***COMMENT: Downstream not clear on cobalt concerns

Metal Bulletin has been watching the issue of conflict minerals and metals closely as it has started to affect traders and producers of tin and tantalum

Metal Bulletin has been watching the issue of conflict minerals and metals closely as it has started to affect traders and producers of tin and tantalum.

No right-minded person would condone the sale of materials whose extraction and trade resulted in or contributed to the violation of human rights or international laws.

But some downstream buyers now seem to have wrongly conflated cobalt with the Democratic Republic of Congo and with the trade of conflict minerals such as coltan – and jumped to illogical and erroneous conclusions.

It was alarming last year when European legislators described cobalt as a conflict mineral. One large seller said: “The problem is the letter ‘C’. People hear ‘coltan’ and think ‘cobalt’. It’s stupid.”

Cobalt buyers — largely one step further down the line than the refiners and super-alloy makers which purchase from traders and mining houses — have been demanding guarantees that their material is conflict-free.

At worst they have been requesting that no cobalt at all from the DRC is in the products they buy — a counter-productive move if they are genuinely interested in human rights in Africa.

It is as though they have heard that there are some dodgy pubs in Blackpool and therefore concluded that every publican in a seaside town has a criminal record.

Their demands would be understandable if cobalt were produced in the troubled eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo that have attracted scrutiny from human rights groups, US legislators and the electronics industry.

It is not - the cobalt- and coltan-producing areas are in different corners of a country the size of western Europe.

As former MB editor and chairman Trevor Tarring points out on page 7 the end-result of their requests is likely to be more red tape and bureaucracy.

Transparency and information enable markets to function efficiently.

The facts about cobalt - which is not a conflict mineral – are out there.

Suppliers bear some responsibility to educate.

But if buyers do not understand the supply chain, they will end up paying higher prices for cobalt for no fundamental reason, and only because of an imperfect knowledge of the materials they deal in.

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