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Opinion

The Human Cost of a Green Energy Transition Without Safeguards

UN peacekeepers on patrol in Mutwanga in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Credit: UN Photo/Michael Ali

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, Oct 2 2023 (IPS) - The world is moving away from fossil fuels towards so-called “green” energies as a solution to the climate crisis, which has increased the demand for strategic minerals such as cobalt, copper and lithium.

As a human rights lawyer in the Democratic Republic of Congo – which has the world’s largest cobalt reserves and among the largest copper reserves – I represent communities and ecosystems in Virunga, Kahuzi Biega, Okapi and elsewhere that have suffered numerous human rights violations as a result of the extraction of these minerals.

Home to the second-largest tropical forest in the world and vast mineral wealth, the DRC has exceptional natural resources. However, the country has faced a complex humanitarian crisis since 1994; plagued by war and violence in the eastern regions which has led to conflict, poverty, malnutrition and recurring epidemics.

The people I represent have been forcibly evicted from their land due to mining operations by extractive companies; major human rights violations and violence that accompany the mining process; and loss of clean air, soil and water because of destructive mining practices. Certain companies exploit land in protected areas in violation of national laws, and fail to respect due diligence standards in place for businesses.

Corruption is rampant – Chinese and Canadian companies, among others, wield influence on public institutions to cut corners and avoid living up to their obligations. In many cases, no impact assessments are carried out; when they are carried out, it is often to formalise the exploitation process and not to safeguard the climate, let alone to provide social protection for the communities most affected.

In short, thousands of farmers, their villages, their means of survival and their cultural values are impacted by the exploitation of cobalt, copper and other strategic minerals in the DRC.

This panorama poses a number of major challenges. In the pursuit of their interests, multinationals extracting minerals from the DRC have no respect for the rights of peasants, national laws, climate emergency needs or social safeguards.

People living in areas surrounding mining operations suffer endemic poverty and health crises amid wider energy and climate injustice. Children are not able to attend school, there are widespread land evictions and expropriations, rivers are polluted, and women and children are exploited.

State institutions are often weaponised against ordinary people – the justice system and certain military officers and/or armed groups are co-opted for security, to protect business interests against local people.

It shouldn’t have to be this way for communities living in resource-rich countries like DRC. There should be some minimum guidelines in place to safeguard against such violations.

States in the Global North and Global South should set up a major strategic coalition to ensure compliance with due diligence standards and strengthen the corporate social responsibility of extractive companies. Such a coalition should:

    • Ensure the monitoring and evaluation of national and international mechanisms for mining investment;
    • Reinforce local communities’ knowledge of international laws and best practices in the field of human rights and investment;
    • Provide legal support for victims of land and environmental injustice caused by mining operations;
    • Build the capacities of civil society organisations in terms of technical and scientific expertise in impact monitoring and evaluation;
    • End investments in fossil fuels which negatively impact people’s livelihoods, biodiversity and land, and instead invest in sustainable alternatives;
    • Strengthen legal reforms to better uphold climate and social safeguards, prohibit the exploitation of certain more devastating natural resources, develop community guidelines on rights and legal means against investments;
    • and decolonise energy narratives.

Over 13 kg of cobalt are needed to produce the battery for an average electric vehicle, and around seven grams are required for a cell phone. Demand for cobalt, which has tripled since 2010, is expected to reach 222,000 tonnes by 2025.

Without a major shift to put in place safeguards in the supply chain, extractive industries will continue to ride roughshod over the rights of local communities, and we will sadly see an escalation of human rights violations.

We need to act fast to stop this. We need a global monitoring programme and far-reaching legal reforms for a fair energy transition that prioritises the human rights of local communities.

Olivier Ndoole Bahemuke, from Goma, eastern DRC, is described as a leader among environmental and land defenders in the country and one of the most trusted advocates on behalf of communities impacted by land grabs, trafficking, and illegal resource extraction activities. He was the Africa regional winner of Front Line Defenders’ 2023 Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk.

IPS UN Bureau

 


  
 
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