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Scramble for minerals intensifies conflict, rights abuses

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By Sizo Nkala

As the world makes a concerted effort to limit global temperature increases to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels to prevent catastrophic climate change, a transition towards greener and cleaner energy sources and technologies has begun in earnest.

The adoption of green energy technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines, lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles and green hydrogen is on the rise. The renewable energy market is poised to grow from $1 trillion (R18.4 trillion) in 2023 to almost $4 trillion by 2031.

The demand for cleaner energy sources has also triggered a demand for a wide range of critical minerals that are used in green energy technologies.

Also called transition minerals, the minerals are lithium, cobalt, platinum, zinc, graphite, aluminium and manganese to mention a few. According to a 2023 report by the International Energy Agency, the global market for critical minerals doubled in size between 2017 and 2022 when it reached $320 billion.

As the adoption of green energy sources is set to continue rising in the next two decades, the demand for critical minerals will intensify.

Africa is a major source of some of the critical minerals and thus can become a major player in the energy transition process.

South Africa has 90 percent of the known platinum reserves in the world, Mozambique boasts 14 percent of global graphite reserves and Zimbabwe has one of the largest lithium ore deposits in the world and is already the sixth largest producer despite its mines having yet to achieve full capacity.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a major player in the global cobalt market, responsible for 70 percent of cobalt output. At 4 million metric tons, the country has almost half the world’s known cobalt reserves, located mainly in its southern provinces of Lualaba and Haut-Katanga.

Cobalt is used to make batteries that power electric vehicles and store energy from solar and wind. It is also key in making semi-conductors and chips that are at the centre of the Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies. In 2022, the DRC earned almost $6 billion in cobalt exports making it one of the biggest sources of export revenue for the country.

However, as the demand for the mineral continues to rise, that may present a new resource case for the DRC – a country that has been mired in conflict for most of its existence because of natural resources. This is not least because of the DRC’s poor governance record.

The extraction and supply chain of cobalt from the DRC is poorly regulated. About 20 percent of the cobalt production comes from the so-called artisanal and small-scale miners (ASM) who number in the tens of thousands and include women and children. The artisanal miners are forced to engage in cobalt mining because of poverty and lack of economic opportunities.

The working conditions under which the metal is extracted in these operations have been described as modern-day slavery. Thousands of poor Congolese reportedly dig the ground to extract cobalt using shovels and pickaxes and under extremely dangerous conditions for a few dollars a day. Most of the small-scale operations are controlled by powerful politicians and military personnel who run them with an iron fist.

The mining of cobalt also presents an environmental disaster. It has led to intensive deforestation, with millions of trees being cleared and it also pollutes the air and nearby water bodies.

Formal mining is dominated by big multinational corporations whose mining contracts with the government have not been disclosed to the public and their operations are kept secret.

There has been tension between the ASM operators and the large-scale operators. Although the government adopted a Mining Code in 2018 aiming to make cobalt mining more equitable, this has not worked in practice.

Tension has escalated between the two as the small miners feel crowded out by the formal operators. The ASM operators have complained that the government allocated them unviable mining sites in which mining is virtually impossible with their limited resources.

As such, they are forced to trespass on the concessions belonging to multinational companies which creates grounds for conflict. Moreover, the royalties and other taxes coming from multinational corporations mining are reportedly not reaching the mining communities.

Officials who manage the institutions responsible for collecting mining revenue mostly pocket the proceeds for their own enrichment instead of channelling them towards community development budgets. This creates a classic resource case where natural resources are used to benefit a few while the rest of the community is impoverished.

There is discontent in the communities who were relocated to pave the way for mining operations without adequate compensation. As such, there is a real possibility that the transition to green energy will create new sources of intractable conflict in countries like the DRC. Without an effective government in place, it is difficult to see how the conflict over cobalt can be averted.

Dr Sizo Nkala Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies