artisanal and small scale mining cobalt DRC

To regulate or not regulate the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) industry? That indeed is the question.

A question which has long been on the lips of the formal mining sector, government, environmentalists, human right activists, health and safety practitioners, and the list goes on.

The simple fact is that this is an industry that in 2017 was estimated to be the main source of income to 40.5 million people globally.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 1, 2019

The financial impact of this industry cannot however be limited to this estimation due to the high rate of non-disclosure by active participants as generally ASM is an illegal act.

In addition, this does not include the millions of individuals indirectly affected by these operations.

Author: Angeline Mouton, founder and MD of environmental consultancy firm Susmin

For the purpose of this article let us separate artisanal mining and small-scale mining, for two reasons: 1) the majority of my personal experience is within the artisanal mining sector; and 2) of the two, artisanal mining is considered to be the “greater of the two evils”.

Artisanal mining is considered a more informal and primitive form of small-scale mining. It is often separated from small-scale mining as artisanal mining is for individual, family or extended family gain.

In comparison to small-scale mining which is run similar to a business with multiple lines of ‘income’ distributed through one source.

For this reason, regulation of small-scale mining operations seems less daunting as there is an existing structure which can be worked with.

Artisanal mining on the other hand is by definition organised chaos – with invisible borders, sharing of a resource without sharing the earnings, experiencing loss together.

Some of the many reasons artisanal mining is still largely illegal are; high fatality rates, environmental degradation, health and safety (or the lack thereof), drug abuse, gang-related violence, criminal activities, etc.

It is for these reasons that the need for action is clear.

Evidently ruling it as illegal is not serving the purpose it was intended to. The problem is, how does one regulate millions of individuals?

The solution is definitely not clump them under the same legislation as the formal mining sector.

The weight of said legislation would have to be far less strict. For example, the requirements for obtaining an operating license would have to be substantially different.

Yes, the outcomes should be similar in terms of environmental preservation, closure, pollution, etc.

But altered to within the realm these individuals operate in. Taxation and cost of obtaining operating licenses would have to be calculated differently.

Once one starts on this subject, the sheer volume of it seems impossible. Why not just leave the system as it is?

The simple answer – an annual death rate which is impossible to calculate due to non-disclosure. Setting aside the impact artisanal mining has on its surroundings, the impact it has on the individuals engaging in these activities are horrific.

Unfortunately, one cannot hold the notion that this is a choice they make. Thus the dangers that go along with these activities are part of the choice.

For most, this is their only means of survival – the only means of survival for entire families, villages and communities.

Ghana is one example of a government that has legislated ASM. The model was implemented just short of 30 years ago and seems to work relatively well with miners selling ore to government, paying a small tax by weight.

This is advantageous to the miners as selling the ore eliminates the need to process. It also reduces safety and health-related incidents like mercury poisoning and silicosis.

Selling to government also removes the need for smuggling the resource from the country.

As with all legislation, there is room for improvement. But that this is a strong step in the right direction and that the Ghanaian government has set an example to be followed and built on.

As seen with the Ghanaian example, even with legislation there is no certainty that all members will comply. It is not surprising as these individuals are now required to pay a percentage of their, already meager earnings.

The solution to this might lie with the women of the community. Over the years some of the most insightful observations and creative ideas came from the female interview groups I conducted.

Yes, we can argue gender roles ‘till the cows come home’ but ultimately women are nurturers and they view their communities in a very different way – often with a sustainable development mindset without them even realising it.

Utilising the women of the community as drivers to emphasise that the objective of regulation is for safer working conditions might reap the most success.

Ultimately we cannot further ignore this vast group of people. This is a form of mining that is deeply rooted in the sector’s history. It is not going anywhere and believing that it will is a futile effort.

You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy