Can the Congolese cobalt industry be cleaned up?

Cobalt may not be the world’s most glamorous material, but it’s recently become one of the most desirable metals because of its unique properties. 

Cobalt is a hard, brittle metal that’s extremely versatile. It can be used in art and manufacturing as both a chemical agent and as an alloy when mixed with other metals. Radioactive cobalt is used as a sterilizer for medical equipment and in radiation therapy and most notably, cobalt is used in lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, which have spiked in-demand due to a surge in electric vehicle production and renewable energy projects. Cobalt is extremely important to modern day medicine and technology, but sourcing the metal is a complicated issue. 

Cobalt is primarily sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to a report made by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the DRC produced 64% of global cobalt in 2018. However, the mining industry in DRC is riddled with concerns. Child labor, environmental destruction, health, and economic issues are associated with this important process.

Since 18% to 30% of DRC’s cobalt production is artisanal and does not utilize heavy machinery or large-scale mining operations, extracting the metal is extremely labor-intensive. Many workers are needed to sustain the high level of cobalt output in the DRC. Jobs in this industry have severe health hazards and to make matters worse, many children work in the industry.  Due to high levels of poverty and expensive schooling options, many children end up working in the mines to support their families. There are an estimated 40,000 children as young as six mining cobalt in the DRC. This number is even more shocking when compared to the estimated total of 255,000 miners in the DRC. 

Cobalt mining is an extremely hazardous occupation that can lead to several health conditions. One of the main concerns is pneumoconiosis, a lung disease caused by the inhalence of cobalt particles due to long-term exposure. The disease, more commonly known as “hard metal lung disease” is associated with respiratory sensitization, asthma, decreased pulmonary function and shortness of breath. Along with this disease, cobalt mining can cause damaging skin conditions, not to mention that the intensity of the labor itself can cause health concerns on its own. 

Exposure to cobalt harms the health of the miners as well as their children at home. Researchers studied children born inside and outside of DRC’s mining region and found that the children of miners were at significantly higher risk for birth defects. Reports have revealed that the children of miners disproportionately suffer from limb abnormalities, cleft palates and neural tube defects such as spina bifida. While this issue is directly related with the miners themselves, it hints at the larger issue when it comes to cobalt mining: pollution and its effects on the mining communities. 

Mining in DRC has polluted rivers and drinking water, and high levels of radioactivity have been recorded in mining regions of the country. The effects on the land are detrimental and the effects on quality of life and health in the region raise immediate concerns. Those who visit the region, like Mark Dummett from Amnesty International, report horrible environmental conditions. 

“One of the most striking things you see is just how polluted it is and just how little is being done by the government and mining companies to prevent pollution and protect the people living and working there,” Dummett said. 

The sad reality of life in the mining regions of the DRC is that there is no escaping the pollution or its hazardous effects. 

Cobalt is destroying the environment and bodies of the Congolese people but for many this is a secondary concern. Between 2009 to 2019, the UN reported that 77.2% of the population of the DRC lives on under $1.90 a day. Most artisanal miners earn under $2 a day, a wage that puts them right at the average income in the country. Despite harsh working conditions, some miners work in the mines because it allows them to support their families.

There’s no question that there are issues with cobalt mining from a health, human rights, and environmental point of view. However, the same cobalt that is hurting mining communities is also providing invaluable income and keeping these communities alive. Cobalt is valuable and for many miners, mining offers one of the few sources of income. The solution is not to stop mining cobalt in the Congo — this isn’t feasible. Hundreds of thousands of miners would be out of a job, and 64% of global cobalt production would disappear only to pick back up again illegally or in a new country. 

While cobalt will be increasingly essential in coming years for smartphone and electric car manufacturing, cobalt is recyclable. The current cobalt recycling system is imperfect, but researchers and governments are working to find a better solution. The European Commission is taking a big step towards decreasing cobalt consumption by decreeing that 95% of cobalt in batteries must be recycled. As more cobalt is recycled, less will need to be produced. This will help to ensure cobalt production does not become worse, but it won’t improve labor or environmental conditions right now. Recycling cobalt could also negatively impact miners by reducing demand for their cobalt. 

The more intractable issue is fixing the mining and sourcing process itself. Companies are puzzled over how to source cobalt responsibly. Companies like Apple, an industry leader in the fight for responsible sourcing, have said that walking away would do nothing to improve conditions for the people or the environment in the DRC. However, human rights advocates claim that companies like Apple aren’t doing enough to stop human rights abuse in their supply chains. 

While it could be argued that it is the responsibility of the companies buying the cobalt to source it responsibly, the Congolese government is well aware of the issue as well. They have stepped in to make mining safer through their creation of “model mines.” These mines reduce the necessity for miners to dig by hand in unstable tunnels and are also closed off so that children cannot go into them. The government is also working to create official areas where artisanal mining can take place, which officials believe will lead to miners forming cooperatives and pooling their resources to invest in larger, safer equipment. 

Cobalt production has many issues right now, but there is hope for improvements in the future. Cobalt is going to be increasingly important for emerging technology and the economy for years to come. 

For the benefit of the environment and workers in the DRC, it needs to be sourced ethically and sustainably so that mining communities like those in DRC aren’t destroyed in the process. Cobalt recycling needs to become the norm, and companies need to actively work to better their supply chains. There is no excuse for allowing child labor, health issues, and pollution to run rampant, even if cobalt mining is important to the economy. 

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