Cobalt mining conditions cast shadow over electric transport dreams

Though a future in which all cars are electric is still decades away, carmakers such as VW, BMW and Daimler are busy showcasing their green models. The question is how ethically clean are they?

Electric cars are in the spotlight. Post-Dieselgate, many consumers think it is only a matter of time before clean green vehicles become the norm and the guilt of transport emissions becomes a thing of the past. But ethical question marks loom large above the mining conditions of cobalt - a mineral used in the lithium-ion batteries that power cars, as well as our smartphones and laptops.

More than half of global supplies hail from one of the world's poorest nations, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where corruption abounds and children toil.

"Working conditions are appalling, there is no safety equipment and people risk getting buried alive in hand-made mines,” Matt Dummett, a researcher at Amnesty International, told DW. "I've seen children as young as seven working on the surface, collecting stones and facing brutality and intimidation during long days in the heat."

Kobaltminen in der Demokratischen Republik Kongo

The make-shift mines that people build using basic hand tools are death traps that can collapse at any moment

In the past few years, human rights campaigns and investigative media reports have sought to shine a light on the murky cobalt trade, especially on so-called artisanal mines where men tunnel deep into the earth using basic hand tools while others - including women and children - lug heavy bags of rocks from which the cobalt is extracted.

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The World Bank estimates two thirds of Congolese people live on less than 0.86 euros ($1.90) a day and Amnesty says hunger and unemployment often drive people to hunt for valuable minerals.

Increasing demand

And there is no shortage of buyers for whatever they find. As carmakers, including VW and Daimler, where electric vehicles are expected to make up a quarter of sales by 2025, accelerate towards a cleaner future, and as engineers fine-tune new designs to compete with the likes of Tesla, they boost competition for raw materials.

Volkswagen recently launched a tender to secure cobalt supplies for at least the next five years - following similar efforts by BMW and Tesla Motors - and overall demand for the mineral is forecast to jump eleven-fold by 2025.

This will further inflate prices, which have risen sharply over the past year. It will also focus attention on mining practices.

Kobalt Metall

As electric mobility has become the hot new thing, the demand for cobalt has soared, making the mineral an increasingly precious resource.

"Cobalt is no longer an obscure mineral. Today it is very possible to follow the paper trail,” Dummett said. "These days, companies have no excuse.”

To their credit, some western firms have joined pan-industry moves towards good-practice guidelines, including the Responsible Cobalt Initiative.

But human rights watchdogs remain on alert. "This could be really good," Dummett continued, "or maybe companies think that by signing up to these initiatives they are off the hook.”

Last month the BMW group said it was working to make its cobalt supply chain more transparent by ensuring public access to information relating to its sources and smelters. Spokesperson for sustainability Kai Zöbelein told DW that BMW adhered to strict rules.

"For five years we have been continually analysing and tracking our cobalt supply chains,” he said.

"Smelters in our chain use cobalt from DRC but only from large-scale mines,” he added, distancing the car giant from unregulated small-scale artisanal production.

A VW spokesperson said it does not directly purchase cobalt, but sources batteries from suppliers, and investigates reports of violations "immediately and thoroughly.”

Corruption equation

Sourcing cobalt from third parties and buying minerals from DRC's industrial mines does not, however, necessarily mean international firms are dealing ethically, particularly given the country's corruption rating.

Research by non-profit Global Witness reveals that between 2013 and 2015 more than 647 million euros in mining revenues paid by companies to Congolese state bodies was lost to the treasury.

Kongo Kobalt-Abbau

Women and children are forced to work in the mines as well. While the men dig, they often haul heavy loads of earth and minerals at the surface.

Many Congolese mining licences are sold by Gecamines, the state mining company, which Global Witness researcher Peter Jones calls a "black hole”.

"Gecamines is headed by one of [President Joseph] Kabila's inner circle. It has repeatedly sold off stakes in its mining projects, it doesn't publish its accounts and there is no way of knowing where exactly money paid into it could end up,” Jones said.

And with Kabila, whose second term expired last December, holding back on setting a date for fresh elections, the potential for corruption remains high.

Pro-electric mobility think tank Agora Verkehrswende says due diligence and rigorous checks throughout the supply chains are imperatives if poor ethical standards are to be kept out of the next generation of clean vehicles. In a recent report, director Christian Hochfeld cited existing standards for so-called conflict minerals such as gold as examples to follow.

He also urged more recycling of old batteries to maximise the use of cobalt already mined.

"Ambitious environmental and social standards are an essential prerequisite for the growing acceptance of electro-mobility,” Hochfeld said. "Not least because it needs to be credible as an environmental, climate friendly technology.”


Back-breaking work

Deep down, a miner in a rural artisanal gold mine chisels gold ore out of the earth. The shaft team is composed mainly of excavators and bag porters. Miners spend six to eight hours down the shafts each day. The work is physically demanding. At this mine, around 200 kilograms of ore must be excavated to extract one gram of gold


Sacks of rocks for a gram of gold

A miner maneuvers through a narrow tunnel junction, as his colleague waits in line. The bags of ore he has been heaving through the mine, in the direction of the mineshaft entrance, are in front of him. After agriculture, artisanal mining is the most important livelihood in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).


30 kilos per load

A bag porter carries his load downhill from the mine for processing. The porters are paid 500 Congolese Francs - about $0.35 (0.29 Euros) at current Eastern Congo exchange rates - per bag by the shaft managers, and can make up to several dollars per day. They are among the lowest earners at the mine and, at this site, are often those who have migrated from other areas.


Encased in the rock

A man kneels in front of a rock slab while breaking down gold ore with a grinding stone. Next, the remaining ore is manually ground down between two rocks to release the gold. This is a slow and arduous process; one plastic basin can take several hours to work through. Water carriers and ore porters are visible moving up and down the mine hill, in the background.


Valuable mud

A man pours ore onto a sluice. The fine ore purchased by specialist sluice teams is mixed with water and poured onto sluices. Due again to its high density, the remaining gold sediment sticks to the sluice blanket while the excess flows downhill. The sediment is then gathered and sieved in a plastic basin using mercury.


First sales

A local on-site trader assesses how much to offer for the gold a client has brought him. The gold and mercury compound seen in the trader’s plastic dish is a dull metallic grey at this point in the treatment process. Many miners will look to sell these small gold quantities to on-site traders.


Refining gold

A 'big trader' heats the gold and nitric acid over a hot stove to rid it of any remaining impurities. Big traders deal in far larger quantities of gold than the local traders; they frequently trade more than several kilograms of gold in one week. Their profit margins are smaller than the local traders, but they trade in greater volume, which assures them a much higher income.


Precious powder

After heating, the gold is weighed on an electric scale. At this stage, the gold has reached between 92 and 98 percent purity, depending on its origin.


Red-hot riches

Once melted, the gold is cast in an ingot mould. After removing the red-hot crucible from the furnace, a worker at the gold smelter pours the molten gold into a graphite ingot mould for casting. Inside the furnace, the gold reaches temperatures of 1,500 degrees Celsius. It takes around 20 minutes to melt several kilograms of gold.


Cooling period

A freshly cast gold ingot is deposited by a worker on the work surface; the ingot mould remains smoking hot.


Ready to go

With a gold content of 4.163 kilograms, this ingot has a market price on the London Fixing of about $167,056 (about 145,000 euros) on the day it was produced. Annual gold production in the eastern DRC has been estimated at more than 11 tons, but most continues to be smuggled out of the country. In 2015, official artisanal gold exports for the DRC were recorded at just 254 kilograms.

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