3. Responsible sourcing

If the EU cannot wean itself off virgin metals anytime soon, can it at least source them in a responsible way? At present, most mining practices are dirty, especially in the Global South. All too often, mining companies wreak ecological havoc, violate the rights of workers and local communities, avoid taxes and fuel conflict and corruption. In Chile, a major exporter of lithium, mining uses up water reserves, at the expense of farmers and wildlife. In China, the chemicals used to extract and process rare earths pollute rivers, groundwater, soils and air.

For the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), mining is a curse rather than a blessing. Despite its mineral wealth, it is one of the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries in the world. Mining by Chinese and Western multinationals follows an extractivist model where the Congolese people deliver large amounts of raw materials, at great human and environmental cost, but most of the profits accrue to others. Neocolonial and ecological injustices intersect with gender injustice: whereas mining jobs accrue largely to men, the loss of arable land and clean water makes life harder for women.

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Artisanal mining

In the DRC, metals such as cobalt and tantalum are not only mined by international companies, but also by independent, small-scale miners. Artisanal mining takes place in perilous conditions and sometimes involves child labour. Yet it represents a significant source of livelihoods for millions of people. That’s why Dutch company Fairphone doesn’t turn away from artisanal cobalt, but tries to source it in a responsible way. It has mounted the Fair Cobalt Alliance, which is working on a transparent supply chain from a selection of artisanal mining sites. The Alliance cooperates with the miners and the surrounding communities to keep children out of the mines and enrol them in school, to improve the miners’ health, safety and earnings and to create new economic opportunities. (1)

The resource curse that grips the DRC can hit the entire world. That is a lesson from the coronavirus crisis. In order to mine metal ores, people penetrate deep into the remaining habitats of wild animals. Some Congolese miners live in such degrading conditions that they are forced to hunt great apes and other wild animals for lack of other sources of protein. (2) The preparation and consumption of bushmeat not only threatens biodiversity, but also carries a high risk of transmitting infectious diseases from animals to humans. Avoiding an era of pandemics is one more reason to take a critical look at where and how our metals are dug up.

Due diligence law

Protecting the interdependent health of humans, animals and ecosystems (3), promoting justice within and between generations and reducing geopolitical supply risks all require that Europe sources it metals in a more responsible way. The EU took a first step with its conflict minerals regulation, instigated by the Greens in the European Parliament. This law obliges importers of four metals – gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum – to check their supply chain to ensure there are no links to armed conflicts or human rights abuse, and to take action where problems are found. (4) The European Commission has proposed a similar obligation, covering both social and environmental risks, for producers and importers of batteries. (5) These steps should be followed by a generalised due diligence obligation for all companies operating in the EU market, as the European Parliament has demanded. The law should require that companies identify, address and remedy their impact on human rights, the environment and good governance throughout their supply chain. It must include sanctions for non-compliance and legal support for victims. (6)

Metals

Duty of vigilance

Since 2017, France has a law
which imposes a duty of
vigilance on large companies.
(7) It was put forward by
Greens and other deputies
in the National Assembly.
This due diligence law has
paved the way for similar
initiatives in other EU member
states and increased the
pressure on the European
Commission to act on the
EU level.

Due diligence schemes for the metals supply chain should only be recognised by the European Commission if they are based on the highest standards for mining, processing and trading. These derive from international agreements, soft law instruments, multistakeholder initiatives and national laws. Standards for industrial mining include gaining and maintaining broad support from impacted communities (8); free, prior and informed consent from indigenous peoples (9); fair and safe working conditions; preventing adverse impacts on women and girls (10); minimising environmental damage; avoiding, minimising, restoring and/or offsetting impacts on biodiversity; lodging financial guarantees which cover the costs of the rehabilitation of all land after a mine closes.

Poor people in the Global South suffer the most from the climate problem that rich people in the North have caused. The poor should not pay the price for the solution as well.

Further viewing

France 24, 'Inside the murky business of cobalt mining in the DRC' Afspelen op YouTube
France 24, 'Lithium, the white gold of Bolivia's salt desert' Afspelen op YouTube
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Green European Foundation (GEF)

This project is organised by the Green European Foundation with the support of Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (NL), Fundacja Strefa Zieleni (PL), Transición Verde (ES), Etopia (BE), Institut Aktivního Občanství (CZ), Green Economics Institute (UK) and Visio (FI), and with the financial support of the European Parliament to the Green European Foundation.

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