely. By distancing themselves from their legacy of harm, these companies are driving an expansion of cobalt projects around the world, including in the depths of the ocean, or favoring battery chemistries with little or no cobalt entirely. 

Meanwhile, the updated Congolese Mining Code of 2018 has introduced a host of progressive reforms designed to increase the public benefit of mining activity, including increased royalty and tax payments, which have been opposed by multinational miners, among them Glencore and Barrick.

Above: Satellite imagery timelapse from 1984 to 2018 of Lubumbashi – the DRC’s second-largest city. The dramatic growth and encroachment of the Ruashi copper-cobalt mine can be observed from the approximately 2005 onwards.
Source: Google Earth.

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Banner photo:Ruashi copper-cobalt mine showing the proximity of the mine to thousands of Lubumbashi houses. During the explosions necessary to free the ore in the mining pit, the people living closest to the mine are evacuated. After several hours, they are allowed to return to their homes.

Image from: Cobalt Blues: Environmental pollution and human rights violations in Katanga’s copper and cobalt mines (2016 – ACIDH, Afrewatch, Premicongo and SOMO), page 25. Original source: Google maps photographs, 2 March 2016.