Cobalt to be tracked from small-scale mines

28 March 2018

A pilot scheme will aim to trace ethical cobalt from small and artisanal mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The Better Cobalt pilot scheme will follow up to five supply chains starting in semi-mechanised or artisanal mines, for companies including tech giant Apple. It claims to be the first scheme to try and validate ethical cobalt from small-scale producers.

Artisanal mines are usually informal mining operations run by individuals or community groups that are use little or no technology or machinery. They are notorious for using child labour and other rights abuses.

The pilot, which has been likened to previous efforts to eradicate blood diamonds and other conflict minerals from DRC, will aim to prevent child labour and other human rights abuses by using technology including electronic tagging and blockchain. It will aim to continually monitor mining sites and provide real-time site-level incident data.

The scheme will also allow participants to mitigate against supply chain contamination and make precise provenance claims about their cobalt.

Cobalt’s importance as a component of battery technology has caused demand to surge in recent years, fuelled by smartphones and more recently electric vehicle technology.

More than half of the world’s cobalt supply comes from the DRC, and of this as much as 20% is thought to be mined by hand, Amnesty International said in a report last year. The same report criticised electric car manufacturers and technology companies, including Tesla, Microsoft and Huawei, for not doing enough to ensure the cobalt they used was sourced sustainably.

The pilot is being run by RSC Global, a supply chain auditing company, alongside the Better Sourcing Programme.

Other participants have not been officially named, but the Financial Times reported Apple and one of its cobalt suppliers Huayou Cobalt – the world’s largest refiner – will be participating. Apple has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Two automotive manufacturers are also said to be part of the pilot.

Nicholas Garrett, chief executive of RCS Global, told FT: “This level of data generation is unheard of in the artisanal mining context. We are essentially creating a digital footprint.”

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