Excavators and drillers at work in an open pit copper and cobalt mine in the DRC. Picture: REUTERS
Excavators and drillers at work in an open pit copper and cobalt mine in the DRC. Picture: REUTERS

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has given mining companies an indefinite waiver to an export ban on cobalt hydroxide and carbonate, as well as tin, tungsten and tantalum concentrates after meeting the country’s biggest miners in Kinshasa.

The mines ministry also announced on Saturday an export ban waiver on copper concentrate, but said the duration of that waiver is still to be determined, with companies expected to submit proposals in a week.

The DRC, the world’s leading producer of cobalt and Africa’s biggest copper producer, banned exports of copper and cobalt concentrates in 2013 to encourage miners to process and refine the ore in the country.

But insufficient smelting capacity has driven it to repeatedly issue waivers, the most recent of which was set to expire on Saturday.

Mines minister Willy Kitobo Samsoni decided to grant an “indefinite waiver for cobalt hydroxides and carbonates, the tin concentrates of Alphamin, and concentrates of 3Ts [tin, tungsten and tantalum]”, the ministry said in a statement.

Alphamin, which runs a tin mine in the DRC’s North Kivu province, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The decision will come as a relief to cobalt, copper and tin mining companies in the DRC as well as smelters and refiners in Zambia, which process copper from the DRC, and in China, where much of the DRC’s cobalt is processed.

In January, Chinese state-owned mining company CNMC launched the DRC’s first large-scale smelter, the Lualaba Copper Smelter (LCS), capable of processing 400,000 tonnes of copper concentrate and producing about 120,000 tonnes of copper blister per year.

But even at full capacity, LCS cannot process all the DRC’s copper. The DRC produced 765,000 tonnes of copper concentrate in the first half of the year alone, the central bank said, up 13.4% year on year.

Miners whose copper concentrate is incompatible with LCS must “rapidly” develop their own smelting capacity on-site, the ministry statement reads, adding all copper miners at the meeting accepted the importance of on-site processing.

The DRC produced 38,816 tonnes of cobalt in the first half of 2020, up 6% year on year according to the central bank. Production of “3Ts” concentrates — tin ore cassiterite, tungsten ore wolframite, and tantalum ore coltan — plunged.

Environmental lapses

Glencore, the biggest industrial cobalt miner in the DRC, declined to comment on the decision.

Elsewhere in the African mining sector, Sierra Leoneans living next to the country’s largest diamond mine are taking their government to West Africa’s regional court for failing to protect them from alleged environmental lapses by the company that runs it, a subsidiary of Octea.

It is alleged in the complaint, filed to the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) court of justice on Thursday last week, that the government failed to act when residents of Koidu, the largest city in the diamond-rich Kono district, complained about water contamination and damage to their houses from blasting at the mine.

It also said the government failed to ensure that the company relocate hundreds of households away from the blasting site, as required by Octea’s 2003 mining licence agreement. “The state has violated [the plaintiffs’] right to a suitable environment,” it said.

The complaint follows a lawsuit filed by the residents against Octea in Sierra Leone’s high court in March seeking an unspecified amount in damages for “degradation or destruction of land, destruction of homes and loss of livelihoods and ... dumping of toxic mine waste” among other allegations.

On July 22, a judge ruled that case was “adjourned for judicial recess” until the end of September. Octea, a subsidiary of BSG Resources, founded by Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz, did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment. It has described the accusations in the March case as “baseless and without merit”.

The Sierra Leone government also rejects the complaints as unfounded. “It’s our job to conduct regular evaluations of [Octea’s] conduct in regards to the environment, and we have never found them not to be compliant,” said Ibrahim Turay, regional representative for the Environmental Protection Agency in Kono District. He added that it was mainly residents who refused to go to the resettlement area who were continuing to have problems.

The cases highlight how communities in developing countries are becoming emboldened to use courts to pursue grievances against international mining companies. In the new complaint, the residents demand the government address their concerns and pay compensation “for their emotional suffering resulting from their degraded quality of life and health, and the instability and uncertainty of their resettlement status”.


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