Cobalt isn’t a conflict mineral

Policymakers need to properly assess the risks to ordinary Congolese people from expanding the “conflict minerals” category.

Luwowo, conflict free certified, Coltan mine near Rubaya, North Kivu March 2014. Image credit Sylvain Liechti via MONUSCO Flickr under CC license.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s “conflict minerals” (tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold) often appear in advocacy campaigns given their importance for western consumer electronics, but a different mineral, cobalt, has gained media attention recently.

News articles have likened the DRC’s cobalt to Wakanda’s vibranium; discussed a Canadian alternative to Congolese cobalt for electric cars; and described a new deal between Swiss company Glencore (the world’s biggest cobalt producer) and a Chinese firm. Another piece described moves by several different Chinese corporate investors to buy in to the cobalt boom in the Kolwezi area, while the BBC recently described the situation as a “new gold rush.” With rapidly rising demand for the cobalt needed to manufacture electric cars, a new “ethical cobalt” scheme is being trialed in the DRC’s artisanal cobalt mines, with blockchain being used as part of these efforts.

Previously, the US administration announced it might suspend the Dodd-Frank Act’s “conflict minerals” provisions for two years. Although Human Rights Watch and Amnesty expressed concern about suspending this legislation, an investigation found merit in Trump’s assertion that Dodd-Frank caused Congolese people to lose their livelihoods. Trump and the Republicans have ideological reasons for disliking Dodd-Frank: the cost of compliance, and their view that the SEC has overstepped its role. Yet, the issue should not be reduced to “regulation” vs. “no regulation,” but seen as an opportunity to design better transnational governance to address conflict and human rights in mining.

The “conflict minerals” narrative links the presence of armed groups in eastern DRC to mineral riches for which these groups loot, rape and kill civilians. National, regional and international supply-chain initiatives, like Dodd-Frank, have multiplied, requiring companies to disclose the fact they use these minerals, and make their supply chains “conflict free.” However, academics respond that multiple factors contribute to conflict. Armed groups rely on a range of sources of income; for some, minerals play little or no roleMany mines are not controlled by armed groups. Attempts to regulate supply chains carry potential negative consequences, such as a de facto boycott of all minerals from the DRC, even where there is no conflict.

Congolese and international researchers have shown that Dodd-Frank has had unintended and negative consequences. Some industry actors avoided sourcing from the DRC, which made artisanal miners, their dependents and people in related industries more vulnerable. Supply chain initiatives have not had a meaningful impact on traceability or conflict, and may even trigger conflict and/or increase the incidence of fighting, looting and violence against civilians.

Although efforts to demilitarize mineral supply chains are not new, several human rights groups want “conflict mineral”-style supply chain traceability and due diligence extended to artisanal cobalt mining. A report by Amnesty International and Afrewatch in January 2016 highlighted the poorly paid, hazardous conditions in which children and adults work. A November 2017 follow-up report by Amnesty assessed 29 companies’ responses on how they source their cobalt.

There is a need for systematic evaluation of potential risks to ordinary people’s livelihoods from expanding the “conflict minerals” category. The negative effects reported in Kivu provinces, particularly the estimated loss of employment of tens of thousands to millions of miners, suggest there is cause for concern about similar impacts in southeastern DRC, already in economic difficulty due to a recent period of low copper prices. The de facto boycott has led to negative consequences for those in eastern DRC who depend on artisanal mining, including loss of incomenegative effects on child mortality and healthcare; and an expansion in illegal activities and smuggling. Evidence from the Kivus points to the disproportionately negative impacts of supply-chain measures on artisanal miners and women in associated economic activities. In southeastern DRC, these groups are already disadvantaged, as multinational corporations have removed tens of thousands of artisanal miners from their concessions.

Recent events suggest that a quasi-boycott is a real possibility. Companies responded to advocacy about cobalt, while the Washington PostWall Street Journal, and Compliance Week picked up the story. The fact that companies like Apple have signaled their intention to follow up on the cobalt supply chain shows the attention has had real effects. In March 2017, Apple announced it had put a temporary hold on purchases of hand-mined cobalt from the DRC while it addresses working conditions and child labor. A recent BBC article highlighted that while corporate investment in the DRC’s cobalt is likely to continue growing, concerns about child labor and corruption have led investors to seek to develop cobalt mining in other countries.

There are implications of expanding the “conflict minerals” category to include minerals extracted in exploitative, inhumane conditions. Many artisanal miners across Africa toil in similar conditions. To compare child labor with the financing of armed groups obscures the reality that economic hardship forces some children to work in mines. Women’s involvement in artisanal mining, and the negative effects for them, has also been cited as a reason to clean up southeastern DRC’s artisanal mining (ASM) sector. Yet efforts to limit women’s participation could reduce their access to income. Although the dangerous and at times exploitative conditions for artisanal miners should be addressed, the “conflict minerals” framework is only one option. When it comes to managing ASM in the contexts of limited government capacity, good practices and education may be preferable to licensing and regulation.

To include cobalt and other non-conflict minerals in supply chain initiatives in the DRC would make multinational corporations even more powerful in a region where mining firms already dominate the economy, and where their involvement is increasing rapidly. Implementing supply-chain measures without addressing the broader conditions could further marginalize artisanal miners already under pressure by large-scale mining.

About the Author

Sarah Katz-Lavigne is a joint-degree PhD Candidate in International Affairs at Carleton University in Canada and in International Relations the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Dr Jana Hoenke, is an Assistant Professor in International Relations at the University of Groningen.

Further Reading

‘The Blood Diamond Myth’

It would be interesting to hear people’s opinions about this argument by writer Adam Hochchild (the author of King Leopold’s Ghost: ) published earlier this year in  Mother Jones magazine:

In the 1960s, many Americans …