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Cobalt blues: Environmental pollution and human rights violations in Congolese cobalt mines

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Research by SOMO reveals that serious human rights violations and environmental pollution are happening in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as a result of cobalt mining, including water pollution and forced evictions.The report, called "Cobalt blues: Environmental pollution and human rights violations in Katanga’s copper and cobalt mines", shows that these problems are structural.

Cobalt is used in rechargeable batteries for smart phones and laptops, and SOMO is calling on electronics companies to take responsibility for the way cobalt in their supply chain is mined. On Tuesday April 19, civil society organisations, companies and electronics manufacturers will meet to discuss the issues surrounding the extraction of minerals such as cobalt at a meeting at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

SOMO has worked with three Congolese organisations to conduct spot investigations of the harmful effects of mining operations of seven Congolese and foreign companies.

Land rights and rules

About half of all mined cobalt comes from DRC, mainly from the province of Katanga. The mining takes place close to towns and villages. Local communities regularly are cut off from their farmland and water sources near mines, without having had a say in the matter. There are several examples of forced relocations of entire villages. Inhabitants of the village Kishiba for example, were forced to move to make way for Frontier, a cobalt and copper mine. Their new homes in Kimfumpa lack the most basic of services such as clean water, fertile farmland, schools and health care.

Dirty air and dirty water

Cities such as Lubumbashi and Likasi face serious air pollution because of the thousands of trucks that travel to and from the mines throughout the day. Chronic exposure to such dusts can lead to severe lung diseases. Water is unfit for human consumption and agriculture because soil and water in the immediate vicinity of the mines are polluted by discharges of wastewater.

Nobody protects the Congolese people

Congolese mining legislation requires mining companies to initiate and maintain constructive dialogue with communities affected by their projects, but this is almost never done. The Congolese government fails to give its citizens sufficient protection against the abusive practices of large companies.

Electronics sector involvement needed

Around 40 percent of the world’s cobalt is used for rechargeable batteries. The electronics industry is a major user of such batteries, making electronics companies partly responsible for the problems that evolve from the extraction of cobalt.

On April 19, the GoodElectronics Network will organise – in collaboration with SOMO, Friends of the Earth and Stop Child Labour Coalition – a roundtable meeting entitled Responsible Mining for Electronics, which will include representatives of the electronics industry, civil society organisations, SOMO’s fellow Congolese researchers, and experts and policy makers to discuss the problems caused by cobalt mining in DRC.

The full report can be downloaded from SOMO website.

The online story ’Cobalt blues’ with videos and photos can be also accessed here.

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