The artisanal way of mining

Materials World magazine
1 Mar 2018

A report tracking the growth in artisanal and small-scale mining seeks to address the need for greater regulation. Khai Trung Le talks to Matthew Bliss about what role policy and industry have to play in its development.

A new report from the Intergovernmental Forum of Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF) and International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) has revealed the recent growth in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), attributed to rising value of mineral prices and the heightened difficulty of earning a living from agriculture and other rural activities. However, the sheer quantity of people involved – estimated at 40.5 million in 2017, up from only 7 million in 2014 – and the informal nature of the work has resulted in a highly diverse sector with varying challenges.  

Matthew Bliss, Deputy Director of Programs at IGF, told Materials World that the growth in ASM is linked to families looking to fulfil food, health, and educational needs, but it may face difficulties against the growth in small-scale and semi-mechanised subsector of ASM. He added, ‘Mining offers an opportunity to generate revenue, often paid in cash, both to local residents and those deciding to migrate to ASM areas. Considering these factors, it would not be surprising for growth to continue, especially during moments of rising commodity prices.’

Escape poverty

While ASM is a major producer of minerals, responsible for 26%, 25% and 20% of global tantalum, tin, and gold production respectively, it is known for its low productivity. The sector relies on a mostly low-skilled workforce, with poor health and safety practices, increased pollution of the local environment, and exposure to dangerous substances – ASM is linked to large releases of mercury, which is hard to contain, toxic at small quantities, and can be transported across long distances by air or water. Exposure can result in brain damage. 

People who enter ASM often do so to escape poverty, but can find themselves unable to move to alternative lifestyles. On livelihoods and protecting the workforce, Bliss said, ‘Jurisdictions vary, but recent examples of establishing ASM zones, providing technical and business support, training on safety and environment, and simply recognising ASM as a potential integral part of a jurisdiction’s economy have demonstrated promise.’ (see Materials World December 2017)

Formalise it 

With between 70-80% of ASM being informal, one potential route towards supporting it, is greater formalisation. The report notes this will involve legal frameworks, streamlining licensing processes, access to finance for miners and wider technical and financial support. Bliss added, ‘The big first step is a jurisdiction acknowledging ASM can be an integral part of their economy. That can come with or prior to documenting all ASM-related activities and categorising them by what is valued and what needs to be eliminated.’ However, any future formalisation is likely to require the support of the wider mining companies and industry associations, which Bliss notes ‘have acknowledged that ASM presents a challenge to their business and the value chain of commodities they supply’. He added, ‘We have heard the caveat that the criminal element of ASM makes the subsector a no-go aspect, and one that must be addressed by government. With miners, governments, industry, and other organisations collaborating on ASM, as the IIED’s report suggests, we are beginning to identify and better understand the roles different groups can play to help ensure ASM can be an integral part of the local and national economy and social fabric.