You use your mobile phone every single day. But have you stopped to wonder where some of the elements used in the batteries that power it come from? Cobalt is one such element that is not just powering your phone but enabling the renewables revolution. Approximately 15-25 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from artisanal mines. These small-scale mines also produce gold, gemstones, mica and tin among other materials. Often many of these operations are unsafe, unregulated and unsustainable. But change is possible, many organisations are working towards a better future for the artisanal mining sector.
Stephanie Shumsky from Pact, a nonprofit international development organisation, spoke to us about solutions that are bringing change to the sector.
Q: What is artisanal mining?
A: Artisanal mining operates outside of the large-scale industrial mining sector that many of us might be familiar with. It is a wide range – from individuals working with hand-held tools in a very rudimentary fashion, all the way up to advanced and technologically sound small-scale mining which involves the use of heavy equipment like dozers and shovels as well as processing facilities to increase concentration.
Q: Is all artisanal mining illegal?
A: There is often a negative perception of artisanal and small-scale mining out there, thanks to some reports by NGOs and the media about various human rights violations and dangers associated with irresponsible operators. It’s really important to make the distinction that there are many responsible projects out there. There are people working in organised cooperatives that are working safely, using technology and equipment to make sure that they are productive and that they are able to earn a decent income. These operators are working in accordance with government regulations and laws and with sourcing requirements from their downstream customers.
Q: Why should the world care about artisanal mining?
A: Globally, artisanal and small-scale mining produces between 15-25 percent of all new gold and some 80 percent of coloured gemstones, like sapphires, garnets and emeralds. 50 percent of all tantalum and at least 80 percent of all tin, 25 percent of all mica and 15-25 per cent of all cobalt, which is used in batteries and other renewable energy technology comes from artisanal mines.
Q: How is Pact making a difference on the ground?
A: We work with all kinds of different actors and donors across the supply chain, across many different countries to make artisanal and small-scale mining safer or more productive using market-based approaches. This is Pact’s Mines to Markets programme. We focus on things like governance, building the whole capacity, improving health and safety outcomes through training and education, as well as a variety of other interventions.
Q: What projects are making a difference on the ground?
A: We have this amazing project with female miners in Tanzania called Moyo Gems to help them learn about how to value the gems that they are finding. We also train them to negotiate fair prices for those gems. We work extensively in the Great Lakes Region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda as the implementing partner for the ITSCI Programme for Responsible Mineral Supply Chains as well as projects in the copper and cobalt belt around Kolwezi like the Mutoshi Semi-mechanized pilot project. We work on mercury reduction projects in west Africa and on projects to reduce the incidence of child labour in Colombia. We are working on a broad collection of projects all around the world, working across different commodities and different countries.
Q: Do you see artisanal mining as a force for good for communities?
A: More and more people are recognising the power of ASM to act as a development lever. One of my colleagues, Jorden de Haan, is about to publish a book that actually talks about how artisanal and small-scale mining, when done correctly (in a formal and safe way making sure that there is no child labour and no human rights abuses) it can actually have a positive impact on all the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. It can be a force for good – eradicating poverty to improving gender equality, improving access to education and protecting the environment. If you do artisanal mining right, it can do all of those things and more.
Most of the archive video footage in this interview comes from a partnership project between Pact, Trafigura, the DRC government and others focused on formalising cobalt supply chains in DRC. More information on the project is available on Pact’s website, including an independent socio-economic study that looked at the positive impacts our work has had on incomes, gender equality, working conditions and nearby communities.
(Additional research carried by Kuheli Biswas.)