Tesla empowers artisanal cobalt miners
Joins alliance to invest in helping small-scale miners in DRC Metal Tech News – September 9, 2020
Last updated 7/10/2022 at 2:50pm
Tesla Inc. has joined a growing effort to address artisanal cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, not by boycotting this much maligned source of the lithium-ion battery metal but by investing in it.
The iconic electric automaker has joined the Fair Cobalt Alliance, an organization with a vision of making the small but often dangerous cobalt mines in DRC a better place to work for men and women who have few other livelihood options.
Artisanal mining in DRC has captured headlines around the world due the unsafe working conditions and human rights violations as men women and children hand-dig down into some of the richest sources of cobalt on Earth.
It is estimated that artisanal mines are the source of 10 to 20% of the cobalt coming out of DRC, a country that accounts for more than 70% of the world's supply of this controversial battery metal.
This creates a dilemma for EV and green energy companies that need cobalt for their batteries but do not want to be seen as contributing to the endangerment of children in an effort to lessen mankind's carbon footprint.
Bending to pressure from human rights groups and socially conscious EV drivers, many electric automakers and lithium-ion battery manufactures have sworn against sourcing their cobalt from DRC – especially artisanal mines.
TDI Sustainability, a global advisory firm and founding member of the Fair Cobalt Alliance, argues that turning a blind eye to DRC artisanal cobalt mining will only make matters worse for the people willing to put themselves and families at risk to dig up enough of this important metal to survive.
"Presented with the option to not source from places considered high risk, most manufacturing companies would willingly opt out. But by doing so, the very people whose lives are most affected – for whom the risk is the greatest – can be left bereft of a livelihood: the very thing that sustains their families and communities," wrote TDI team members Assheton Carter and David Sturmes.
Carter, the executive director of the Fair Cobalt Alliance, and other members of the TDI team have spent time with artisanal cobalt, gold, and topaz miners in Africa and South America. This on-the-ground experience has led to one conclusion – artisanal mining could support viable micro and small businesses if operators have access to technical assistance, equipment, investment capital, and markets that recognize their legitimacy.
"From our work on the ground, we know that many miners take great pride in their work and see cobalt mining as an opportunity to build a future for themselves and their families," Carter and Sturmes wrote. "This opportunity, however, must not come at the risk of anybody's personal health and safety."
To help support safe small-scale cobalt mining, TDI has teamed up with likeminded organizations, electric automakers, battery manufacturers and miners to form the Fair Cobalt Alliance.
This alliance boasts Glencore plc, the largest cobalt mining company in the world, Swedish luxury automaker Volvo, and now Tesla amongst its members.
Earlier this year Tesla cut a deal to buy cobalt for its Shanghai Gigafactory and a similar lithium-ion battery facility being constructed in Germany from Glencore.
While much of Glencore's cobalt is mined in DRC, the Swedish miner's industrial scale operations there are operated without the use of child labor and other human rights violations artisanal mines are known for. While Glencore does not buy or process artisanal mined cobalt, the global miner recognizes this small-scale mining sector is a significant employer and contributor to the economy in DRC.
Fair Cobalt Alliance calls on Tesla, Glencore, and its other members to recognize the legitimacy of responsible artisanal cobalt mining and invest in improving the environmental and working conditions at these mines.
This investment can provide these small-scale miners with the needed protective gear like hardhats and steel toed boots, machinery like excavators to ensure tunnels don't go dangerously deep, and wages that support family needs and ensure children can go to schools instead of mines.
The need and practice of having children crawl down into narrow holes to pull out cobalt is a primary problem being tackled by the Fair Cobalt Alliance.
The group is putting its weight behind support for the establishment of credible control and monitoring mechanisms to keep children out of these hand-dug mines.
"But we cannot stop there," the action organization wrote. "In order to tackle and prevent child labor not just inside the mines but throughout the communities, the FCA is supporting the enrollment of children into school, allowing children and youth access to education and vocational training."
Poverty, however, may be the most fundamental issue that needs to be addressed.
"The need to generate income drives miners to take continually greater safety risks at the mines and the temptation for children to contribute earnings to their families' incomes from participating in the workforce," according to the Fair Cobalt Alliance.
Outside of improving cobalt mining conditions, the alliance will invest into opportunities designed to create sustainable livelihoods for as many community members as possible.