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Global Environmental Justice in the Emerging Green Economy: Mining in the DRC and Russian Arctic

By Ella Norman and Laura Anderson


The transition to clean energy and a green economy is underway, with a growing global demand for battery technology to meet the needs of low-carbon economies. From electric vehicles (EVs) to stationary energy storage, there are increasing calls to drive and scale innovation along the battery supply chain (Dept. of Energy, 2021). Scaling battery manufacturing increases demand for raw materials used to make batteries — nickel, cobalt, lithium, aluminum, and manganese, among others. While products like EVs on one end of a supply chain may advance clean energy innovation, the sourcing of minerals for these products is often far from clean. Mining and resource extraction can drive inequity through global supply chains and have negative environmental impacts on local communities.

Global efforts to advance clean energy and a green economy require conversations about justice, fairness and equity. The technology needed to meet the demands of a low-carbon economy should not come at the expense of environmental degradation, labor exploitation, or harm to human life. There needs to be sustainability throughout the supply chain — not only for products but for the whole process. As a global issue, there are instances of mining injustice all over the world and community responses to such injustices. We will highlight two examples — connecting global battery supply chains to place — with the hope of sharing efforts to advance environmental justice and human rights within clean energy transitions.

Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Cobalt, one of the minerals required in lithium-ion batteries, is unique in that the majority of the world’s cobalt reserves are located in one country — the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC has a history of forced labor and resource extraction dating back to the colonial period starting in 1885 when King Leopold II of Belgium gained control of the Congo territory at the Conference of Berlin. King Leopold II forced the Congolese population into slavery and exploited Congo’s natural resources, particularly rubber. The abuses were so atrocious that European diplomats stepped in, making Congo a Belgian colony instead of King Leopold II’s private colony. Still, exploitation continued through 1960, when the DRC gained independence.

Evidence suggests that this exploitation continues today, especially through cobalt mining. Child labor, hazardous work conditions, and underpayment are three issues central to labor exploitation in Congolese cobalt mining. Issues of child labor and hazardous work condititions were central in a 2019 lawsuit filed against Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla on behalf of child miners who were severely injured or killed while mining cobalt in hazardous conditions (Jane Doe 1, et al. v Apple, Inc. et al., 2019). Additionally, underpayment is often the primary concern among cobalt miners. When interviewed, cobalt miners in the Katanga province, where most of the cobalt mining takes place, revealed that they suffer from exploitation and dispossession when they are not paid fairly for the cobalt that they mine. Underpayment takes place through taxation practices, police intimidation, and the need to sell cobalt below the market price to keep up with industrial mining. Due to a lack of regulations preventing labor exploitation and bodies to enforce such regulations, exploitation of cobalt miners is permitted on a day to day basis (Sovacool, 2021).

Despite the current harmful mining practices, cobalt miners and NGOs in the DRC concur that banning or placing an embargo on Congolese cobalt is not the solution. One Congolese civil society worker said, “Artisanal mining cannot be banned. It is a critical lifeline for thousands of families. These people need to make a living and have no alternatives” (Sovacool, 2021). This claim is corroborated by an official from the NGO Pact, an organization that works to improve labor conditions in the DRC. The Pact spokesperson adds that halting the purchase of all DRC cobalt or cobalt from artisanal mines would cause more harm than it seeks to address (Walt, 2018).

Even though cobalt miners in the DRC oppose stopping cobalt mining altogether, there have been major calls for reform. In 2018, two pilot programs were implemented in the DRC that sought to improve mining conditions. Including around 5,000 miners altogether, these pilots were sponsored by Congo Dongfang International Mining, Chemaf, and other large corporations key to the supply chain. Both pilot programs succeeded in mitigating child labor and saw large improvements in occupational health and safety. This was achieved through requiring documentation that miners were over 18 years old, offering on-site PPE, as well as implementing regulations preventing hazardously deep mines and horizontal mines (Mancini et al., 2021).

Although these pilot programs had some successes, there were also a few key limitations. First, despite these pilot programs, Chemaf and Congo Dongfang International Mining are still mainly producing and supplying unethically-sourced cobalt. Therefore, these programs should not be used to greenwash the multinationals involved and be mistaken as across-the-board changes in mining standards. Additionally, a key shortcoming in both pilot programs is that they structured their interventions based on investor and consumer concerns, which did not consider wages, the principal concern of Congolese miners. In order for reforms to effectively address the miner’s concerns, miners, rather than multinationals, need to play a central role in discussions. Further, by not addressing underpayment, these pilot programs did not address the devaluation of labor and resources that lies at the root of the exploitation.

Devaluation practices uphold colonial legacies of unchecked resource exploitation and labor exploitation. These colonial dynamics can be seen in the backlash to the DRC’s 2018 mining code. The 2018 mining code raised royalties to 10% on “strategic materials” such as cobalt due to their critical role in modern technology. Glencore, the multinational trading company that operates industrial cobalt mines in the DRC, threatened the DRC with legal action in response to the 2018 mining code. In a briefing on the new mining code, a London-based legal firm said that legal action could be taken against the DRC on the basis of “stability protection” being a right of investors. Legal arguments like these uphold colonial dynamics by making fair payment conditional on a Euro-American corporation’s “right to trade” (Gilbert, 2020).

Cobalt mining in the DRC is deeply entrenched in systematic labor exploitation, disregard for the safety and well-being of miners, and colonial power dynamics and legacies. These systems reinforce each other. As Gilbert writes, policies rooted in European colonial tradition “transfer sovereign authority to extractive industry corporations domiciled in the global North,” limiting the capacity of the DRC to enforce regulations that support the well-being of cobalt miners (Gilbert, 2020). Therefore, in imagining a better future for cobalt mining, systems of exploitation must be addressed collectively with community-led solutions at the center.

Aborigen Forum Coalition and Nickel Mining in the Russian Arctic

Nickel is a heavily in-demand metal mined for — among other things — batteries in electric vehicles (EVs). It’s estimated that with growing battery and EV production, the demand for nickel could be six-times greater than the present by 2030 (Sanderson, 2020). Nornickel, officially Norilsk Nickel, is one of the largest nickel producers on Earth, with principal places of business on Indigenous lands in the Taymyr Peninsula and Murmansk Oblast in Russia (Indigenous Russia, 2020). The company is one of the biggest polluters in the entire Arctic (Stone, 2020). Nornickel has had a history of environmental harms, particularly related to sulfur dioxide emissions and water pollution. In 2018, a Greenpeace analysis of NASA data “ranked Norilsk, Russia as the number one hot spot for sulfur dioxide emissions in the world” (Aborigen Forum, 2020). Locals call the area around the city of Norilsk “poison territory” (Stone, 2020).

“Sámi, Nenets, Nganasan, Enets, Dolgan and Evenk communities have occupied the land for generations, but suffer as a result of Nornickel’s negative impacts on their herding, hunting, fishing, and overall economic and subsistence activities, as well as their physical health and well-being,” state leaders from the Aborigen Forum, an “informal alliance of independent experts, activists, leaders, and community organizations representing Indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East” (Indigenous Russia, 2020). The Forum’s mission is to “protect and realize the rights of Indigenous peoples through legislation, monitoring, partnerships, and dialogue with the government” (Castner & Rohr). Members of the Aborigen Forum continue to lead efforts calling for environmental protection and greater Indigenous representation in decision making.

On May 29, 2020, a storage tank in Norilsk collapsed and local rivers were flooded with roughly 21,000 tons of diesel oil. The spill represented the “second-largest environmental disaster in the Arctic region, after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska” (Indigenous Russia, 2020). It contaminated at least 140 square miles across the Russian Arctic, a scale of damage “unprecedented” in Arctic waterways (Kissane & Varga, 2020). “I fear that the extent of the problem isn’t truly represented and the spill is much more dangerous than what is being portrayed to us,” stated one Aborigen Forum member (Stone, 2020). The spill was “devastating to the inhabitants of the region” (Aborigen Forum, 2020) — The contaminated rivers in Taymyr, traditionally used for fishing, are now almost entirely devoid of fish.

Given the long history of Nornickel ignoring calls for justice, Aborigen Forum leaders made a strategic choice to call on companies along the battery nickel supply chain — like Tesla, BASF, the world’s largest chemical producer and a leading producer of material to electric vehicle’s battery production (Nilsen, 2021), and investment banks (Batani, 2021) — to refuse to do business with Nornickel until the mining company has met standards for environmental protection and Indigenous representation. “So far our appeals to [Nornickel] and to the authorities have brought no results,” stated one Aborigen Forum leader. “That is why we are forced to address the possible buyers… so they could help to bring attention to the lack of environmental sustainability of the plants. The oil spill was the last straw for our patience” (Shcherbina, 2020).

More than one year after the major oil spill, local communities still face food shortages and have not been adequately compensated for the environmental impact of the disaster (Batani, 2021). Aborigen Forum leaders continue to build coalitions to fight for Indigenous representation (Batani, 2021) and environmental action (Nilsen, 2021). In particular, while Nornickel has an Indigenous Rights policy (Nornickel, 2018), it does not mention Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) (Cultural Survival, 2012), which is an international standard mandated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations, 2007). As an Indigenous rights lawyer explained in 2012: “We want to make sure Indigenous Peoples are not taken for granted, are consulted regularly, and make decisions based on what they know to be true — the positives and negatives about the particular initiative that affects them. That is the bottom line of [FPIC]” (Portalewska, 2012).

A recent Barents Observer opinion piece on the one-year anniversary of the oil spill calls for Nornickel to integrate FPIC into company policies and to engage in real, constructive dialogues with local Indigenous peoples so that “the company observes the Indigenous rights it claims to adhere to” (Bykova and Sulyandziga, 2021). Such dialogues are critical to addressing environmental harms and advancing more sustainable and just practices in the future.

Meaningful Engagement and Moving Forward

Communities in the DRC and Russian Arctic hold different histories and are separated by place. However, these examples highlight the widespread and place-based impact of global battery supply chains. “We don’t want the next industrial revolution of electric cars and clean energy developed for the price of Indigenous peoples’ rights and traditional lands,” said an Aborigen Forum network member in September 2020 (Stone, 2020). Now more than ever, there is a need for dialogues on broader mining and environmental justice questions — understanding how clean energy innovations can drive inequity through global supply chains and how to respond to those inequities.

With global supply chains, Silicon Valley clean energy and battery storage initiatives are driving increased demand for mineral production, and are a key part of new conversations about responsible sourcing aligned with environmental justice and human rights. This Thursday, Indigenous leaders from around the world are joining together to discuss their efforts to advance environmental justice and Indigenous rights related to mining at a public symposium entitled “Indigenous Leadership in the Emerging Green Economy: ​Mining, Silicon Valley, and Global Environmental Justice.” Leaders will share their work, best practices, and on-the-ground experiences to spark dialogue and a learning community. Along the supply chain — local communities, companies, funders, manufacturers, investors, consumers — this community needs to understand and prioritize justice, fairness, and equity in efforts to advance clean energy and a green economy.

The event includes responses to: Nickel mining in the Russian Arctic, Lithium extraction in South America, Proposed gravel mining in the California South Bay, and implementing Indigenous human rights principles of Free Prior and Informed Consent. For more information about the symposium and to RSVP, visit the symposium webpage.

More Resources

Cobalt Mining, Democratic Republic of Congo

“Exposed: Child Labour behind Smart Phone and Electric Car Batteries.” Amnesty International, 19 Jan. 2016, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/01/child-labour-behind-smart-phone-and-electric-car-batteries/.

Gilbert, Paul R. The Material Basis of Energy Transitions. Academic Press, 2020.

“Just Transition.” Climate Justice Alliance, 19 Feb. 2021, climatejusticealliance.org/just-transition/.

“Is My Phone Powered by Child Labour?” Amnesty International, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2016/06/drc-cobalt-child-labour/.

Mancini, Lucia, et al. “Assessing Impacts of Responsible Sourcing Initiatives for Cobalt: Insights from a Case Study.” Resources Policy, vol. 71, 2021, p. 102015., doi:10.1016/ j.resourpol.2021.102015.

Sovacool, Benjamin K. “When Subterranean Slavery Supports Sustainability Transitions? Power, Patriarchy, and Child Labor in Artisanal Congolese Cobalt Mining.” The Extractive Industries and Society, vol. 8, no. 1, 2021, pp. 271–293., doi:10.1016/j.exis.2020.11.018.

United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Jane Doe 1, et al. v Apple, Inc. et al., Case 1:19-cv-03737, 15 December 2019.

Walt, Vivienne. “Special Report: Blood, Sweat, and Batteries.” Fortune, vol. 178, no. 3, Sept. 2018, pp. 104–114.

Nickel Mining, Russian Arctic

Aborigen Forum (and others) (2020). “Organization Sign-On Letter to Tesla: Respect Indigenous Peoples in your Supply Chain.” https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1iBeXmoI2XeNjQxMv4tYLrf4QbgDGoQkVjOkHScKyB88/viewform?edit_requested=true

Bykova, A. and Sulyandziga, P. (May 29, 2021). “A year after Arctic fuel spill, Norilsk Nickel continues to ignore Indigenous critics.” The Barents Observer. https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/opinions/2021/05/one-year-after-massive-arctic-fuel-spill-norilsk-nickel-continues-ignore-indigenous

Castner, J. and Rohr, J. “Indigenous Defenders Movement in Russia: A Briefing for Funders.” International Funders for Indigenous Peoples. https://internationalfunders.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/IFIP-Indigenous-Defenders-Russia-Brief.pdf

Cultural Survival. (2012). “Free, Prior and Informed Consent: Protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination, participation, and decision-making.” https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/free-prior-and-informed-consent-protecting-indigenous

Indigenous Russia. (2020, November 11). Aborigen Forum response to the “Development strategy for the Arctic zone of the Russian Federation and ensuring national security through 2035”. https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/8928?fbclid=IwAR2hthzcgmC4_PHJ3FkaHXXQS1HKVBmPuz_Ipoh5Qn06c0QpF3EJiKjiUuc

Indigenous Russia. (2020, June 8). An appeal of Aborigen-Forum network to Elon Musk, the head of the Tesla company. https://indigenous-russia.com/archives/5785

Kissane, C. and Varga, A. (2020, July 9). Russia’s Drilling in the Arctic Is a Threat to the World — and to Itself. World Politics Review. https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/28898/russian-oil-drilling-in-the-arctic-is-a-threat-to-the-world-and-to-itself

Nilsen, T. (March 11, 2021). “Indigenous peoples call on Nornickel’s global partners to demand environmental action.” The Barents Observer. https://thebarentsobserver.com/en/indigenous-peoples/2021/03/russian-indigenous-people-lose-out-electromobility-industry-hunts-metals

Nornickel. (2018). “Indigenous Rights Policy.” https://www.nornickel.com/upload/iblock/489/Indigenous_Rights_Policy.pdf

Portalewska, A. (2012). Free, Prior and Informed Consent: Protecting Indigenous Peoples’ rights to self-determination, participation, and decision-making. Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine. https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/free-prior-and-informed-consent-protecting-indigenous

Sanderson, H. (2020, August 31). Tesla’s nickel quest highlights metal’s environmental burden. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/5d6fc188-2b9c-4df7-848e-a6c1795dc691

Shcherbina, V. (2020, October 16). #AnswerUsElonMusk: Russia’s indigenous peoples campaign against Arctic pollution. Global Voices. https://globalvoices.org/2020/10/16/answeruselonmusk-russias-indigenous-peoples-campaign-against-arctic-pollution/

Stone, M. (2020, September 21). Russian Indigenous communities are begging Tesla not to get its nickel from this major polluter. Grist. https://grist.org/justice/russian-indigenous-communities-are-begging-tesla-not-to-get-its-nickel-from-this-major-polluter/

Sulyandziga, V. (June 13, 2021). “Our proposals for improvements are ignored by Nornickel.” Batani Foundation. https://batani.org/archives/1695

United Nations. (2007). “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/declaration-on-the-rights-of-indigenous-peoples.html

Other Resources

Department of Energy. (June 8, 2021). “FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration 100-Day Battery Supply Chain Review.” https://www.energy.gov/articles/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-100-day-battery-supply-chain-review

Ella is a rising sophomore at Stanford studying Human Biology with a focus on Environmental Justice and Health Justice. You can contact her at elnorman@stanford.edu.

Laura is a recent graduate from Stanford’s Earth Systems, Environmental Communication master’s program. You can contact her at lauraand@stanford.edu.



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