Fighting for a Just Energy Transition: Driving human rights change in the aluminum industry

Aluminum and the Energy Transition

With the world embracing better and cleaner technologies to combat climate change, the market for low-emission and electric cars is set to boom. This is driving a massive demand for aluminum, which is used to make lighter weight vehicles.

Unfortunately, aluminum production relies on the mining of bauxite ore, which involves surface level mining that often destroys huge swathes of forests and farmland, upending the livelihoods of local communities. Bauxite mines can also have a devastating impact on rivers and groundwater that people rely on for drinking and irrigation.

In Guinea, the West African country with the world’s largest bauxite deposits, a government study forecasts that over the next 20 years bauxite mining boom will remove 858 square kilometers of agricultural land and destroy more than 4,700 square kilometers of natural habitat, an area six times bigger than New York City.

Inclusive Development International is working with communities in Guinea to negotiate with mining companies to secure remedy and redress for the harms bauxite mining has caused and to prevent future harms from occurring. We also advocate for improved human rights protections across the aluminum supply chain, including by engaging with and calling for action from the powerful multinational companies—including leading global car brands—that sit at the top of that chain and that have the purchasing power to drive change.

The Car Industry’s Blindspot

In a joint report published in 2021, Inclusive Development International partnered with Human Rights Watch to look under the hood of the global automobile industry and assess how it was tackling the impacts of aluminum production on local communities.  Using examples from around the world and an in-depth case study of bauxite mining in Guinea, we spotlighted human rights impacts of the industry, how car makers were failing to adequately address these impacts, and how they could do better.  We are calling on car companies to do much more to lift environmental and social standards for this industry and stop sourcing from mines and smelters that don’t respect human rights.

Our analysis and recommendations were based on a year of dialogue with nine major car manufacturers: BMW, Mercedes Benz Group, Ford, General Motors, Groupe PSA, Renault, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. We continue to call on these and other car companies to stop sourcing from mines and smelters that don’t respect human rights and to do much more to lift environmental and social standards industry-wide, including by ensuring that binding human rights and environmental standards are integrated into their procurement contracts and requiring that suppliers integrate similar language into contracts throughout the supply chain.

Calling for a better Aluminum Stewardship Initiative

Several car companies have sought to promote responsible sourcing by joining an industry-led certification scheme, the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative (ASI). This initiative uses third-party audits to assess mines, refineries and smelters against a Performance Standard that includes human rights and environmental factors. The car manufacturers are encouraging bauxite mining companies and aluminum producers to join ASI and expand the amount of certified aluminum available for purchase.

Like so many similar certification initiatives, however, ASI’s standards and audit process are lacking, despite having recently undergone an in-depth review resulting in new standards adopted in May 2022. As part of that process, we submitted detailed comments highlighting key weaknesses. Our comments highlighted the need for assessment criteria to focus on outcomes for affected communities and the environment rather than only the policies and processes the companies have in place, and to require that companies remediate adverse impacts that their mining and production activities have already caused (often referred to as “legacy impacts”). We also emphasized the importance of meaningful opportunities for participation of affected communities so they can express their views and experiences as part of the audit process and have their views reflected in audit reports, which should be comprehensive and made publicly available.

The new standards have some improvements reflecting our recommendations, including a requirement that all audits involve interviews with affected people, but they remain weak in many respects. For example, they are still insufficiently focused on the actual impacts of a company’s operations, continuing to treat a company’s plans and processes as a proxy for outcomes. And they still do not include sufficient guidance for how community members should be engaged, to ensure they are adequately informed about and prepared to take part in audits. There is also not sufficient guidance to ensure necessary steps are taken to protect individuals from retaliation.

In light of the ongoing shortcomings in ASI’s standards and certification process, car companies cannot rely on ASI to evaluate human rights risks in their aluminum supply chains. And even if ASI strengthened its standards and certification process, sourcing certified aluminum would not on its own fulfill the responsibility of aluminum buyers to address human rights risks in supply chains. Sourcing certified aluminum should only ever be one part of a broader due diligence process that includes supply chain mapping and public disclosure, risk analysis, grievance mechanisms, and direct engagement with mines, refineries, and smelters implicated in human rights abuses.

The Aluminum Stewardship Initiative’s CBG mine audit

Due to the weakness of ASI’s auditing processes and standards, we were concerned when we learned in 2021 that the Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG), which has operated bauxite mines in the Boké region of Guinea since 1973 and is responsible for grave human rights abuses in the area, had become an ASI member. That meant it would soon undergo an audit process that could result in certification of its mining operations.

Inclusive Development International has for several years served as a formal advisor to 13 communities participating in a dispute resolution process with CBG, seeking remedies for the human rights impacts of the company’s operations. While CBG is working to improve its environmental and social practices and has made some progress in remedying impacts of its operations since the mediation began, the vast majority of harms remain unaddressed.

Nevertheless, in December 2023, ASI granted provisional certification to CBG for a period of one year. This certification wrongly suggests that bauxite ore sourced from the CBG mine qualifies as part of a responsible aluminum value chain, despite extensive evidence of the ongoing and unresolved human rights impacts of the mine. Together with our Guinean partners, CECIDE and ADREMGUI, we issued a statement outlining how ASI’s audit report downplayed and ignored serious harm caused by CBG’s operations.

ASI’s certification of CBG despite the fact that the company has not yet met their environmental and human rights responsibilities, risks disincentivizing continued improvements on the part of the company and undermining the affected communities who are trying to secure remedies for harms they continue to suffer. More broadly, it raises serious questions about ASI’s credibility as a due diligence tool for aluminum end-users.

What the Car Industry Should Do

Although many of the world’s leading car companies have publicly committed to addressing human rights abuses in their supply chains, most have not done the work to map out the mines, refineries, and smelters that they are ultimately sourcing from and to evaluate and address the negative human rights impacts of those supply chain actors.

We can’t build a better future for some people at the expense of others. When it comes to creating a fair and emissions-free global economy, we must recognize that we’re all in it together.

Some car companies have, since being contacted by Inclusive Development International and Human Rights Watch, begun to take these steps.

For example, Drive Sustainability, a coalition of 11 car companies that includes BMW, Mercedes Benz Group , Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo, initiated a project to assess the human rights risks inherent in aluminum supply chains and those of nine other raw materials, which it said could presage collective action by the auto industry to drive up standards in supply chains. They also wrote to The Aluminum Association, an association of dozens of aluminum producers, “to express concern about the situation in Guinea,” to solicit information on members’ human rights due diligence efforts, and to express support for the ongoing mediation between CBG and affected communities.

Several car companies, including Volkswagen and Mercedes, have contacted CBG directly, as well as its co-owners, Alcoa, Dadco, and Rio Tinto, to urge the company to participate constructively in the mediation and address the harms caused by the mine. Mercedes conducted a site visit to Guinea in 2023 to meet the affected communities and see firsthand the impacts of its supply chain.

BMW has also said publicly that if bauxite mining occurs in Ghana’s Atewa Forest in contravention of Ghana’s obligations under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, BMW will not accept aluminum in its supply chain originating from the forest.

These positive steps should be the start of a wider effort by car companies to address the human rights impacts of aluminum production. Car companies should begin by ensuring that binding human rights and environmental standards are integrated into their procurement contracts and should require suppliers to integrate similar language into contracts throughout the supply chain.

Car manufacturers cannot, however, rely only on their suppliers to enforce human rights and environmental standards. Here are the other steps that we are calling on them to take:

  • Make aluminum a priority raw material for responsibility sourcing and map their supply chain to identify the mines, refineries and smelters they are sourcing from.  
  • Disclose this information to enable communities and NGOs to share information on human rights risks.
  • Regularly assess any adverse human rights impacts through credible and robust third-party audits of mines, refineries and smelters, as well as through dialogue with NGOs and community groups.
  • Visit mines and production sites with local communities impacted by their operations.
  • Formulate a plan for mitigating and addressing human rights abuses in the supply chainthis should include engagement with the owners and operators to require them to have time-bound corrective action plans and provide redress and remedies for victims.
  • If timelines are not met, reject aluminum parts sourced from the facilities.
  • Take collective action, where appropriate, in collaboration with civil society groups and other stakeholders, to address human rights risks common to bauxite mining, alumina refining or aluminum production in a given country or region. 
  • Develop their own grievance mechanisms through which communities can file complaints of human rights abuses in their supply chains.
  • Support efforts from civil society and community groups to create strong and enforceable human rights laws to hold all companies to account. In addition to harnessing the clout of the car industry to drive change in the aluminum industry.

Inclusive Development International will continue to hold accountable the companies that are failing to meet their human rights responsibilities.

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