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Ecological and sanitary disaster in the cobalt mines of Kolwezi, DR Congo

The cobalt extraction keeps increasing at great human and environmental costs. Kolwezi is the capital city of Lualaba Province, an important mining centre for copper, cobalt and other minerals.


The cobalt industry in the Congo is an ecological, safety, and sanitary disaster. The mining extraction in the Congo is often label as a geological scandal due to the high intensity of extraction happening, however, it is clearly a socio-ecological scandal as well [1;11]. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Ecological and sanitary disaster in the cobalt mines of Kolwezi, DR Congo
Country:Congo, Dem. Rep.
State or province:Lualaba
Location of conflict:Kolwezi
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Specific commodities:Rare metals
Project Details and Actors
Project details

- Southern Congo sits atop an estimated 3.4 million metric tons of cobalt, almost half the world’s known supply.

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Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:500,000 residents
Start of the conflict:2000
Company names or state enterprises:Kai Peng Mining Sarl from China - Near the ecological and sanitary disaster
Huayou Cobalt Co., Ltd from China - Industrial mining company
Relevant government actors:Governor Richard Mueyj
International and Finance InstitutionsChemicals of Africa (Chemaf) from Congo, Dem. Rep. - Trying to make the mining industry more transparent - semi governmental initiative
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:L’ATRAM, Alternative de Transformation de l’Artisanat Minier
Environmental Toxicology Unit of the University of Lubumbashi (DRC)
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageUnknown
Groups mobilizing:Artisanal miners
Informal workers
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Genetic contamination, Soil contamination, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Other Environmental impactsIn the rainy season, the earth occasionally turns green, as a result of the copper oxides beneath it [13]
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Other environmental related diseases, Other Health impacts
Potential: Deaths
Other Health impacts Congenital malformations; high concentrations of trace metals in the urine of people living in the mines [14]
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights
Potential: Displacement, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women
Other socio-economic impactsexploitation of child labor [11]
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Application of existing regulations
Proposal and development of alternatives:Governor Richard Mueyj is putting ahead two different initiatives:

1. From Chemaf (Chemicals of Africa), which prefers to employ diggers rather than buying expensive construction equipment. At the Mutoshi Site (mining site), things are slightly easier and more organised for miners. Men extract the stones, women crush them and sort them. Each registered miner must wear a helmet and work jacket. If there is an accident on site, miners have access to a nursery service. In theory, kids and pregnant women are not allowed on site.

However, miners are not satisfied. They want and should get paid what they dictate themselves and not the multinational company. As they say 'the price should be given by us'.

Moreover, there is a second initiative which consists of making it more official by getting rid of purchasing offices, intermediaries etc. The informal sector is slowly (really slowly) disappearing. The initiative is to redirect all the trade to one single centre of business in the Musompo site. In theory, miners will only be allowed to bring cobalt from the oficial artisanal mining sites and only three research centres will verify the origin of the materials. However, the miners do not think it is a solution. The artisanal mining is being really limited because multinational corporations buy the land. Also the Chinese buyers will just move to another region. Finally, miners will move to another type of material such as Uranium if the cobalt is too difficult to make a living out of it.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:As large companies expand their concessions, the authorities are finding it difficult to enforce the mining code, whose new version, adopted in 2018 provides for the zones of Artisanal Mining permits to be given to the diggers.
Sources & Materials
Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

[6]Never Mind the Mines. In Congo, There's Cobalt under the House.

Written y William Clowes and Thomas Wilson.

March 28, 2018.

Published by Bloomber.
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Le Soir newspaper has released several articles related to the cobalt industry and its consequences in the Democratic Republic of Congo
[click to view]

[11] Benjamin Sovacool et al. The decarbonisation divide: Contextualizing landscapes of low-carbon exploitation and toxicity in Africa. January 2020. Global Environmental Change 60:102028


[click to view]

[12] Benjamin Sovacool 2019. The precarious political economy of cobalt: Balancing prosperity, poverty, and brutality in artisanal and industrial mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. EXIS. Volume 6, Issue 3. Pages 915-939
[click to view]

[14] Metal mining and birth defects: a case-control study in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Lancet, Planetary Health
[click to view]

[2]Les creuseurs du Katanga : le sort des femmes
[click to view]

[3] Au Scandale Geologique succede le scandale ecologique

Colette Braeckman
[click to view]

[4] Revue de la presse congolaise de ce samedi - dialogue
[click to view]

[5] Hidden costs of cobalt mining in DR Congo

September 20, 2018

Source: KU Leuven

Summary: Cobalt mining comes at a great cost to public health in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. New research reveals that children are particularly vulnerable: their urine and blood samples contain high concentrations of cobalt and other metals
[click to view]

[7] THIS IS WHAT WE DIE FOR: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo - Power the global trade of cobalt

Published in 2016 by Amnesty International
[click to view]

[8] Paper No 35

Governance of Africa's Resources Programme

Natural Resource Governance, Boom and Bust: The Case of Kolwezi in the DRC

Africa Portal: Gregory Mthembu-Salter, June 2009
[click to view]

[9] Calvão, Filipe, Catherine Erica Alexina Mcdonald, and Matthieu Bolay. “Cobalt Mining and the Corporate Outsourcing of Responsibility in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” The Extractive Industries and Society, February 2021, S2214790X21000290.

[10] Pete Pattison, The Guardian. 8 Nov. 2021. ‘Like slave and master’: DRC miners toil for 30p an hour to fuel electric cars.
[click to view]

[13] The Dark Side of Congo’s Cobalt Rush
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

[13] Amnesty International, 2016.This is What We Die for: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt. London.

Other comments:"Children living in the mining district had ten times as much cobalt in their urine as children living elsewhere. Their values were much higher than what we'd accept for European factory workers. This study may be limited in scope, but the results are crystal-clear. The differences cannot be attributed to coincidence" [6].
Meta information
Last update04/02/2022
Conflict ID:5152
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