When local communities in Kasulu and Chipuki, Kolwezi, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) discovered cobalt in their backyards a few years ago, they started digging for the precious mineral. Then Chinese companies moved in and bought the concession.
Local communities were moved off their land involuntarily and resettled without adequate compensation. Their land was then sealed off and they returned to work as artisanal and small-scale miners in the mines that they once owned. Their backyards became mines, now owned by Chinese companies CDM, MKM and Cicomin, says TUMEC, the IndustriALL Global Union affiliate in the DRC.
IndustriALL visited the area as part of a mission to investigate conditions in cobalt supply chains and campaign for commodities giant Glencore to respect human and workers’ rights in Kolwezi.
Artisanal and small-scale miners contribute significantly to cobalt production in the DRC. This is seen by the many cobalt collection depots that line the roadside on the approach to Kolwezi from Lubumbashi. Artisanal and small-scale miners are regulated by the ministry of mines’ division of small scale mining and exploration.
TUMEC is working with the miners to improve health and safety, and deal with the harsh effects of mining on the environment, and on the communities.
“We are dealing with fair trade issues, as some of the cobalt buyers are engaging in unfair trade practices by buying our cobalt cheap and then lying to us that the grade is low when this is not the case,” said a worker in an interview.
Glen Mpufane, IndustriALL director of mining, said:
“We support initiatives by our affiliates that reach out to the community and believe that mining companies have a social responsibility to the communities in which they have operations.
“Therefore, they must improve the infrastructure in the communities by building roads, clinics, and houses. Instead squalor, poverty and diseases are common in the adjacent communities next to the concessions”.
An example of responsible mining can be drawn from the state-owned Gécamines, which has invested in education and health. However, Gécamines has scaled down its operations and ceded its stakes to private companies, including Glencore. The global mission took a tour of some of the infrastructure developed by Gécamines, which contrasted sharply with the Chinese operations at Kasulu.