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Building DRC mining on responsible standards

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The DRC is experiencing considerable investment in mineral exploration as well as mine development and expansion. Image credit: SRK Consulting

Building DRC mining on responsible standards

The search for battery minerals is taking on an almost frantic urgency, with countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) finding themselves under the exploration microscope.

By Susa Maleba, Dominique Sambwa, Wouter Jordaan and Vis Reddy at SRK Consulting.  

While everyone wants swift progress in mineral development, it is worth remembering that responsible exploration and mining is a complex and risky endeavour that cannot be unduly rushed.

With its bounty of sought-after metals like copper, cobalt and lithium, the DRC is experiencing considerable investment in mineral exploration as well as mine development and expansion. The pressure is on to bring more mining projects – and higher production – online as the world’s demand for battery minerals is expected to rise rapidly.

Driving the enthusiasm is the expectation that economic recovery in China could send mineral demand levels rocketing. China’s latest five-year plan is certainly to identify more sources for its future mineral requirements, and African countries like the DRC are priorities.

Pushing the pace (Building DRC mining on responsible standards)

An indication of the concern being felt by the global market is the trend for electric vehicles and battery manufacturers to be tying up supply deals with producers well in advance of their needs. Even the world’s tech companies are being drawn into the action, looking for ways to harness artificial intelligence to accelerate the pace and success rate of exploration efforts.

Copper producers in South America are already ramping up production, and Africa’s copper belt has become much busier. In the DRC, there is a high likelihood of many project transactions over the next year, are likely to happen in quick succession and exploration efforts will also speed up.

Speed, of course, is not to be confused with haste. The good practice that is today expected of the mining sector is as critical as it is onerous – and begins from day one of the planning process. Perhaps especially due to the added pressure to advance projects, there is an even greater risk of missing a critical element that could endanger the project’s future. Such elements include closure planning and the embedding of a range of environmental, social and governance (ESG) considerations that will strengthen the long-term licence to operate.

Responsible sourcing and integrity (Building DRC mining on responsible standards)

Reporting standards are moving front and centre as a measure of mines’ performance in the eyes of investors, financiers, governments and local communities. While sustainability reports from mining companies have generally been high-level documents, that is changing with the growing sensitivity to ESG issues. With responsible sourcing being at the heart of the drive for battery minerals, stakeholders are now even more keen to establish the integrity of where and how these minerals are sourced.

This is a significant concern in a country like the DRC, where some processing plants do not have their own mining operations, for example. The market for the processing of third-party-mined material is large, and often opaque.

For a mine that is procuring ore externally to augment supply to its plant, it is critical that the provenance is transparent and complies with both industry standards and stakeholders’ expectations. These concerns range from ore grading integrity to human rights issues related to child labour and fair pay.

Sourcing responsibly (Building DRC mining on responsible standards)

In this context, responsible sourcing is already high on the agenda of the European Union (EU). Its RE-SOURCING project – funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme – is developing roadmaps for critical sectors and contributing to future policies. With SRK Consulting as a partner, the initiative has sourced input from stakeholders in regions where raw materials for the green transition will be sourced.

The project’s rationale is to ensure that minerals are sourced responsibly, with due regard for the impact of mining and its extensive value chain – from the environmental impact and carbon footprint to social and human rights issues.

Commodity-specific standards – such as the Copper Mark – are therefore likely to become guiding lights to the mining sector in the DRC. Such standards provide not just a benchmark, but a basis for fair comparison. The practical challenge for mines lies in their strategic commitment and ability to implement these standards.

Step by step (Building DRC mining on responsible standards)

Following due process is now a non-negotiable, from the initial geological investigations onwards. The optimal process is highly structured, as each step of data gathering paves the way for the next. This might not always seem quick enough for some companies, especially when they have not been directly involved in the mining field before.

The point is that the technical, environmental, and social risks of mining are already substantial; to miss a stage in the development process is to add unnecessarily to this risk. To rush the progress from a scoping study to a feasibility study, for instance, will leave gaps in information that the pre-feasibility stage is specifically designed to provide. It is not uncommon to encounter potentially fatal flaws at scoping stage, which can cost investors dearly if not fully investigated and resolved.

The future of the DRC’s economy is relying to a large extent on the continued development of its mining sector – as this in turn is being steadily built, one mine at a time.

Proceeding with due care through the preparation steps for each venture ensures that, in the best case, the mining plan is optimal, cost-efficient, and sustainable. Those same steps will also ensure, in the worst case, that project investors do not incur unnecessary losses on projects that are unviable. Careful execution will ensure successful projects in the DRC and avoid project failures at later stages in the project cycle.

Building DRC mining on responsible standards

Susa Maleba is a mining engineer and country manager of SRK Consulting Congo

Dominique Sambwa is a geological consultant and chairman of SRK Consulting Congo

Wouter Jordaan is a principal environmental scientist and partner at SRK Consulting (SA)

Vis Reddy is a principal environmental chemist and chairman of SRK Consulting (SA)

Building DRC mining on responsible standards

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Building DRC mining on responsible standards

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