Energy Race Raises Human Rights Concerns in DRC Mining

Discussions on the climate crisis have become crucial in global negotiations and policy building, in matters of energy, and decarbonization of the global economy. Adoption of The Paris Agreement at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, France, on 12 December 2015, which entered into force on 4 November 2016 has arguably put pressure on the players in their commitment to transition to green energy. Thus, the expansion of industrial-scale cobalt and copper mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was inevitable.

The DRC has the world’s largest reserves of cobalt and the seventh-largest reserves of copper. Growing demand for clean energy technologies has created a corresponding demand for certain metals, including copper, and cobalt, which is essential for making most lithium-ion batteries. These are used to power a wide range of devices including electric cars and mobile phones.

According to a report published by Amnesty International and the DRC-based organization IBGDH, or Initiative pour la Bonne Gouvernance et les Droits Humains (Initiative for Good Governance and Human Rights), in September 2023 titled; Powering Change or Business as Usual?, the expansion of industrial-scale mines that extract cobalt and copper for rechargeable batteries has led to forced evictions and human rights abuses, including sexual assault, in the DRC.

If history is to be referenced, the Congolese have endured more than a century of conflict and violence, purposely fueled by multinational corporations and governments vying for control of their resources. Currently, Multiple cases of forced evictions and grievous human rights abuses including sexual assault, arson, and beatings, at the hands of local government authorities and mining corporations have been documented and linked to the expansion of industrial-scale cobalt and copper mines in the DRC.

Donat Kambola, president of IBGDH, said: “People are being forcibly evicted, or threatened or intimidated into leaving their homes, or misled into consenting to derisory settlements. Often there was no grievance mechanism, accountability, or access to justice.”

The continuous human rights violations are perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence. The absence of compensation exacerbates the impoverishment of these communities, leaving them even more vulnerable. According to the Institute of Security Studies, over 40,000 child miners continue to illegally toil in dangerous conditions, including as washers and diggers, extracting coltan despite reforms in the DRC’s mining code in 2017.

Additionally, it is important to recognize that extensive research has linked coltan mining in the DRC to large-scale environmental degradation, with devastating consequences for the region. The Global Forest Watch reveals that the DRC has lost 8.6% of its tree cover since 2000, and mining, particularly coltan extraction, is identified as a major driver of deforestation.

A miner carrying his mine products to be transferred to industries… courtesy online

Apart from the damage done by unregulated artisan diggers, the manual process of mineral separation involves washing in streams and rivers using chemicals that pollute water bodies and produce radioactive substances harmful to aquatic life and human health. All this is risked at the expense of producing clean energy.

“The Democratic Republic of the Congo can play a pivotal role in the world’s transition from fossil fuels, but the rights of communities must not be trampled in the rush to mine minerals critical to decarbonizing the global economy,” says Agnès Callamard of Amnesty International.

The urgent need to address human rights violations and environmental harm linked to coltan mining in the DRC requires immediate action. Collaboration among nations, adoption of transparent mining methods, and commitment to ethical standards across the supply chain are crucial to alleviate the severe consequences of coltan extraction on communities and nature.

As users of technology, educating ourselves about its problematic aspects empowers us to demand ethically sourced materials and support efforts for a more responsible global mining sector.

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