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].
Kolwezi is the capital city of Lualaba Province in the South of the DRC, west of Likasi. The population is approximately 673 000. Kolwezi is an important mining centre for copper and cobalt as well as other minerals. A report by Pete Pattison in The Guadian (8 Nov.. 2021) states: "Kolwezi is the DRC’s cobalt capital, a city so defined by mining that some communities sit on the rim of the giant craters that have been excavated in search of copper and cobalt. It is mining on a massive scale, highly mechanised and dependent on cutting-edge technology but powered by thousands of workers . In the last 15 years, Chinese companies have begun to enter the mining business, buying out North American and European companies so that they now control the majority of the cobalt and copper mines in southern DRC. And with this change, Congolese workers say, has come abuse, discrimination and racism".
Kasulo is a working-class neighborhood of Kolwezi has been at the heart of the Congolese mining area. It is quite poor and there are high unemployment rates.
In 2014, a local dweller discovered cobalt ore under one of the houses in this neighborhood [6;5]. It quickly became a site for artisanal mining and the houses were interspersed with dozen of mine pits and hundreds of creuseurs hunt for cobalt. People remained in the area as it is a safe earning for local communities there. However creuseurs were operating outside the law in highly dangerous and precarious conditions . Giant holes began to appear across the neighborhood without some kind of supporting structure, there were high risks of these excavations to collapse. Indeed, five diggers died at the end of July 2014 due to non manage excavation sites.
This situation was putting a lot of pressure in terms of reputation to local authorities and Zheijian Huayou Cobalt, owner of local operator Congo Dongfang Mining to find a sustainable solution. The first one being to put a ban on artisanal mining digging in the Kasulo Neighborhood however being a Gecamines concession artisanal mining was legal. So authorities and Congo Dongfang Mining decided to displace residents of Kasulo and formalize the artisanal mining activities in the area.
In September 2017, 600 families living in Kasulo were paid by CDM to be displaced from the area. In 2018, the government tried to regulate the informal activity to show that it could be done safely to minimize death accidents and health consequences. However, the intention remained dubious even if it became a Zone d'Exploitation Artisanal (ZEA). Indeed, the local population's voices remain unheard as they say that they lacked compensation for their resettlement, also small buying houses of ore are struggling as they have less access to cobalt as they used before [5,6].
CDM was given the responsability to regulate extraction within a perimeter of two carrés miniers (mining squares) of 84.7 ha each in exchange for monopolistic control over production. The partnership between the provincial government and China's Congo Dongfang Mining International, which is a subsidiary company of Huayou Cobalt Co led to an investment of 12$ million investment for machinery, safety and resettlement expenses. Since then, around 14 000 miners are registered through the loal mining cooperative of Maadini Kwa Kilimo (CMKK). It is important to note that in Amnesty's 2016 report 'This what we die for' stated that Huayou Cobalt Co. was one of the main buyers of illegal cobalt . This initiative has been well received by the governor of Lualaba which wants to bring forward this initiative of removing illegal diggers from mining sites. As well as the international response was positive.
Even if this could be seen as a success of formalization of illega artisanal mining, this has huge health consequences on the population mainly due to the dust . During the mining process, dust is released and remains on the ground which then inhaled by the habitants. Researchers from KU Leuven (Belgium) and the University of Lumbashi conducted research back in 2009 finding high concentrations of trace metals in the urine of people living in the mines.
The study conducted included the collection of blood and urine samples from 72 Kasulo residents including 32 children. Results are worrisome according to Professor Nemery (doctor-toxicologist at the KU Leuven Department of Public Health and the Primary Care) "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" .
Furthermore, local Professor Kaniki, a specialist in chemical engineering clearly denounces the high level of pollution in any water streams in the so-called Congolese Copperbelt (a region that sits in the border region between northern Zambia and the southern Democratic Republic of Congo). Indeed, his studies show that particles are deposited in almost all the rivers of the province; in some rivers, there are 30 centimeters of sediment; they are witnessing the total extinction of fauna and flora . This has been specifically the case near Tenke Fungurme (where there is one of the biggest cobalt mining sites) and Likasi (a city located in the Haut Katanga where a lot of mining activities take place). Moreover, the generated dust due to over-mining extraction is causing health damages to humans. Paul Musa, who works at the Environmental Toxicology Unit of the University of Lubumbashi (DRC), notes the increasing number of congenital malformations [3;14]. High concentrations of cobalt in the children’s urine can be found and the damage can be seen on the DNA of newborns. More studies done by Paul Musa and his research group at the University of Lubumbashi show that the dust that the mining extraction spreads is to be found in the lungs, blood, faecal matter. He also denounces the situation of artisanal miners who are at risk by denouncing their work conditions such as bare hands, without masks and lack of access to medical health insurance and medical check-ups.... Jean-Claude Baka, a representative of a human rights organization called Asadho in Katanga, is really fearful of the situation in the hospital of Likasi due to an increase of congenital malformations, deformed hands, absence of a nose, macrocephaly. So far it is impossible to demonstrate the correlation with mining. However it is located near the Chinese company called Kai Peng in Likasi, and there the soil is warm because of the acids, and all sorts of food is contaminated due to this .
There is clearly strong correlation of environmental disaster and health issues related to the mining industry. . Moreover, it is clear that mining companies in Kolwezi which are generating environmental hazards are not taking responsibility for the consequences of their mining activities and that the official system to regulate and monitor environmental matters does not work .