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OPINION : Transition minerals could transform the Democratic Republic of Congo
Updated: Nov 20, 2022
DRC’s minerals have been systematically plundered for centuries; now, its cobalt is coveted by the world for green energy transition. Will this finally bring transformation or more misery to the local communities?
Congo’s natural resources have been plundered at a terrible cost to its people since the murderous colonial rule of Belgium and Leopold II that began in the 19th century.
For nearly 150 years, extreme violence and corruption have cast a shadow over the extraction of our rubber, ivory, gold, timber and diamonds. The agents of this damage have been both domestic and foreign. Meanwhile, most Congolese people have not seen our natural wealth’s social and economic benefits and instead languish in poverty.
Now the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC’s) minerals are being coveted as a means of helping propel the world towards a clean energy future.
The world urgently needs to decarbonise to halt climate chaos and ensure our planet remains liveable. To do this, there will need to be an estimated sixfold increase in the production of minerals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel and copper, which are required to help produce, transport, store and use electricity produced by cleaner sources such as wind and sun.
The DRC – and other parts of Africa – which hold vast reserves of these transition minerals, will be key players.
A springboard for development?
Cobalt is one of the world’s most sought-after minerals – it is a critical component in lithium-ion batteries, which powers electric vehicles (EVs).
The DRC is by far the world’s biggest cobalt producer. In 2020, just four mines in the DRC produced 41% of the global cobalt supply, while Africa holds 19% of the global reserves of metals required to make a standard battery-powered electric vehicle.
Transition minerals could transform the Democratic Republic of Congo, but local communities must be consulted [Graphics: Hope Mukami]
The current boom in transition minerals is only going to accelerate.
The World Bank has found that the production of minerals such as cobalt could increase by nearly 500% to meet the demand for cleaner energy technologies - and the DRC’s untapped deposits of raw minerals are worth more than US $24 trillion, according to research by Michigan State University.
If used well, this wealth could be the springboard to developing our country and giving our citizens the social services they desperately need: clean water, electricity, good roads, schools, health care and economic security.
But at the moment, this is far from happening.
Mineral exploitation still benefits the ruling class and corporations at the expense of ordinary citizens. Extraction is still plagued by corruption, poor governance, human rights and environmental violations. If this continues, it will not bring fundamental transformation to the DRC or Africa: just more of the misery that has so long accompanied exploiting our natural resources.
This is already happening. In Lualaba and Haut-Katanga - the two southern provinces which are the heartland of the DRC’s cobalt and copper mining industries - human rights abuses and environmental destruction are rife. At the same time, local people have been largely excluded from the profits and employment opportunities generated by the influx of international mining companies.
The US Department of Labour has estimated that around 35,000 children work in the DRC’s cobalt mines, mostly in artisanal and small-scale mines. Here, people who mining companies do not officially employ gather minerals in often deplorable conditions and sell them to middlemen on open markets. Artisanal miners and other residents have suffered violence and even death at the hands of security forces for encroaching on industrial mining sites.
Yet there is growing pressure from around the world for this to change - and to ensure that the scramble to extract minerals used in cleaner energy technologies does not replicate past errors by trampling on human rights and destroying local environments.
Momentum for change
This month, 250 civil society organisations from 62 different countries called on world leaders attending the COP27 climate summit in Egypt to initiate a real shift in how minerals are extracted and used and to look at solutions that will reduce dependence on mining.
These organisations, which include the Publish What You Pay (PWYP) DRC coalition, work in various fields - from the environment to human rights and anti-corruption - and represent marginalised groups, such as local communities, women and young people.
Central to our demands is that communities worldwide affected by mining are meaningfully consulted and participate in any decisions affecting their lives, that they have the right to withhold their consent to mining, and that minerals are only extracted under the most rigorous international human rights and environmental standards.
We also need to ensure that frontline communities see benefits from mining. Revenues must be allocated to sustainable development projects that enable economic diversification. In the DRC, the collection and distribution of revenues should be digitised, and the capacity of local agents in charge of implementing local community development plans should be strengthened.
Anti-corruption and strengthened governance as prerequisites It is vital that the transition minerals market is well-regulated, transparent, just and equitable.
But to make this a reality, there will have to be a fierce fight against corruption and embezzlement, led by a more robust, proactive and impartial justice system.
An essential way of purging corruption and strengthening governance in the sector is through the comprehensive disclosure of mining contracts. As an Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative member, the DRC must do so.
We must write a new chapter in the history of natural resource extraction in the DRC and Africa more widely: one which enables our societies to be positively transformed by transition minerals and the fight to end the climate crisis that we on the continent did so little to create.
Jean-Claude Katende is a human rights defender and a long-time advocate for transparency and good governance of the extractive industries. He is the National Coordinator of PWYP DRC, Chair of the African Association of Human Rights (ASADHO) and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
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