Our world is increasingly powered by lithium-ion rechargeable batteries, ranging from the ones found in everyday mobile technologies, such as smartphones and laptop computers, to those in electric vehicles. There is also a growing interest in using super-sized rechargeable batteries to help store electricity generated from solar and wind sources and deliver it to consumers more efficiently. These technologies are attractive because of their perceived sustainability. But as their use becomes more and more widespread, in what some are calling the ‘clean energy revolution’, it is necessary to ask whether the energy powering this revolution is as “clean” as it is claimed to be.
Cobalt is an element critical for powering the clean energy revolution. More than 50% of the world’s cobalt supply originates in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to the government’s own estimates, 20% of the cobalt currently exported from the DRC comes from artisanal miners in the southern part of the country. There are approximately 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal miners in this region, who work alongside much larger industrial operations. These artisanal miners, referred to as creuseurs in the DRC, mine by hand using the most basic tools to dig out rocks from tunnels deep underground. Much of the cobalt produced in the DRC is destined for smelters, refiners and processors located in China, where it gets turned into a variety of chemical products used in the manufacture of rechargeable batteries.
Demand for rechargeable batteries has helped contribute to a boom in cobalt prices since the beginning of 2017. It is also sustaining a market for minerals mined by hand in the DRC under extremely dangerous conditions.
In January 2016, Amnesty International and African Resources Watch (Afrewatch) jointly published “This is What We Die For”: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt (This is What We Die For), a report that examined the conditions under which artisanal miners extract a significant proportion of the world’s cobalt supply and traced how this mineral is traded. The report exposed serious human rights abuses in artisanal cobalt mining in southern DRC. Artisanal miners operating outside of authorized mining zones typically lack basic protective or safety equipment, such as respirators, gloves or face protection, and do not enjoy legal protections nominally provided by the state. Those involved with artisanal mining frequently suffer from chronic illnesses, as well as from serious and potentially fatal respiratory diseases due to prolonged exposure to dust containing cobalt and other metals. Researchers found children as young as seven who scavenged for rocks containing cobalt.
The report also assessed the extent to which 26 companies had put in place human rights due diligence measures to know where the cobalt in their products came from and the conditions under which it was extracted and traded. This included the upstream company, Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt Co., Ltd (Huayou Cobalt), whose wholly owned subsidiary in the DRC, Congo Dongfang International Mining SARL (CDM), is a major buyer from traders of artisanal cobalt in the former province of Katanga in the DRC, and 25 downstream companies that researchers found were potentially buying from Huayou Cobalt, either directly or indirectly.
Amnesty International concluded that all 26 companies had failed to conduct human rights due diligence in line with international standards. Alarmingly, the majority were unable to answer basic questions about where the cobalt in their products came from and whether there were any risks of the kind observed by researchers.
Amnesty International also concluded that there were significant gaps and weaknesses in the DRC government’s regulation of artisanal mining. The DRC government was also failing to adequately enforce the legal prohibition against child labour in artisanal mining
To read the full report click here.
Amnesty International is a global movement of millions of people demanding human rights for all people – no matter who they are or where they are.