Wolframite and Casserite mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Image: Julien Harneis on Wikimedia Commons

Desperate diggers

29 September 2015

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Between the plough and the pick: informal mining in the contemporary world is a two-day conference at Crawford School on 5-6 November. Register here.

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Saleem H Ali takes a look at the peril and promise of artisanal and small-scale mining.

Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) has existed for millennia and is engrained in many cultural traditions. The term artisanal implies a subsistence relationship while small-scale mining could involve similar rudimentary techniques, but through cooperatives or small firms. However, this sector has significant power to alleviate poverty

In the context of modern natural resource economies ASM is often simplistically understood as either a problem of informality or as an exemplar of entrepreneurial development. The ecological and health impacts of the sector are significant, but the livelihood potential is also immense. With estimates of as many as 100 million artisanal miners worldwide and over 80 per cent of coloured gemstones and as much as 20 per cent of gold and diamonds coming from this sector, its leveraging power for poverty alleviation clearly deserves attention.

Development donors have considered the sector as ripe for technical interventions to improve yield of minerals or alternative techniques for safer extraction. The World Bank and Department for Interntional Development (DFID)-funded Communities and Small Scale Mining (CASM) program operated for around a decade from 2000 to 2010 and developed a broad repertoire of information exchange in this arena. The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and Swiss Development Agency effort to focus on the use of mercury in ASM gold mining are examples of such undertakings.

Mercury reduction efforts have been spurred by the advent of the Minamata Convention on Mercury Reduction that has thus far been signed by over 125 countries, but only ratified by 12 (as of September 2015). The Convention recognises that mercury usage in artisanal and small-scale mining will likely be a challenge for many more years to come, given the remote locations of the mining sites and the relatively low cost of mercury worldwide.

More recently UNDP has also started to engage on low-value minerals and the role of ASM in quarrying of industrial and construction materials, particularly in the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific Island states. All these laudable efforts need to consider the overall trajectory of the sector from a broader socio-ecological sustainability lens. Given the broader context of sustainable development, ASM should be considered part of a hybrid livelihood strategy or a transitional opportunity for catalysing development. It is imperative that we find a middle path between romanticism and anathema in considering ASM research and the role of development donors to that effect.

Artisanal mining is a highly arduous activity which is extremely difficult to govern. Thus its role as a livelihood strategy needs to be considered in those terms, with a focus on improving the living conditions of miners and affording improved government or community oversight. The remoteness and desperation of many communities in this sector make them easy targets for exploitative practices, including child labour and bondage. For most miners, this profession is a transitory career, the chance to find a prized stone or nugget and then to move on to less risky professional pursuits.

In other cases the profession is seasonal, and coupled with agricultural practices and trade. Mining rushes can create a frenzy of resource extraction that can degrade land and water to the point where these alternative livelihoods, particularly agriculture or fishing, become unviable.

As we ponder the future of this challenging, entrepreneurial and adventurous arena of human endeavour, let us ensure that our decisions are driven by good research and deliberations with those desperate diggers who endanger their lives to bring us treasures from the depths of the earth.

Professor Saleem H Ali holds the Chair in Sustainable Resource Development at the University of Queensland. His books include Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali. He is one of the presenters at the upcoming Crawford School conference, Between the plough and pick: informal mining in the contemporary world.

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