Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Addressing Root Causes of Human Rights Abuses

Dorothée Baumann-Pauly

February 2023

As demand for cobalt used in electric vehicles and smart devices skyrockets, this new white paper urges dramatic changes to mining practices in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Companies that use the valuable mineral need to legitimize and encourage the formalization of artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) in the DRC, according to this paper co-published with NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights. Based on field research conducted in the DRC, the analysis details how the formalization of ASM is a viable approach for addressing root causes of human rights abuses in cobalt mining, alleviating extreme poverty in mining communities, and meeting the projected global demand for cobalt.

Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: Addressing Root Causes of Human Rights Abuses (PDF) builds on an earlier case study of the integration of ASM at the Mutoshi mine in the DRC, a pilot project aimed at improving working conditions and eliminating child labor. Mutoshi’s promising formalization process included the full integration of women in ASM, a key factor in reducing child labor issues, and the implementation of site-safety standards. The new paper highlights how the pandemic-related suspension of formalization at Mutoshi resulted in heightened safety risks, the return of frequent mining accidents, and the resurgence of child labor.

ASM refers to manual mining done by individuals who dig for cobalt on the periphery of large industrialized excavation sites. Companies that rely on cobalt for their products–particularly manufacturers of consumer electronics and electric vehicles–have tried to contractually exclude ASM-generated cobalt because of its association with heightened safety risks. However, ASM makes up 15% to 30% of total production in the DRC and 10% globally, making it an integral part of the cobalt supply chain, a fact that should oblige companies to require ASM formalization instead of pretending to avoid artisanally mined cobalt.

Global buyers engaging in a futile attempt to avoid cobalt associated with ASM ignore the inconvenient truth that it is nearly impossible to separate the flow of ASM cobalt from the larger supply of industrially mined cobalt” said Dorothée Baumann-Pauly, author of the paper. “Without ASM cobalt, buyers will not be able to meet a global demand that is projected to increase four-fold by 2030. It is imperative that companies recognize this opportunity to encourage formalization and the responsible extraction of cobalt to contribute to a global energy transition that is not only green, but also just.

The Mutoshi project demonstrated how formalization can improve miner safety, encourage female participation and diminish child labor. Shallow open pits created through the implementation of a semi-automatic extraction method both increased productivity among ASM workers and reduced the risk of severe mining accidents. Integration of women on mining sites played a critical role not only in ending the marginalization of women, but also in mitigating child labor. The opportunity to double household income enabled families to send their children to school instead of mines. New due diligence standards such as the EU Batteries Directive provide a direct incentive for companies using cobalt to encourage the formalization of ASM, the report argues.

It is not a matter of whether solutions for the responsible and ethical sourcing of cobalt are possible - the demonstrated impacts of ASM formalization at Mutoshi support this framework’s viability - it is whether global companies who rely on cobalt will recognize their responsibility to encourage it” said Michael Posner, director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

The report makes the following recommendations to ensure the safeguarding of human rights in cobalt mining operations in the DRC:

  • Global cobalt buyers need to legitimize ASM as an integral component of cobalt mining.
  • All stakeholders should support formalization of ASM to address child labor, hasten the integration of women, and improve mine safety.
  • Strong leadership from local cooperatives is necessary to further the empowerment of women and protect children.
  • Companies in the battery supply chain, the DRC government, other governments, and other stakeholders must collectively develop common standards on mine safety and child labor.
  • Participants in the cobalt sector should promote open-pit extraction to reduce safety risks and mitigate child labor.
  • The DRC government should strive to mandate formalization and help to develop and apply practical standards on mine safety and child labor.

The French version of the paper, L’exploitation minière du cobalt en République Démocratique du Congo: remédier aux causes principales de violations des droits humains (PDF), is also available.


White paper’s cover

L’exploitation minière du cobalt en RDC (PDF)

White paper’s cover

Media coverage in English

  • Bloomberg, Cobalt From Artisanal Mines Key to Global Output, Study Says, by Richard Abbey (8 February 2023)
  • Forbes, Battery Push By Tesla And Other EV Makers Raises Child Labor Concerns, by Alan Ohnsman (8 February 2023)
  • Reuters, Microsoft calls for ‘coalition’ to improve Congo’s informal cobalt mines (8 February 2023)
  • Business & Human Rights Resource Center, DRC: New white paper urges companies to encourage effort to formalise artisanal mining of cobalt to tackle human rights concerns (8 February 2023)
  • Bezinga, Microsoft Seeks Coalition To Boost Congo’s Cobalt Mines, Counter EV Battery Crisis From Growing Demand, by Anusuya Lahiri (8 February 2023)
  • Forbes, To Meet Global Cobalt Demand, Companies Must Reform Mining Practices In The Congo, By Michael Posner (9 February 2023)
  • Swissinfo, Rethinking artisanal cobalt mining in the DRC, by Dominique Soguel (9 February 2023)
  • S&P Global
  • Supply Chain Dive, Responsible cobalt sourcing ‘will take a coalition to solve,’ Microsoft says, Ben Unglesbee (16 February 2023)
  • Reuters, Column: Is it time to embrace Congo’s artisanal cobalt miners?, Andy Home (4 April 2023)
  • Clean Technica, Tesla Shareholders Ask: Are Automotive Supply Chains & Labor Rights Incompatible?, Carolyn Fortuna (14 May 2023)

Couverture médiatique en français

  • Zone Bourse, Microsoft appelle à une “coalition” pour améliorer les mines de cobalt informelles du Congo (8 février 2023)
  • Afrique Centrale, Microsoft appelle à une “coalition” pour améliorer les mines de cobalt informelles du Congo (11 février 2023)
  • Agence Ecofin, En RDC, l’exploitation minière artisanale et à petite échelle contribue de 15 à 30 % de la production de cobalt (Rapport) (1er mars 2023)
  • Zoom Eco, RDC : plus de 15 000 mineurs artisanaux travaillent dans des conditions dangereuses (rapport) (10 avril 2023)