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Calls on UN to intervene as the deadly rush for Congo’s cobalt intensifies

The United Nations (UN) and the international community have been urged to directly intervene on behalf of residents of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Cobalt Belt in the Southern parts of the country as mining of essential energy transition minerals intensifies.

The minerals are critical to the global transition to renewable energy by 2040.

“If it remains business as usual, then this transition practically means more forceful evictions from people’s ancestral homes, more child labour, no education for some children, more deaths due to accidents among artisanal miners who risk their lives in deep tunnels, more destruction of biodiversity, and more abuse of human rights,” said Appolinaire Zagabe, the director of DRC Climate Change Network (Reseau Sur le Changement Climatique RDC).

Cobalt is an essential silvery blue mineral that is key in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries, which are used to power electric vehicles, motorbikes, computers, smart phones among many other items that are used across the world.

“It is true that the government will generate some revenue from these minerals and the world will fight against climate change. But local communities in cobalt mining areas, some who have never seen how an electric car looks like, and some who have never owned a mobile phone, will continue suffering due to a resource that has turned out to be a curse for them,” said Zagabe.

Despite the fact that the UN is not supposed to meddle in any country’s internal affairs and governance, Zagabe says the issue of mining of essential minerals is a global issue and therefore, the welfare of residents from the largest cobalt mining belt in the world should concern the entire globe.

“The UN and the international community should not look at this as an issue for the DRC government to handle. If cobalt from Southern Congo is going to save the world from greenhouse gas emissions, power automobiles, computers and mobile phones, then it should be possible for the world to save and protect lives of communities in cobalt mining zones,” said Zagabe.

According to the UN, major global clean transport disruption is needed to shift to a cleaner and low-to-no emissions trajectory to achieve global targets, particularly the Paris Climate Agreement and agreements on air quality. In that regard, use of electric vehicles is a necessary step in decarbonising the transport sector.

The World Economic Forum finds that more than 70 per cent of the global production of cobalt takes place in the Southern part of the DRC, of which 15 to 30 per cent comes from artisanal and small-scale mines, where independent miners use their own resources to extract the precious mineral.

However, sourcing the mineral from Congo comes at a very heavy cost for local communities. A report by Amnesty International in collaboration with the Initiative for Good Governance and Human Rights/Initiative pour la Bonne Gouvernance et les Droits Humains (IBGDH) paints a grim picture of what is happening in the DRC, the world’s biggest reserve of cobalt and copper.

The minerals, which are supposed to be a huge blessing, have turned to be a curse for the communities. “People are being forcibly evicted, or threatened, or intimidated into leaving their homes, or misled into consenting to derisory settlements. Often times, there is no grievance mechanism, accountability, or access to justice,” said Donat Kambola, president of IBGDH.

Several media reports have evidently shown how children are exploited by being exposed to hard labour in cobalt mining areas – young people have been buried alive in mining tunnels, how biodiversity is being destroyed, and how villages have been converted into labour camps.

“We found repeated breaches of legal safeguards prescribed in international human rights law and standards, and national legislation, as well as blatant disregard for the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” said Jean-Mobert Senga, Amnesty International researcher.

And now Zagabe, among other activists, are calling on the UN to intervene for the DRC government and the foreign miners to consider local communities as immediate dignified beneficiaries, pay labourers well, remove children from the mining fields, stop torturing innocent civilians, and give proper compensation to people who are evicted from their homes to pave way for mining activities.

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