LONDON (Reuters) – One reason the cobalt price has gone supernova over the last year is the realisation that not only does most of the available supply come from just one country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but a good part of it comes from artisanal mines.
In the case of cobalt, however, artisanal mining may in fact be part of the solution to securing long-term supplies of the “hot” metal used for lithium-ion batteries key to the electric vehicle revolution. The real problem in the DRC is less this mining itself, but more the lawlessness that surrounds it and makes much of the cobalt from the region effectively a “conflict mineral”.
For as Apple has already found out and automotive companies are learning, it’s tricky enough selling yourself as a pioneer of 21st century technology if one of your key raw materials conjures up images of impoverished children wheeling barrows laden with ore or being lowered into rickety tunnels.
Such stark representations of small-scale mining, however, risk over-simplifying the “informal” sector, which is a major employer and plays a crucial economic and development role for millions of people around the world.
A GLOBAL INFORMAL ECONOMY
The World Bank estimates that artisanal mining, by small cooperative or family groups, employs some 40 million people globally. (“Artisanal and small-scale mining”, Nov. 21, 2013).
It’s inevitably a rough guess, but the World Bank’s assessment implies that some 100 million people, workers and their families depend on the sector for their livelihood.