The appetite for electric cars is driving a boom in small-scale cobalt production in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where some mines have been found to be dangerous and employ child labor.
Production from so-called artisanal mines probably rose by at least half last year, according to the estimates of officials at three of the biggest international suppliers of the metal, who asked not to be named because they're not authorized to speak on the matter. Government-owned miner Gecamines estimates artisanal output accounted for as much as a quarter of the country's total production in 2017.
That's a concern for carmakers from Volkswagen AG to Tesla Inc., who are seeking to secure long-term supplies of the battery ingredient but don't want to be enmeshed in a scandal about unethical mining practices. Tech giants including Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corp. endured bad publicity after a 2016 Amnesty International report said children were being sent down some Congolese mines to dig for cobalt destined for their gadgets. Pit and tunnel collapses killed dozens of workers in 2015, the advocacy group said.
Cobalt has tripled in value in the last 18 months as the rise of electric vehicles intensifies competition for scarce resources. Two-thirds of the world's supply comes from Congo, the second-poorest nation. The boom in the metal, currently trading above $80,000 a metric ton, has triggered more mining in the cobalt-rich Katanga region, where sprawling hand-dug mines dot the landscape, and searching for ore is as commonplace as farming.