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Navigating Challenges in the DRC’s cobalt mining sector: Price dynamics, artisanal labor and sustainability goals

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the world’s largest cobalt producer, faces challenges as falling prices impact local miners. Emmanuel Umpula Nkumba, from Katanga, recalls the arduous nature of cobalt mining, historically unpopular due to the difficulty of extracting scattered minerals with basic tools.

While DRC legalized mine privatization in 2002, attracting substantial foreign investment, the global demand spike in the 2010s for cobalt—essential in electric vehicles and batteries—was lucrative. However, by the early 2020s, cobalt prices plummeted by 60%, dampening DRC’s development ambitions.

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In 2023, global oversupply worsened with Indonesia’s rapid expansion and the resumption of operations at DRC’s Tenke Fungurume mine by CMOC Group. This surge exacerbated price declines, prompting project closures like Idaho’s US cobalt mine.

Artisanal miners, constituting 10-30% of DRC’s cobalt production, endure perilous conditions without safety gear, facing risks like tunnel collapses and toxic gas exposure. Women miners suffer exploitation and low wages, often relegated to “tolerance zones” controlled by larger companies. The current low-price environment intensifies these risks, reducing wages and discouraging responsible production practices.

Despite efforts to formalize and improve conditions in the artisanal mining sector, challenges persist. Limited Special Artisanal Mining Zones exacerbate tensions over licensing and economic interests, hindering progress in ensuring fair labor practices and safety standards.

Efforts by organizations like Afrewatch highlight ongoing systemic issues, advocating for comprehensive reforms to enhance the industry’s equity and sustainability.

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