DRC Mining: Call for Robust ESG Compliance

Environmental, Governance, and Social (ESG)

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Chawama community agricultural programme harvests 513 tonnes of maize

In 2024 and beyond, billions of dollars in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) are set to continue pouring into the DRC mining sector as the world embraces renewables. But the country’s mining sector sector needs robust Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) as urgently as it needs capital.  

By: Ndlovu Nqobile

Currently, the world’s intense spotlight is on what the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) can offer to meet increased demand for copper, cobalt and lithium. These minerals are used in the development of clean and green technologies like electrical vehicle batteries solar panels, wind turbines, and more.

Growing concern 

However, there is a growing concern, understandably, that mining companies could overlook what is equally important: the social and environmental impact of increased mining activities in the country.

ESG Compliance 

Doubtless, Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) compliance for all players has never been more relevant. They should ask themselves: What are we putting back?

Granted, sound ESG application won’t be the cure-all for a chronic problem that has persisted in the Democratic Republic of Congo since it was named Belgian Congo: Mining and Misery. Nonetheless, it would bring some sanity or some semblance of it.

To appreciate the need for a robust ESG in all mining activities, one need not look no further than the challenges that different bodies have exhaustively documented about the country.

More of a Curse, Less of a blessing

One may ask: Why the fuss about the DRC now when we all know it has been like that?

The Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa’s second-largest country by land mass, is endowed with natural and mineral resources that are raw materials for industries in Western countries: Gold, diamond, copper and cobalt, to name a few.

In cobalt alone, it has approximately four million metric tonnes of reserves. With the growth of electric vehicles and other green technologies, interest in the DRC’s resources is at a record high.

Ideally, in any country, this abundance of minerals should translate into massive benefits for the local population. There should be billions of dollars in foreign direct investment flowing, translating into increased revenue for the government and thousands of economic opportunities and related spin-offs.

Pitifully, for the DRC, the mineral resources have been more of a curse than a blessing. Corey Pattison, from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Disasters and Conflict Branch, is spot-on in summing up the challenge: “The institutional history of the DRC is profoundly shaped by the extraction of resources—which has historically not benefitted local communities.

Profound negative consequences

Reports by various international bodies indicate that the world’s insatiable appetite and massive exploitation of their country’s resources have resulted in profound negative consequences for the people of DRC. Most documented are environmental degradation and pollution, conflict, human rights abuses including human trafficking and child labour, and poor governance. This is besides different forms of abuse and forced evictions.

  1. Environmental pollution and degradation 

In extensive research focusing on the DRC, organisations like Green Peace have recorded activities such as poaching, pollution, deforestation and soil erosion threatening biodiversity. Corroborating this, Earth.org, another NGO, observes the common presence of hazy air around mines full of dust and grit, toxic to breathe. Further, it refers to studies indicating that children born out of parents who worked in cobalt mines are exposed to risks of birth defects. Even worse, there has been a worrying record of the contamination of water bodies and fish with prominent levels of cobalt.

  1. Human rights abuses, child labour and poor governance

Over the past decades, governance challenges of extractive resources have perpetuated insecurity and poverty, breeding conditions for cycles of violence. The struggle for natural resources has been widely acknowledged as the main catalyst. The UN Group of Experts on the DRC mining notes that mining is the main source of finance for armed groups.

  1. Different forms of abuse and forced evictions

In the last quarter of 2023, Amnesty International published a report (Powering Change or Business as Usual?on the effects of the expansion of industrial-scale mines that extract cobalt and copper for rechargeable batteries. The report highlighted forced evictions of communities from their homes and farmland and human rights abuses, including sexual assault, arson, and beatings.

As if that were not enough, there pervasive reports of degrading working conditions in some mines. Multinational mines have been faulted in some cases. In unregulated artisanal mining, there have been depressing accounts of human trafficking and child labour. In this sector, conditions fitting the description of modern-day slavery persist.

Ironic

From the foregoing, Isn’t it ironic that the extraction of minerals to enable the transition of the world from fossil fuels to clean energy is resulting in environmental degradation and deplorable different forms of abuses to host communities?

To put it more bluntly, exploitation of DRC’s resources has always been a zero-sum game, where the winners are always mining companies and the losers are the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Paradigm shift past due

Clearly, a paradigm shift is past due. Without a doubt, it is high time for mines to take responsibility and apply ESG principles to their operations thoroughly. Ideally, they are expected to do act as responsible corporate citizens they profess to be in their company profiles, with minimal regulation. But the reality is that this approach doesn’t always work if ever it does effectively.

Hence, the DRC government has to intervene, especially the Department of Mines, as the custodian of the country’s mineral and energy resources, and provide the much-needed oversight. The first step is to introduce reforms that will facilitate effective monitoring and enforcement, resulting in improved ESG compliance scores for mining companies. In the long run, the citizens of DRC would benefit immensely.

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