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DRC's Illegal Mining Dilemma

FILE: Artisanal miners pan sediment at an illegal mine-pit in Walungu territory of South-Kivu province near Bukavu. Taken April 5, 2014.

According to market specialist Darton Commodities, the Democratic Republic of Congo last year produced 72 percent of the world's cobalt, a key ingredient in batteries for electronic devices. But the sector's image is tarnished by artisanal mining, where accusations of child labour, dangerous working conditions and corruption are rampant.

"It's the Wild West of mining," said one industry analyst of the cobalt mining underway in that central African nation.

Under DRC law, artisanal diggers are only allowed to work in government-designated zones and as part of approved cooperatives.

But many miners prefer to operate on industrial concessions where there are large, identified deposits, even though this can lead to a showdown with powerful multi-billion-dollar corporations.

"We're not going to give in," said Michel Bizimungu Lungundu, deputy of the highly organized cooperative at Shabara known as COMAKAT, arguing that locals had the right to exploit the lucrative ore.

At the huge pit in Shabara, about 45 kilometers from Kolwezi, five thousand diggers pack tightly together at the bottom of a crater, swinging hammers and picks to excavate chunks of the speckled blue-gold cobalt ore from the earth.

Marcel Kabamba, 31, taking a break amid the sounds of clanging and the shouts of his fellow diggers, said he could make the equivalent of $200 on a good week -- a small fortune in a country where most live on under $2 a day.

"We're fighting to be left in peace," he said.

In 2019, as a storm over rights and working conditions mounted, it also established the state-owned Enterprise Generale du Cobalt (EGC), giving it a monopoly on buying and marketing artisanally produced ore from the designated zones.

The idea was multi-pronged: develop the artisanal sector, boost standards and profit from the trade.

"Your Teslas, Samsungs and Apples had started to balk at cobalt," said EGC's compliance and environment director, Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, referring to the reputational cost of buying ore from the DRC.

"This was starting to create a real problem."

Today, though, efforts to clear up the illegal mines are at near standstill.

Most diggers are refusing to move into the designated artisanal zones 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 had decided the zones seemingly at random.

The DRC mines ministry did not respond to questions.