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Exploitation of Workers in DR Congo Taints Electric Vehicles

By Arthur Svensson - Industri Energi, November 8, 2021

The acceleration of electrical vehicles (EV) production is crucial for the transition to a low-carbon economy, yet it appears to be linked to serious labour rights abuses. New research released today reveals dire conditions, discrimination and extremely low pay at some of the world’s largest industrial cobalt mines operated by multinational mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is considered an essential mineral in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt is extracted in Congo.

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production. The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however.

The 87-page report"The Road to Ruin? Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at Congo’s industrial cobalt mines” by by corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), and Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights, exposes a system of widespread exploitation. Congolese workers at five industrial mines in Congo where cobalt is produced: Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), Metalkol RTR, Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM), Sino-Congolaise des Mines (Sicomines) and Société Minière de Deziwa (Somidez) were interviewed for the research. They said they received very low pay and were subjected to excessive working hours, degrading treatment, violence, discrimination, racism, unsafe working conditions, and a disregard for even basic health provision.

Some workers described being kicked, slapped, beaten with sticks, insulted, shouted at, or pulled around by their ears. Others reported severe discrimination and abuse at Chinese-operated mines. One worker said, “Our situation is worse than before. The Chinese come and impose their standards and culture. They don’t treat Congolese well. This is new colonisation.”

The Road to Ruin? - Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at DR Congo’s industrial cobalt mines

By staff - Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), November 2021

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production.

The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however. The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s poorest nations, holds the lion’s share of the world’s cobalt reserves. In 2020, 70% of the world’s cobalt was extracted from within its borders with tens of thousands of workers labouring in large-scale industrial mines to dig up the ore. Multinational mining companies that own many of Congo’s mines, eager to demonstrate their “green” and “responsible” credentials, say they produce “clean” and “sustainable” cobalt, free from human rights abuses, and that their operations contribute to good jobs and economic opportunities.

This report, based on extensive research over two years, paints a very different picture. It shows dire conditions for many Congolese workers in the industrial mines, often characterised by widespread exploitation and labour rights abuses. Many workers do not earn a “living wage” – the minimum remuneration to afford a decent standard of living – have little or no health provision, and far too often are subjected to excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, degrading treatment, discrimination and racism.

In recent years attention has mainly focused on Congo’s artisanal mining sector, partly because of the risks of child labour it creates, whereas the conditions for workers in the large-scale industrial mines have gone largely unnoticed. This report examines workers’ rights at Congo’s industrial mines where the large majority of cobalt is coming from, producing some 80% of the cobalt exported from the country (in contrast to the 20% produced in artisanal mines).

The findings presented in this report are based on detailed research over 28 months by UK-based corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico- Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights. The research team carried out extensive field research in and around Kolwezi, a mining town where many of Congo’s cobalt and copper mines are located. It is informed by 130 interviews of workers and former workers at five mining companies, as well as interviews with subcontractors, union representatives, lawyers, Congolese local authorities, medical staff and industry experts.

Read the text (PDF).

Our Existence is Our Resistance: Mining and Resistance on the Island of Ireland

By Lydia Sullivan - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

This analysis of geological and permitting data shows that a staggering 27% of the Republic of Ireland and 25% of Northern Ireland are now under concession for mining.

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

A Green Shift? Mining and Resistance in Fennoscandia, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Sápmi

Mirko Nikolic, Editor, et. al. - Yes to Life, No to Mining, September 2021

This report from Yes to Life, No to Mining Network (YLNM) explores how and why many nations – and the mining industry – are re-framing mining as a solution to climate change in order to facilitate domestic extraction of so-called ‘strategic’, ‘critical’ and ‘transition’ minerals required for renewable energy, military and digital technologies. 

Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish authorities have granted concessions for tens of thousands of hectares of land, with mining pressure increasing particularly dramatically in Sápmi – the home territory of the Indigenous Sámi Peoples. 

YLNM’s new research examines state and corporate claims that mining in Europe represents a gold standard of regulation and corporate practice that justifies creating new mining sacrifice zones in the name of climate action.

Without exception, the authors – in all nations – report a vast gap between this rhetoric and the realities of mining at Europe’s new extractive frontiers, highlighting systemic rights violations and ecological harm.

Read the text (PDF).

Where We Mine: Resource Politics in Latin America

Thea Riofrancos interviewed by Annabelle Dawson - Green European Journal, August 12, 2021

As the drive to expand renewable energy capacity speeds up, there is a rush for lithium and other materials around the world. What will the expansion of rare earth mining in Latin America mean for the indigenous communities and workers who have historically borne the harms of extractivism? Thea Riofrancos, author of Resource Radicals (Duke University Press, 2020), explains how the energy transition in the Global North risks being anything but just without structural changes to supply chains and the governance of extractive industries.

Annabelle Dawson: Your work explores the politics of resource extraction in Latin America, from oil in Ecuador to lithium in Chile. How do you define resource politics or extractivism?

Thea Riofrancos: Resource politics refers to any social or political activity – whether conflict, collaboration, political economy or social mobilisation – that’s attributed to the extraction of resources, and in some cases to stop resource extraction. Scholarship tends to see resource politics as primarily related to elites like state officials and corporate actors. This is pivotal, for example, to the concept of the resource curse, which holds that dependency on resource rents leads to authoritarianism. However, this focus overlooks a range of resource politics such as social movements that oppose extractive projects or demand better regulation and indigenous rights.

Extractivism is a little thornier to define. My research has explored how in Latin America social movements, activists and even some bureaucrats in the case of Ecuador began to use this term to diagnose the problems that they associated with resource extraction. This happened in the context of the 2000 to 2014 commodity boom – a period of intense investment in resource sectors driven by the industrialisation of emerging economies like China – and the Left’s return to power across Latin America during the “Pink Tide”. Activists, left-wing intellectuals and some government officials began to see extractivism as an interlocking system of social and environmental harm, political repression, and corporate and foreign capital domination. So, the concept originates from political activity rather than scholarship [read more about extractivism in Latin America].

We tend to associate resource extraction with notoriously dirty commodities like coal, oil, and certain metals. How are green technologies implicated in all of this?

The transition to renewable energies is often thought of as switching one energy source for another: fossil fuels for renewables. That’s part of it, but this transition fits into a much bigger energy and socio-economic system. You can’t just swap energy sources without rebuilding the infrastructures and technologies required to harness, generate, and transmit that energy. All this has a large material footprint and requires materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earth metals [read more about the central role and impact of these rare metals]. More traditional extractive sectors like copper are also very important for decarbonisation.

One very bad outcome would be if the harms related to fossil fuel capitalism were reproduced in new renewable energy systems, subjecting particular communities to the harms of resource extraction in the name of fighting climate change. We need a new energy system quickly – especially in the Global North given the historic emissions of the US and Europe. But in this rush, there’s a real risk of reproducing inequalities and environmental damage. This is especially so with some mining sectors where a boom in the raw materials for green technologies like wind turbines, electric vehicles and solar panels is predicted.

Industrial Consumption: A largely invisible yet decisive underlying cause of the crisis

By Justiça Ambiental! and WoMIN - World Rainforest Movement, July 9, 2021

Industrial consumption is an intrinsic aspect of capitalist’s logic of increasing accumulation. It is also an underlying cause of the current crisis, which is being reinforced by initiatives promoting a ‘green’ label for the same production chains. This article highlights the voices of Justiça Ambiental! in Mozambique and the African ecofeminist alliance WoMIN.

This article highlights the voices of two organizations: Justiça Ambiental! (JA!) in Mozambique, which is accompanying the struggles in Cabo Delgado against the extraction of offshore and inland gas deposits; and WoMIN, an African ecofeminist alliance that works with movements of women and communities impacted by mining activities.

The world is in the midst of a serious and manifold crisis, one that brings together concerns over environmental devastation, climate chaos, loss of biological diversity, large-scale deforestation, social inequality, food insecurity, increasing poverty levels, and the concentration of power and land into fewer hands. And the list could go on and on. Industrial consumption is a vital aspect of what is driving this crisis, that is, an underlying cause. These are causes that operate on a global scale and consist of economic, political and social components that influence each other.

It is important to remark that the term industrial consumption should be understood not as the individual act of consuming, but rather as a consequence of the systemic logic of the capitalist economy of ever increasing accumulation. That means that each company, in order to make more profits, needs to grow and, in many cases, produce more and promote bigger and new markets for expansion; but to produce more, a company also needs to consume more resources (particularly energy, land and water).

Massive amounts of energy, from different sources, are distributed to industries to feed their production chains. Thousands of hectares of fertile land are turned into cash crops for industrial purposes. Mines and industrial plantations around the world siphon off and pollute enormous amounts of already scarce water sources. (1) Land is increasingly under the control of fewer individuals. Each day, enormous quantities of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and fertilizers are produced and used by tree plantation companies and other agribusiness sectors. Minerals and fossil fuels continue to be extracted and transported across the globe via long and frequently militarized corridors of pipelines, waterways and roads. Ports, airports, highways and storage units are constantly being built and expanded to facilitate faster and cheaper connections between industries and markets. And so on. This systemic logic of ever-increasing production and consumption reinforces, at the same time, models of structural oppression, racism and patriarchy.

Industrial consumption, by and large, is now being reinforced by official and corporate initiatives trying to promote a new ‘green’ label for the same economic model. The targets set by companies and governments to reduce pollution, deforestation and biodiversity loss are mostly presented next to economic packages endorsing economic growth, free trade and globalized capitalism. And what does this mean? Basically, more industrial consumption and production. Likewise, the so-called ‘green’ or ‘low carbon’ economy is being promoted alongside market-based policies that pretend to offset the pollution and destruction that is intrinsic to such an economic model. In a nutshell, the so-called ‘transition’ aims to maintain and allow the same economic model that is actually driving the crisis to continue uninterrupted.

Deep-Sea Mining for Metals: Treading Carefully on the Path Toward Renewables

By Katherine Wilkin - Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, June 8, 2021

As the push for renewable energy sources continues as a means to combat climate change, the demand for metals and minerals that make up critical components of clean energy technology will be on the rise. While some of these minerals can be obtained via deep-sea mining, the environmental impacts of such efforts are not well understood. In moving to a clean energy economy, governments and international non-governmental organizations need to research, understand, and mitigate the negative impacts to the environment and communities that can and will result from activities like deep-sea mining before allowing projects to go forward.

The United States Geological Survey has identified 11 metals and minerals as critical commodities in renewable energy technologies: arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, tellurium, aluminum, cobalt, graphite, lithium, manganese, and rare earth elements. Silver, copper, selenium, silica, nickel, and cadmium are also used in solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries. Several of these critical metals and elements can be obtained via deep-sea mining from three different types of deposits: (i) cobalt-rich crust that contains manganese, iron, cobalt, copper, nickel and platinum; (ii) polymetallic nodules which are rich in manganese, nickel, copper, cobalt, molybdenum and rare earth elements; and (iii) sea-floor massive sulphides which contain copper, gold, zinc, lead, barium and silver.

Whether deep-sea mining is necessary to acquire enough minerals to fuel the renewable energy shift remains an unanswered question. In a May 2021 report on the need for minerals to power energy transition technologies, the International Energy Agency predicted that by 2040, total mineral demand for clean energy will be four times current demand. Electric vehicles and battery storage technology account for about half of this predicted growth in mineral demand. The Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney indicated in 2016 that this increased demand for materials can be satisfied without utilizing deep-sea mining even under a target of 100% renewable energy use by 2050. Further, Carbon Brief reported in 2018 that reserves of lithium and cobalt are likely to be sufficient to meet demand, but there are outstanding concerns of supply chain bottleneck causing delays. This is supported by the IEA report, which indicated that problems in supply of minerals is more likely to be a matter of quality rather than quantity. However, a 2018 study supported by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure found that the current supply of critical metals is not enough to transition to a fully-renewable energy system in the Netherlands. Additionally, a 2019 projection of demand for cobalt, lithium, and silver looking as far as 2050 found that “reserves” of these materials—a portion of total available resources that can be extracted economically—will not be sufficient to meet demand for cobalt, and demand for lithium can only be met in a “potential recycling scenario” with improved recycling rates over what is being conducted at present.

With the growing demand for metals and materials for use in renewable energy technologies, concerns arise about the environmental impacts and environmental justice implications of mining on land. For example, cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been the site of human rights violations, child labor, and severe environmental pollution. For that reason, deep-sea mining of these materials may present an option with fewer direct human impacts and environmental justice concerns.

Green Energy, Green Mining, Green New Deal?

Recharge Responsibly: The Environmental and Social Footprint of Mining Cobalt, Lithium, and Nickel for Electric Vehicle Batteries

By Benjamin Hitchcock Auciello, et. al. - Earthworks, March 31, 2021

It is critical that the clean energy economy not repeat the mistakes of the dirty fossil fuel economy that it is seeking to replace. The pivot from internal combustion engines towards electric vehicles provides an unprecedented opportunity to develop a shared commitment to responsible mineral sourcing. We can accelerate the renewable energy transition and drive improvements in the social and environmental performance of the mining industry by reducing overall demand for new minerals, increasing mineral recycling and reuse, and ensuring that mining only takes place if it meets high environmental, human rights and social standards.

This report is designed to inform downstream battery metal users of key environmental, social, and governance issues associated with the extraction and processing of the three battery metals of principal concern for the development of electric vehicles and low-carbon energy infrastructure—lithium, cobalt and nickel—and to offer guidance on responsible minerals sourcing practices. This report reflects and summarizes some of the key concerns of communities impacted by current and proposed mineral extraction in hotspots around the world: Argentina, Chile and the United States for lithium, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and Russia for nickel, and the Democratic Republic of Congo for cobalt.

Read the text (PDF).

A Material Transition: Exploring supply and demand solutions for renewable energy minerals

By Andy Whitmore - War on Want, March 2021

There is an urgent need to deal with the potential widespread destruction and human rights abuses that could be unleashed by the extraction of transition minerals: the materials needed at high volumes for the production of renewable energy technologies. Although it is crucial to tackle the climate crisis, and rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, this transition cannot be achieved by expanding our reliance on other materials. The voices arguing for ‘digging our way out of the climate crisis’, particularly those that make up the global mining industry, are powerful but self-serving and must be rejected. We need carefully planned, lowcarbon and non-resource-intensive solutions for people and planet.

Academics, communities and organisations have labelled this new mining frontier, ‘green extractivism’: the idea that human rights and ecosystems can be sacrificed to mining in the name of “solving” climate change, while at the same time mining companies profit from an unjust, arbitrary and volatile transition. There are multiple environmental, social, governance and human rights concerns associated with this expansion, and threats to communities on the frontlines of conflicts arising from mining for transition minerals are set to increase in the future. However, these threats are happening now. From the deserts of Argentina to the forests of West Papua, impacted communities are resisting the rise of ‘green extractivism’ everywhere it is occurring. They embody the many ways we need to transform our energy-intense societies to ones based on democratic and fair access to the essential elements for a dignified life. We must act in solidarity with impacted communities across the globe.

This report includes in-depth studies written by frontline organisations in Indonesia and Philippines directly resisting nickel mining in both countries respectively. These exclusive case studies highlight the threats, potential impacts and worrying trends associated with nickel mining and illustrate, in detail, the landscape for mining expansion in the region.

Read the text (PDF).

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