3. Responsible sourcing

The EU is unlikely to wean itself off virgin metals anytime soon, but can it at least source them responsibly? 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 depletes water reserves at the expense of farmers and wildlife. And in China, the chemicals used to extract and process rare earths pollute rivers, groundwater, soil, and air.

For the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mining is a curse rather than a blessing. Despite its mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries in the world. Mining by Chinese and Western multinationals follows an extractivist model, whereby the Congolese people deliver large amounts of raw materials at great human and environmental cost while most of the profits accrue to others. Neocolonial and ecological injustices intersect with gender injustice: mining jobs are largely occupied by men, while it is primarily women who suffer from the loss of arable land and lack of clean water caused by mining operations.


Artisanal and small-scale mining

In the DRC, metals such as cobalt and tantalum are mined not only by international companies but also by independent, small-scale miners. Artisanal and small-scale mining is carried out under perilous conditions and sometimes involves child labour. Yet it represents a significant source of livelihood for millions of people. It is for this reason that Dutch company Fairphone, unlike many other downstream cobalt users, does not shun the use of artisanal cobalt but instead attempts to source it responsibly. It has created the Fair Cobalt Alliance, which is working on the development of a transparent supply chain using a selection of artisanal mining sites. The Alliance cooperates with miners and the surrounding communities to keep children out of the mines and enrol them in school, to improve miners’ health, safety, and earnings, and to create new economic opportunities. (1)

The resource curse gripping the DRC could 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, living on the edge of destitution, are forced to hunt great apes and other wild animals for lack of other sources of protein. (2) The preparation and consumption of bushmeat does not only threaten biodiversity; it 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

In order to protect the interdependent health of humans, animals, and ecosystems (3), promote justice within and between generations, and reduce geopolitical supply risks, Europe needs to take a more responsible approach to metals sourcing. 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 chains to ensure there are no links to armed conflicts or human rights abuses, and to take action where problems are found. (4) The European Commission has proposed a similar obligation, covering both social and environmental risks, for the 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 demanded by the European Parliament. (6) The law should require companies to identify, address, and remedy their impact on human rights, the environment, and governance throughout their value chain. It must include sanctions for non-compliance and and liability for harm caused. For victims, access to remedy, including through courts, needs to be guaranteed.


Duty of vigilance

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

Due diligence schemes for the metals value 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), as well as free, prior, and informed consent from indigenous peoples. (9) Participatory processes might lead to communities or workers getting a stake in the ownership of a mine (10), but must also aim for local benefits that last beyond the lifetime of the mine. Mining standards furthermore include fair and safe working conditions; preventing adverse impacts on women and girls (11); minimising environmental damage; avoiding, minimising, restoring, and/or offsetting impacts on biodiversity; and providing financial guarantees that cover the costs of the rehabilitation of all land after a mine closes.

People living in poverty in the Global South are already hardest hit by the climate crisis for which they are not responsible. They should not also have to pay the price for its solution.

Further viewing

Sophie Kwizera, 'The energy transition: do it now and do it well' Afspelen op YouTube
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
Logo Green European Foundation

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), the 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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