In a huge pit in Shabara in south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of illegal miners work daily to dig out rocks containing the speckled blue-gold ore, cobalt.
The country holds over 70 per cent of world supply of this key ingredient in rechargeable batteries, electric cars, and mobile phones.
It is estimated that some 200,000 people works as informal diggers in country’s cobalt mines in flagrant violation of its laws.
Artisanal miners breaking the law
The mining at Shabara has been carrying on for years in defiance of the site's owner, a subsidiary of mining and commodities giant, Glencore.
So-called artisanal miners says they can make equivalent of $200 on a good week, which is a small fortune in a country where most live on under $2 a day.
‘Here, we’re independent, everyone comes, works independently, goes to sell the ore at the trading centre, and makes money. Compared to other mining areas where I've worked, here I work in order,’ says Antoine Dela wa Monga.
But the sector’s image is tainted by artisanal mining, with accusations of child labour, dangerous working conditions, and corruption.
‘Normally, when you produce and export, you have to pay a fee. But when it is not declared, nothing can be paid on it. Hence the importance of being able to set up procedures that can guarantee traceability from upstream to downstream, to ensure that these flows become compliant,’ says Tosi Mpanu Mpanu, who is working on the formalisation of artisanal cobalt mining.
Need to clean up the sector's image
However, government attempts to clear up the illegal mines are at a near standstill.
David Sturmes, director of corporate engagement and strategic partnerships at Fair Cobalt Alliances, says the situation is a lose-lose one for all.
‘Artisanal mining occurs on industrial concessions, so legally speaking, they are infringing on industrial miners territory. This makes it difficult for industrial miners to engage. The mining code doesn't allow for them to purchase from artisanal miners or allow them on their concessions, but international human rights conventions don't allow them to kick them off either.’
Under Congolese law, artisanal diggers are only allowed to work in government-designated zones and as part of approved cooperatives. But most diggers say the designated areas are unviable and prefer to work on industrial concessions with identified deposits.
Despite fluctuations in global prices, analysts say the metal's future is strong given demand from the energy transition.
Sturmes says this means that mining firms and the illegal diggers share a common interest in cleaning up Congolese cobalt's tainted image.