Spotlight on Artisanal Mining: The Push for Responsible Cobalt Sourcing

The drive for responsible sourcing of cobalt has thrust artisanal mining practices in Africa into the global spotlight, highlighting both the economic dependency of local communities and the ethical challenges faced by industries reliant on this critical mineral.

Cobalt

The drive for responsible sourcing of cobalt has thrust artisanal mining practices in Africa into the global spotlight, highlighting both the economic dependency of local communities and the ethical challenges faced by industries reliant on this critical mineral.

Artisanal mining is a lifeline for approximately 150,000 to 200,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone, as reported by Reuters. However, the informal nature of this sector poses significant risks, particularly concerning human rights and environmental standards. As industries such as electric vehicles and battery manufacturing increasingly demand ethical supply chains, the scrutiny of artisanal cobalt mining intensifies.

“Social aspects such as human rights violations have come to the fore as serious risks to formal cobalt producers, as customers want better traceability and integrity in their supply chains,” explained Wouter Jordaan, partner and principal environmental scientist at SRK Consulting. He noted that companies are now integrating standards and guidelines, like the OECD’s due diligence guidelines, to audit their supply chains comprehensively.

Human Rights and Ethical Standards

The OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, along with International Labour Organization (ILO) requirements, are becoming essential tools for ensuring human rights compliance and monitoring labor conditions. This shift is partly driven by the history of human rights abuses in cobalt mining, making investors and lenders wary of engaging in the sector without robust oversight.

“Due to the history of human rights abuses in cobalt mining, investors and lenders are cautious about being involved in transactions in this sector, especially in Africa,” Jordaan emphasized. The due diligence process now encompasses the entire supply chain, including shipping companies, to ensure that cobalt’s origins are traceable and ethically sourced.

The Role of Standards and Alliances

Organizations such as the Fair Cobalt Alliance are crucial in supporting responsible sourcing. They focus on improving conditions in artisanal and small-scale mining, including environmental rehabilitation efforts. These initiatives are vital for assuring stakeholders that the commodities in their products meet ethical standards.

The DRC government is working towards formalizing artisanal mining to bring more control and safety to the sector. However, challenges remain, such as unsafe working conditions and child labor. “Government has tried to introduce more control over where artisanal mining can take place, and the channels through which the product can be sold,” said Jordaan. Yet, the lack of direct operational monitoring means issues persist.

Engagement and Social Development

To address these challenges, engagement with local communities and artisanal miners is essential. Mines are required to develop and implement a systematic Cahier de Charge—a plan for local social development—in consultation with local stakeholders. This ensures that social development plans align with community needs and preferences.

“Artisanal mining sites tend to be served by many informal businesses, set up by community members drawn to these busy locations,” Jordaan explained. He added that formal mines operating near artisanal areas have the opportunity to integrate these small businesses into their supply chains, fostering sustainable enterprises.

As the demand for ethically sourced cobalt continues to rise, the interplay between formal mining companies and artisanal miners will remain a critical issue. The movement towards responsible mining practices is expected to strengthen into 2024, reflecting significant shifts in industry strategy and ethical considerations.

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