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Rights groups have called on automakers to do more to address abuses in their aluminum supply chains, including the destruction of farmland, damage to water resources and excessive greenhouse gas emissions affecting communities in Africa, Asia and South America.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW), along with Inclusive Development International (IDI), released a 63-page report detailing the impact of aluminum production – particularly related to mining and refinement of the bauxite raw material – in countries such as Guinea, Ghana, Brazil, China, Malaysia and Australia.
“Automotives see aluminum as a critical material for the transition to fuel-efficient vehicles,” said Jim Wormington, senior Africa researcher at HRW. “They must use their ever-increasing purchasing power to protect the communities whose land and environment are being harmed by the aluminum industry.”
While the world’s leading automakers “have openly committed to addressing human rights violations in their supply chains, they have done little to evaluate and address the human rights impact of aluminum production,” HRW said in a statement.
Instead, amid an increase in global manufacturing and awareness, manufacturers have placed greater emphasis on addressing supply chain abuses of other raw materials used for electric vehicles, especially cobalt, according to the report, which was based in part on correspondence with nine major car companies: BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Groupe PSA (now part of Stellantis), Renault, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Three other companies — BYD, Hyundai and Tesla — did not respond to requests to participate in the investigations.
Automotive companies used one-fifth of all aluminum consumed worldwide in 2019 and are expected to double their consumption by 2050, the report said.
Destruction of farmland, pollution of waterways
The report highlights how various processes associated with aluminum production have serious impacts on local communities.
Bauxite, a red ore, includes “surface-level mining,” which can destroy large areas of farmland.
In Guinea, which has the world’s largest bauxite deposits, a 2019 government study predicted that bauxite mining would remove about 858 square kilometers of farmland over the next 20 years, destroying about 4,700 square kilometers. ) of natural habitat, according to the statement.
Meanwhile, refining bauxite into alumina, a step toward making aluminum, creates large amounts of dangerous “red mud” that can contaminate waterways.
A group in the Brazilian state of Para is currently suing a bauxite mine, refinery and aluminum smelter for allegedly contaminating waterways in the Amazon basin.
The report also highlighted the energy-intensive process of aluminum smelting, noting that China, a leading aluminum smelter, produced 90 percent of its aluminum through coal in 2018.
Overall, aluminum production is responsible for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it said.
While three German automakers — Audi, BMW and Daimler — have encouraged their suppliers to participate in an industry-led certification program, the Aluminum Stewardship Initiative (ASI), the rights groups said the program “is sufficiently detailed and does not provide specific criteria to assess how well companies respond to important human rights issues”.
The report’s authors noted that some auto companies have taken further steps to address the issues in the aluminum supply chain since the rights groups contacted them.
In May, Drive Sustainability, a grouping of 11 car companies including BMW, Daimler, Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo, launched an initiative to assess human rights risks in the production of aluminum and nine other commodities.
In a statement, Natalie Bugalski, the legal and policy director at Inclusive Development International, said the steps should be just the beginning of a “wider auto industry effort to address the human rights impact of aluminum production.”
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