By Sasha Rose, Program Assistant, UNA-NCA
On Wednesday, November 10th, The Human Rights Committee hosted a panel discussion on Combating Child Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sitting on the panel were three experts in the field, Cristina Duranti, Cristina Villegas, and Amayele Dia. Each of them shared their perspectives and stories of their work in combating this issue.
To begin the event, Co-Chair of the Human Rights Committee, Christian Gineste, shared opening remarks which included a brief overview of the committee's work, values, and information on how to get involved. He then shared some basic information on what cobalt is (a metal that is used in many of today's technologies including laptops, phones, etc.) and some stark statistics about cobalt mining economy and production. These statistics included that the DRC is the source of approximately 60% of global cobalt supply, that the cobalt market is expected to grow to be worth $100 billion by the year 2025, and that an estimated 40,000 children work in cobalt mines in the DRC, everyday. Christian ended his opening remarks with the question of the evening: “What can we do as organizations and as global citizens to fight child labor in the cobalt sector of the DRC”
As this question lingered, the three panelists were introduced.
Cristina Duranti is the director of the Good Shepherd International Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to protecting and promoting the rights of people living in poverty, and those affected by human rights violations. Cristina is responsible for coordinating the opening of Bon Pasteur, Kolwezi, which has been recognized as an international best practice eradication of child labor within the cobalt mining industry within the DRC.
Cristina Villegas is the director of responsible sourcing and minerals at Pact, a global non-profit organization dedicated to ending poverty and marginalization. Villegas is a global expert in artisanal and small-scale mining, and is known for her expertise in gemstones, diamonds, and gold.
Amayele Dia is a child labor in mining coordinator at Pact. Dia has been working on this issue, of child labor in the DRC, since 2018 and is currently working from France.
Cristina Duranti was invited to speak first, about what the root causes of this issue are, and what organizations like the Good Shepherd International Foundation can do to combat these causes. She begins by sharing the history of the Good Shepherd International Foundations work in the Kolwezi area (in the DRC). She explains that they first came to Kolwezi in 2012, when they were mostly focused on providing programs for women and children in volatile conditions. Since establishing those programs in 2012, they witnessed first-hand the so-called “cobalt rush”.
Duranti outlined that there were several ‘pre-conditions’ in Kolwezi that contributed to cobalt mining’s draw. These pre-conditions were primarily those of extreme fragility and vulnerability. On the local level they included extreme poverty and food insecurity, in addition to social fragmentation due to artificial communities made up of a diverse population of internally displaced peoples (IDPs). On the government level, these pre-conditions included a staggering lack of social services, such as child protective services, education, and law and regulation enforcement. Lastly, Duranti points to the chronic under-investment in sectors alternative to mining (such as agriculture or service).
In response to these conditions, Duranti pointed to the importance of strengthening social services. Setting up community based safe spaces for children, providing social workers to distribute food and offer informal schooling are some of the solutions that she sees fit and that her organization has seen success in offering.
Gineste then posed the second question - What role can local and civil society play in tackling the deeply rooted causes and challenges that lie at the heart of this issue. How are you currently partnering with local communities to achieve these goals?
Cristina Villegas responded by explained that working with local organizations is central to Pacts values. Villegas pointed out that there is no shortage of local interest and activism when it comes to the topic of child labor within cobalt mining. She also noted that Pact prioritizes engaging with local businesses to educate them on how to purchase cobalt responsibly and thus slowing the demand side in the cycle of child mining.
In addition to working with local businesses, Pact also works directly with the regional governments and with children and their families to set up protections for children and to get them out of the mines. She went on to say that engaging with women, and specifically mothers, has been a breakthrough in terms of combatting this issue. Offering alternative livelihoods for both mothers and their children, as the majority of the children in the mines are there with a parent. Villegas ended by saying that this issue is solvable, that they know what works, and that the issue is not a lack of knowledge, rather a lack of funding.
Villegas then handed the spotlight to Amayele Dia, who also works with Pact as a child labor in mining coordinator. Dia began by expanding on Villegas’s earlier point about offering agriculture as an alternative livelihood. She spoke about a vocational education training program that Pact is offering to those most dependent on the economic benefits of working in mining. Agriculture has the potential to serve as an alternative to mining, in terms of livelihood, the problem however, is that many people are not interested. Mining is seen as a way to get money fast, whereas the value and return of agriculture is not as obvious.
Dia went on to talk about the work that Pact does with civil society organization within Kolwezi, stating that in 2021 they worked with about half a dozen of them to establish capacity building, work in partnership to strengthen Pacts current programs (this is valuable because these organizations have a much deeper understanding of the community and are able to offer insights into what is needed and how the programs can be most effective)
Dia circled back to the earlier point made by Villegas, that funding is limited (both in terms of amount and in terms of timing). Wanting to make sure that they are doing everything they can to have a lasting and sustainable impact on these communities
Gineste asked the third question: To what extent have international companies played a role in addressing the root causes?
Duranti responded by first reiterating her earlier point that pre-existing development issues are really the main root causes of the issue. She addressed that international companies do have a role to play and further, have a responsibility to adhere to, and set standards and rules promoting responsible sourcing. But she also says that this is a complex and multi-dimensional issue, and in order to really solve it we must address all aspects, including the foundational development factors.
After Duranti concluded her response, Villegas jumped in to say that Pact has received generous support from a number of international programs over the years. Some of the largest donors include The Responsible Business Alliance, and Apple. She went on to say that these companies, as well as some others, have been active partners in the work that Pact is doing. Though there has been a good amount of investment from international companies, she also recognizes that many companies have not invested in this work at all, and there could always be more accountability and partnership especially considering the increasing popularity of technology.
Gineste addressed the panel and asked them to speak about formalization projects and how they can impact child labor
Dia responded to the question by first addressing that formalization is extremely important. She explained that most miners work individually, in undesignated mine sites, using tools that are quite rudimentary. Formalization sets standards around location, tools, and pay to ensure that miners are safe and paid fairly. She went on to explain that formalization relies on the government to set these standards, and thus requires government funding.
She ended by offering an example of a partnership between a company, Pact, and a group of miners where formalization standards were set. She explained that through the process of formalization, miners were given a designated space where they could mine, they were also given personal protective equipment. In addition to improving working conditions, Pact also reduced the likelihood of child mining in this specific project by closing off all entrances into the mine except for one, so that no children could sneak in. They also worked at the community level, through raising awareness, working with vulnerable families through economic empowerment, and vocational education training.
Dia concluded by offering some of the results of formalization work. After the project, Pact found that there were improved safety conditions, access to healthcare, an increase in the number of businesses started in the community, and that women working in the mine were making 2 ½ times more than those working in unformalized conditions.
Gineste followed up with a question regarding the importance and difficulty of traceability.
Dia began by explaining that tracing the sources of cobalt is extremely difficult due to the number of actors along the supply chain. Additionally, she points out that it is very rare that companies source from only one site, and there is no requirement that companies need to source their supply chain all the way up to the mine sites, so there is very little incentive to do so.
Duranti stated that there is a duty for governments to uphold basic human rights for children, this involves allocating funding and social services. She weaves in her earlier points on development issues and fragility and explains that though formalization and traceability is important, there must also be investment into social services, such as education, food access, etc. She ends by saying that we have a duty to continue advocating for these social protections and services. And International companies have a responsibility to use their influence to uphold basic human rights.
In summary, the event touched on the causes underpinning the issue of child labor in the DRC. These main causes, as outlined by the three panelists include, pre-existing foundations of fragility and instability, lack of governing body to create laws and regulations surrounding cobalt mining, and subsequent lack of enforcement to uphold these regulations once made. And third, a lack of international involvement both from funding and from international companies' efforts to get involved and use their influence and power to demand formalization and traceability.
What we can do as consumers is continue to advocate for the human rights of these women and children who see no other option than cobalt mining. We can also support organizations like Pact and the Good Shepherd International Foundation in their efforts to offer support to those affected. As Cristina Duranti said, the issue is not that these organizations do not know how to fix this issue, it is that they do not have the funds and resources to do so. So, perhaps one of the easiest ways to help is to continue advocating and to support the work of organizations like Pact and the Good Shepherd International Foundation.