Mobile phones, e-cars and Co.: This is how the cobalt is mined for us

MMore than half of the world’s processed cobalt comes from the Katanga region in the south of the country, writes a US research team in a recent study in the journal One Earth. According to the analyzes, the Wild West mentality prevails in the mining areas there, largely without compliance with social, labor law, health or ecological standards. While most of the cobalt in Katanga is industrially mined, 15 to 20 percent of the total is mined by around 110,000 to 150,000 artisanal workers.

The team from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, studied the effects of artisanal mining on the working and living conditions of people in the Lualaba province, which is part of Katanga. Although the central government has designated special mining zones, the mineral is also being searched for on the fringes of these areas – in countless, spontaneously dug and unsecured shafts and tunnels.

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“You might think that mining means just digging something up,” said co-author Sera Young of Northwestern University in a statement from her university. “But they don’t dig in open ground. Residential land is being dug up. People are literally digging holes in their living rooms.”

Most of Lualaba’s artisanal mining is controlled by cooperatives set up by local traders or foreign investors, the team writes. Such cooperatives would in turn enter into contracts with the local mining companies.

For membership in a cooperative, workers have to pay an annual fee of the equivalent of 15 US dollars (about 13 euros). There are also many non-organized miners who mine and sell cobalt on their own. The two groups can hardly be clearly distinguished from one another, because workers often move about in search of the most productive deposits.

It is said that the cooperatives actually have to comply with safety and environmental standards. However, this is usually not checked. The ore from which cobalt is extracted is therefore usually mined with simple hand tools such as hammers and chisels or picks.

According to the report, only men are allowed to dig in the shafts, some of which are more than 30 meters deep. According to this, women work above ground, and child labor is also common in the mining towns. The mined ores are carried to streams, lakes or waterholes to be washed and sorted.

The cobalt-bearing ore is then typically sold in 25-kilogram sacks. The cooperative pays the workers about 25 US dollars (22 euros) for a sack with a cobalt content of 1.5 percent. The cooperatives, in turn, resold the sacks at a price that the workers are usually unaware of.

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Klaus Hasselmann in Hamburg in early 2021

Climate researcher Klaus Hasselmann

Workers who are not affiliated with cooperatives could sell their material directly and negotiate the price themselves, but then dig for the metal on their own. “They must tend their own mineral deposits, which can be dangerous, but also fruitless.”

There are no fixed wages for people in small-scale mining, nor is there a fixed workload. “The payment depends solely on the amount of cobalt mined and the market price for a 25-kilo sack,” explains the team. “Miners often work as long as they can (sometimes day and night) to increase their income.”

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The team highlights the dispossession of land and the resettlement of people living on cobalt deposits as a major social problem. Traditionally, the land belongs to the respective municipalities. According to the report, however, their leaders are being courted massively by the mining companies that want to mine cobalt in the area – with money, gifts or offers such as the construction of a school.

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Those who cannot prove their right to ownership of a property, which is usually the case traditionally, is usually driven out without compensation. “This is our country, we have always lived here,” the team quoted a resident of Kasulo as saying. “Some people forge ownership documents not only to get compensation, but also to take our land away from us.”

According to the report, the prospect of a better income attracts many people from outside the area. They built their settlements and their own administrative structures there, which also led to conflicts. “Violence is common and negatively affects living conditions in Lualaba,” the team writes. “During our stay, participants reported conflicts between different ethnic groups, especially between migrant workers and local residents.”

According to the study, another problem concerns the environment and the health of local residents, as mining pollutes the soil, air and water in many places. For example, the water in those places where the mined ore is washed is no longer suitable for drinking and also unusable for many other purposes. “Farmland can also become infertile due to toxins and pollutants that are produced during cobalt mining.” In many places, agricultural yields have deteriorated so much that some people have to get food across the border in neighboring Zambia.

The researchers write that another health hazard is working in the shafts themselves, which are often in danger of collapsing. There is usually no occupational safety. During their visits to such small mines, they did not notice any protective measures: the shafts themselves are usually not secured, and there are also no facilities such as handrails or warning signs.

The team emphasizes that the report should not only inform decision-makers from politics and business, but also consumers: In the development, financing and use of green energies, for example, decisions should not only be made in a technologically responsible manner, but also socially and ethically.

This article was first published in January 2022.

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