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The Uneasy Coexistence of the Two Faces of the DRC’s Cobalt Industry

On one side, the industrial mines run by multinationals like Glencore are sealed off by concrete walls and wire fences and, on the other, the informal mines with hellish, unsafe conditions that feed underground Chinese trading networks. The practice is known as “artisanal” mining; a name that belies its rudimentary and hazardous nature. Yet this small-scale mining generates about 15 to 30 per cent of the DRC’s cobalt supply, which in turn produces about 70 per cent of global output. Cobalt, the silver metal so abundant in the DRC that miners can dig it out with basic tools, is essential for the world’s transition to clean energy. Demand for the resource is projected to triple by 2035, mainly for electric-vehicle batteries, according to the Cobalt Institute, an industry body. If the world is to meet its need for cobalt — and do so in a sustainable and equitable way — then the artisanal mining sector will have to be cleaned up to meet international standards.