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Congo halts artisanal cobalt trade in key province on virus

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s main copper and cobalt-producing province halted trade in hand-dug minerals through June 29 in order to improve controls on the industry, amid concerns that Covid-19 could hit the mineral-rich region.

Mines Minister Willy Kitobo Samsoni said Lualaba Governor Richard Muyej implemented the measure to “bring order” to the artisanal trade, which is expected to increase during the upcoming dry season after being decimated by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic over the past several months.

Congo is the world’s biggest source of cobalt and Africa’s largest producer of copper. Artisanal mining can account for more than 20% of the country’s cobalt supply. The pandemic has delayed by at least two months the launch of a new state-controlled company that will have a monopoly on the purchase and sale of artisanal cobalt production, Kitobo said.

Lualaba registered its first two positive Covid-19 tests on June 22, the same day Muyej announced the seven-day suspension in a letter sent to artisanal and semi-industrial mine operators seen by Bloomberg. The governor said the pause will help the province move hand-dug minerals into the official supply chain, “fight mining fraud and maximize revenue for the state,” according to the letter that was verified by Kitobo.

The two people infected with coronavirus were from the town of Fungurume, home to China Molybdenum Co.’s massive Tenke Fungurume copper and cobalt project. They are undergoing treatment in Lubumbashi, capital of neighboring Haut-Katanga province, Radio Okapi reported Thursday.

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There are no known cases of Covid-19 at Tenke or at any of Congo’s large mines. Operators have taken extraordinary measures to protect their employees and their operations, including months of on-site confinement that has attracted criticism from human rights groups.

Neither Muyej nor China Molybdenum responded to messages requesting comment. The governor announced a lockdown in Fungurume except for mining vehicles starting June 27, Radio Okapi said.