Congo’s contested elections in December resulted in the country’s first electoral transfer of power, 59 years after independence. The outcome — with Félix Tshisekedi defeating the candidate backed by departing president Joseph Kabila — has been much in the news.

Cobalt is making headlines, too, along with questions about how the new president will manage resource governance in the mineral-rich country. Congo accounts for at least 60 percent of worldwide cobalt production and has about 50 percent of known global cobalt reserves.

My research in southeastern Congo suggests cobalt mining will prove an increasingly complex policy hurdle for the new president. Many Congolese rely on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) for their incomes. Since the mid-2000s, Kabila’s government strongly favored large-scale mining (LSM), granting many contracts to multinational corporations. What will be the impact on ASM miners of cobalt if the new regime embraces business as usual?

Demand for cobalt is rising quickly

The mineral, used in a wide range of products, is an essential component in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for electric cars. Demand for cobalt has risen quickly in recent years, and in 2017 rose above 100,000 metric tons for the first time. Industry experts expect to see 2020 demand reach 120,000 tons per year. In February 2018, cobalt prices were more than 150 percent higher than the previous year.

The cobalt industry has been under a microscope

The cobalt story is complex. Human rights conditions in the artisanal mining of cobalt have gained growing attention. News stories focus on the horrific conditions in some ASM mines.

Advocacy groups have been monitoring the situation. The Enough Project, a Washington-based advocacy organization, released a report in October drawing attention to corruption, transparency issues and human rights abuses in Congo’s cobalt sector. The report highlights child labor and other human rights violations in artisanal mining. News articles follow a similar pattern, discussing the industrial uses of cobalt and the often-miserable conditions endured by those whose livelihoods are dependent on ASM.

These analyses tend to ignore recent history — artisanal miners in Congo, like elsewhere in Africa, face large-scale removal from sites they previously mined. Rapid change in southeastern Congo has meant frequent asset sales to multinational corporations that displace artisanal miners.

How ASM cobalt came to be seen as ‘dirty’

Recently, a powerful narrative has emerged that conditions in the ASM cobalt sector are unacceptably exploitative.

Nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International and Enough have called on companies that produce electronics and electric vehicles to implement traceability initiatives. Mining companies have become involved. For example, the commodities-trading company Trafigura recently announced investment in a pilot project at Chemaf’s (Chemical of Africa) Mutoshi mine, to formalize and supervise ASM miners.

Some companies have responded with efforts to reduce or even eliminate cobalt — rethinking next-generation batteries for electric cars, for instance. In 2017 Apple decided to stop buying ASM cobalt following reports of poor working conditions.

The advocacy emphasis on artisanally mined cobalt and the push for cobalt producers and suppliers to report on these minerals in their supply chains are the logical extension of efforts by organizations like Enough. Yet estimates suggest that ASM mines account for only about 20 percent of Congo’s cobalt exports.

This suggests the advocacy focus on ASM is problematic, because it makes it possible for LSM actors to present themselves as a “clean” source of cobalt, in contrast to the global spotlight on “dirty” ASM production. For example, the Kazakh Eurasian Resources Group (ERG), in its Clean Cobalt Framework, describes its efforts to ensure its production is not only free of child labor but also of ASM altogether.

While companies operating the sites where the majority of cobalt extraction in Congo takes place portray these sites as “clean,” the reality is far more complicated. My research shows that when artisanal miners are pushed out by LSM companies, the result is frequent contestation, conflict and even injuries or deaths of miners at the hands of security forces. Viewing ASM as the heart of the problem with cobalt overlooks the dispossession and corruption associated with large-scale mining in the region.

Large-scale mining has some questions to answer

In response to NGO advocacy and potential risks to companies’ supply chains, cobalt-mining companies have positioned themselves as able to solve the problems associated with cobalt. Yet LSM firms have frequently been involved in dubious or illegal dealings in the resource extraction sector in Congo and beyond.

Here are a few examples. Swiss-based Glencore owns the Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) mine, which appears on track to become the largest cobalt mine in the world in 2019. Canada’s Ontario Securities Commission recently fined and banned executives of Glencore PLC, the parent company of Katanga Mining (which operates Kamoto) for stating the wrong amounts of copper and cobalt extracted. The U.S. Department of Justice is probing Glencore, including allegations of potential bribery.

The reputation of Trafigura, the company implementing the Chemaf pilot project, was tarnished by waste dumping in Ivory Coast and, more recently, a Brazilian bribery scandal in which Glencore was also implicated. Chemaf has been linked to environmental violations. The British government found that ERG violated people’s rights to clean water and health care.

To be sure, there are ways to improve how cobalt and other minerals are extracted. Yet my research suggests the poor conditions in many ASM workplaces may reflect the general socioeconomic conditions in Congo — but also these conditions are not inevitable. Artisanal miners are demanding better prices from middlemen, though may be unlikely to succeed without backing from more powerful organizations.

Realistic policy solutions — for governments and for companies — will probably have to take into account the fact that unsafe ASM working conditions are often a product of miners’ struggle to find open sites. A group of 14 NGOs recently cautioned against banning ASM cobalt, for instance; avoiding ASM cobalt could have serious consequences for people’s livelihoods.

There’s no simple solution here — and a recent drop in the price of cobalt may generate further tensions. For Congo’s new president, this may create added pressure to take a closer look at the economic contribution of the ASM sector, and the views and needs of its miners.

Sarah Katz-Lavigne is completing a joint PhD in International Affairs at Carleton University and International Relations at the University of Groningen, on the conflict and distributional impacts of enforcing mining companies’ property rights in southeastern Congo. Follow her @SarahGeoKL