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Image: DR Congo’s fight against illegal cobalt mines | Mining News


At the bottom of a crater in southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, 5,000 miners huddle together, swinging hammers and picking to unearth speckled clumps of green gold ore from the earth.

In this almost biblical setting, the reward is cobalt – a strategic metal found in abundance in the Central African nation.

But the huge hole in Shabara, about 45 kilometers (30 miles) from Kolwezi, is also a big deal.

About 20,000 people work at the mine, in shifts of 5,000 people each time. Mining operations have been going on for years here in clear violation of DRC laws and in defiance of the site’s owner, a subsidiary of mining and commodities giant Glencore.

As the diggers excavated the blue-tinted soil, hundreds of dust-covered porters trudged up the path leading out of the pit, their backs bent under the weight of sacks of ore.

Marcel Kabamba, 31, resting between the sounds of collisions and the screams of his miners, says he can make the equivalent of $200 on a good week – a fortune small property in a country where most live on less than $2 a day.

“We are fighting for peace,” he said.

‘Wild West of Mining’

According to market expert Darton Commodities, DRC last year produced 72 percent of the world’s cobalt, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries in electric cars and mobile phones.

But the industry’s image is tarnished by exhaustive mining, where allegations of child labor, dangerous working conditions and corruption are rampant.

“It’s the Wild West of mining,” said one industry analyst.

Under Congolese law, salvage miners are only allowed to work in government-designated sites and as part of approved cooperatives.

But most miners say that designated areas are unreachable.

Many prefer to operate on an industrial franchise basis where large, established deposits are available, although this can lead to competition with powerful multibillion-dollar corporations.

“We will not give in,” said Michel Bizimungu Lungundu, deputy of COMAKAT, a highly organized cooperative in Shabara, that locals have a right to lucrative ore mining.

In 2018, the DRC enacted mining reforms intended in part to strengthen control over the booming cobalt trade.

The country declared the metal “strategic” and raised taxes on industrially produced cobalt.

In 2019, as a storm of rights and working conditions mounted, it also established the State-owned Enterprise Generale du Cobalt (EGC), giving it the exclusive rights to buy and market artisanal ore produced from designated areas.

The idea has many directions: develop the craft sector, raise standards and profit from commerce.

“Teslas, Samsung and your Apples are starting to get fed up with cobalt,” EGC’s chief environmental and compliance officer, Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, said of EGC’s chief environmental and compliance officer, Tosi Mpanu Mpanu. reputation cost of buying ore from DRC. “This has started to create a real problem.”

Today, however, efforts to clear illegal mines are nearing a standstill.

Most miners are refusing to move into designated mining areas and EGC has yet to start buying cobalt.

“It’s a mess,” admitted a senior government official in Kolwezi, the capital of Lualaba province, who said Kinshasa decided the areas appeared to be random.

The DRC Mining Department did not respond to questions.

‘An obvious problem’

In 2010, COMAKAT signed an agreement with Dino Steel, the majority owner of Shabara, allowing them to continue underground mining.

The deal can only be waived if both sides agree, according to a copy of the agreement shared with AFP news agency.

In 2015, a shock occurred: the news of the sale of Shabara, and with it the expectation that the miners would leave.

Seven years on, their stubborn presence has also frustrated Glencore, which says it has not been able to make full use of its concessions and that illegal mining jeopardizes safety.

“It’s a confusing problem,” said Marie-Chantal Kaninda, corporate head of Glencore DRC.

The Anglo-Swiss company is “joining” with the government to gain access to the site, according to a spokesman, and it is assisting miners in migrating to mining sites.

The spokesperson added: “With around 40 trucks leaving the site to deliver ore to other companies in the area each day, it is clear that these activities are organized and not the work of the miners. small scale craft.

AFP could not contact Groupe Bazano, which owns Dino Steel.

An estimated 200,000 people work as informal cobalt miners, making mass conversions a difficult proposition.

“Many reforms…have been made for the vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” says Sasha Lezhnev at an NGO called The Sentry.

Some politicians also have close ties to salvage mines. Lualaba Mining Minister Jacques Kaumba Mukumbi is the former president of COMAKAT, according to media reports. He did not respond to several AFP requests for comment.

According to price reporters, artisanal cobalt accounts for 4-5% of Congo’s production, with production of several thousand tons per year.

Those numbers would make DRC one of the top cobalt producers in the world from its unofficial miners alone.

Glencore’s Mutanda mine, located five kilometers (3 mi) from Shabara on the same site, is the largest cobalt mine in the world.

But it has been closed since 2019 in part because of higher taxes and a slumping market, the company said. Spot cobalt prices have fallen from around $70,000/ton at the beginning of the year to $50,000.

Despite such fluctuations, analysts say the metal’s future remains strong due to demand from the energy transition – and thus will perpetuate the mining frenzy.

All this means is that miners and miners share an interest in cleaning up the contaminated image of Congolese cobalt, said David Sturmes at the Fair Cobalt Alliance, a multi-stakeholder initiative, said.

“The conditions have not yet met international expectations,” he said.

“But they won’t improve until we invest – and we can only invest if we solve the legitimacy problem.”

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