Mining Sustainability: The large contributions improving small-scale mining can make

Article by Susan T. Jackson

Source: Wikimedia, Author: Manyeva, Creative Commons

From electronic gizmos to electric cars to green energy technology, our demand for the metals and minerals used in the devices that power our everyday lives seems endless. But the mining industry central to sourcing these materials has long been known to have important and serious negative social and environmental impacts. Its supply chains warrant a closer look -- especially far upstream where some of the most vulnerable workers are located. We turn to mining as part of our blog series on supply chains and SDG12 (responsible production and consumption).

ASM and the SDGs

There are an estimated 40.5 million people directly reliant on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) and another 150 million indirectly worldwide. ASM is the type of mining people turn to when they have few or no other livelihood options, or when they are forced into it by others. The links between, and challenges for, sustainable development and the mining industry are manifold and clearly indicate that the SDGs are meant to work together.

Forced and child labor are rampant in the industry, meaning that SDGs 8 (decent work and economic growth) and 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) are at risk if transparency and other measures to combat modern slavery are not embraced. In terms of SDG 5 (gender equality), sexual and gender-based violence is a particularly acute problem for women in ASM, as is discrimination in land rights. At the same time, SDGs 3 (health and well-being), 6 (clean water and sanitation), and 15 (life on land) can be directly impacted negatively, for instance, when mining effluents contaminate water and land. SDG 17 (partnerships) provides opportunities for local communities, mining companies and other actors to partner to find ways to mitigate existing damage and make changes such as those recommended below.

‘Conflict minerals’

The minerals mined in conflict-affected high risk areas (CAHRAs) present another set of problems for the SDGs. For example, these so-called conflict minerals can increase forced labor and be used to finance armed groups. To begin to address this situation, the new EU regulation on mineral sourcing from CAHRAs (Regulation (EU) 2017/821) came into effect 1 January of this year, and covers tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (3TG).

The regulation’s requirements focus on the ‘responsible sourcing’ of minerals and metals in CAHRAs, such as stopping EU countries from importing these minerals, excluding both global and EU smelters and refiners from processing them, and prohibiting the abuse of workers. The regulation also supports local community development. The indicative, non-exhaustive list of CAHRAs mandated by this regulation was published to assist companies and others in accomplishing these goals by facilitating due diligence processes.

Green technology powering inequality and child labor

According to the World Economic Forum, creating and managing a circular and responsible supply chain for batteries is a key element for achieving the Paris Agreement. Batteries potentially enable 30% of the reductions in transport and power sector carbon emissions, can provide hundreds of millions of people with electricity, and create millions of jobs worldwide. However, as seen in cobalt mining, these batteries come with steep consequences for people and the environment.

Cobalt currently is key to lightweight rechargeable batteries found in our digital devices and electric cars as well as for storing solar- and wind-generated power. Approximately 70% of cobalt is sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with 15% to 30% of that produced by ASMs. While not considered to be a conflict mineral, cobalt mining is extensive and causes many of the same challenges as 3TG do. Supply chains are fraught with severe problems, most problematically child labor and appalling environmental conditions. However, the answer is not as simple as immediately stopping ASM mining because people in extreme poverty depend on these jobs, and supply chains are intricately interlinked, further complicating the transition to sustainable cobalt mining. Below, we provide some information on dealing with these challenges by increasing transparency, strengthening human rights-based approaches, and other related possibilities.

Industry initiatives for cobalt and other mining

In a 2017 report on human rights and child labor in cobalt battery supply chains, Amnesty International pointed out that if industry actors are not aware of how their minerals and metals are sourced, their customers are unlikely to know either. In recent years, in addition to the new EU regulation on mineral sourcing from CAHRAs, there has been an increasing number of initiatives aimed at broadening sourcing transparency and accountability along mineral and mining supply chains. For example, in 2018, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH launched the Cobalt for Development program with the goal to work with German industry to improve the working conditions in the artisanal cobalt mining cooperatives in the DRC. Others include the Responsible Cobalt Initiative; the Responsible Mineral Initiative; and, the Cobalt Action Partnership (CAP) of the Global Battery Alliance (GBA).


As a means for protecting people from exploitation and the environment from degradation, one central recommendation is to bring ASM into the formal economy, including:

  • Promoting ASM formalization across the battery value chain;

  • Adopting common industry standards and metrics;

  • Establishing a multistakeholder monitoring and assessment process; and

  • Sharing knowledge and responsibility among companies and other stakeholders.

In addition, because women often are denied the same access to financial and legal resources, among things, working with women to know their rights is a critical aspect of revamping the mining industry and promoting SDG 5.

Labels are being applied on the consumer side. For example, the Fairmined Standard addresses ASMs and related areas such as processing, trading, refining and manufacturing, and the consumer end-product. This standard highlights the need for more transparency along supply chains from start to finish, including around end-of-life and the reuse of mineral materials. Lastly, the very least we can do as consumers is continue to pressure companies to be more transparent and to work to stop the exploitation of miners and the environment in ASM areas. We can participate in monitoring what companies are doing and thereby help to grow more sustainable production processes.

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