The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to one of the world’s poorest populations, many of whom survive on less than a pound a day. It is also home to 64% of the world’s cobalt supplies – a vital mineral that powers smartphones and electric cars, and offers hope of a more renewable future.

While the majority of Congo’s cobalt is produced by some of the world’s largest mining firms, roughly a third is dug out by hundreds of thousands of informal, artisanal miners who work in dangerous conditions with few safety measures and little recompense.

The big firms use heavy duty trucks and other expensive equipment to dig out the metal. The local Congolese usually use their bare hands, with children making up a significant part of the labour force. Their efforts often end up in global battery supply chains – usually via China – and then into western smartphones and vehicles.

Conflicts, like accidents, are common in mining

Conflicts between the big mining companies and artisanal miners are common with the two increasingly sharing the same space. At the Kamoto Copper Company (KCC) concession – a sprawling site of more than 21km that is majority-owned by a Glencore subsidiary – an estimated 2,000 Congolese artisanal miners trespass every day, according to the company.

Accidents are common. In June, 43 artisanal miners were killed after a landslide at an open-pit mine at the KCC concession, which is in the DRC’s southern Lualaba province. Bodies are thought to be “still under the rubble” according to Joseph Yav Katshung, the director of cabinet for the governor of Lualaba.

The June disaster at KCC was enough to knock 7% off Glencore’s share price. It was also the trigger for a controversial military operation by the Congolese army, called FARDC that cleared tens of thousands of miners from KCC and the Tenke Fungurume Mine (TFM), which is owned by China Molybdenum and is also in Lualaba province.

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According to artisanal miners, the military – elements of which regularly perpetrate human rights abuses against Congolese civilians – burnt down tarpaulin houses belonging to the diggers and set market stalls alight. Residents say a 3-year-old girl and a 14-month-old boy were severely burnt, though an FARDC general has dismissed the allegations.

From the Congo to Peru

The DRC is not the only place where the military have been called upon to protect mining sites in recent months. In Peru, the government is cracking down on unlicensed miners operating in the Amazon rainforest, recently opening the first of four military bases in the illegal mining hub of La Pampa.

The Peruvian defence ministry called the military operation – which began last February and has been dubbed ‘Mercury 2019’ – an ‘unprecedented’ and ‘sustained’ crackdown on the illegal industry, which reportedly supports sex trafficking and child labour, and also has a negative effect on the environment.

Some analysts and government officials say such operations are needed because of the impact illegal mining has on mining concessions, wider national economies and the safety of artisanal miners themselves.

In the DRC, alternative methods of securing mining concessions are usually conducted by the police or private security companies hired by mining firms. But both are liable to corruption and are regularly paid off by artisanal miners.

“The government decided to install the military for the security and protection of the mines and the population,” says Miriam Chelo, a government official with SEASCAM, which is part of Congo’s mining ministry. “They want to stop a landslide like KCC from happening again.”

Livelihoods and lives at risk

But the problem, at least in the DRC, is that without alternative economic options the artisanal miners are likely to keep on coming back to the concessions, analysts say. As Chelo concedes, “the diggers are mining to feed their children and take care of themselves.”

As one mining consultant told Reuters: “Displacing artisanals is like whack-a-mole. What they will end up doing is just brutalizing the miners in order to make them too afraid to come back.”

Though the military operations at KCC and TFM are temporary according to Chelo, they are also likely to create new social risks for the mining companies.

Of the more than 100 armed groups currently active in the DRC – this includes foreign rebel movements and local militias known as Mai-Mai – the military is often cited as the worst human rights abuser of all.

“Any further involvement of state security forces on mine sites will increase miners’ social risk exposure, which is already probably the biggest risk they face,” Indigo Ellis, Africa analyst for the risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft told Reuters.

Legitimizing artisanal mining and alternatives

Glencore says it supports a number of initiatives designed to give miners alternative skills in other industries such as farming, sewing and carpentry, while Chelo says the government’s long-term strategy is to provide the diggers with their own authorised artisanal mining zones.

After looting and angry protests from artisanal miners who were kicked out of Glencore’s concession in June, Lualaba governor, Richard Muyej, promised to provide the diggers from KCC an alternative site.

“The government has decided to give the miners another place where they can do their work but for the moment they are still checking the site and working out how to send them there,” says Chelo. “Once they are given a place the government will be able to remove the military from these concessions.”

But the artisanal miners are uncertain new areas will be big enough to support their needs or contain minerals of a good enough quality to exploit.

A previous attempt to provide artisanal miners a safe space in the village of Kasulo has been criticised by local activists who say the diggers are forced to sell their metal to one company alone: Huayou, China’s largest cobalt producer.

Unless these problems are ironed out, analysts say artisanal miners are likely to keep going back to the same concessions, potentially prompting further military operations from the army.

In a conflict-torn country like the DRC, the risk of a militarised approach – for mining companies, for diggers and for local communities – should not be underestimated