Courtesy: Oxfam

While it is illegal it is clear that artisanal mining is part and parcel of our economies, communities and the mining industry.

The period between August 2018 and February 2019 has seen a number of tragic fatalities occur in the artisanal mining sector in Zimbabwe.

Twelve illegal miners perished in a disused mine shaft at Eldorado mine in Chinhoyi when a rock collapsed and crushed them in August 2018. Some of their remains could not even be retrieved because the shaft was structurally unsound and posed risk to the lives of rescue personnel.

AUTHOR: Selina Zhuwarara

In January 2019, two more artisanal miners lost their lives at the same mine premises after they breeched the areas that had been condoned off by authorities and gained access to the shafts again.

On the 16 February 2019, 24 artisanal miners drowned in mine shafts at Cricket Mine in Battlefields Mashonaland West after a heavy storm.

Fatalities are not uncommon with artisanal mining due to hazardous working conditions, a similar incident occurred in South Africa in Mpumalanga at Gloria mine on the 6 February where 22 illegal miners who are believed to be Lesotho nationals perished in a mine shaft after a gas explosion occurred while they were underground.

Artisanal mining continues to claim the lives, health and safety of many young men and women around the world daily.

We commonly know them as makorokoza, magweja, zama zama’s as recognized in South Africa or the trade of “galamsey” as couched in Ghana.

It is an occupation that is constituted of millions of young men and women across the globe who try to earn a living through small illegal mining operations.

It is a common phenomenon in mineral rich countries, especially developing countries and is illegal because none of its participants have rights or licenses to undertake mining or engage in the trade of minerals in their respective countries.

While it is illegal, it is clear that it is part and parcel of our economies, communities and the mining industry. It is a sector that continues to grow in numbers, scope and extent yearly.

As it entrenches itself in our lives, It cannot continue to be ignored or sidelined because its vices have far reaching implications to the sanctity of life, the environment and the proliferation of illicit economic activities such as externalization of mineral wealth, funding conflict and money laundering.

It is time that a definitive position is adopted to formally integrate this growing and thriving sector into the mining industry fold and begin to regulate and support it under guided structures.

The first step in trying to understand the potential of the sector is to shed light onto its ability to tackle poverty and development in the livelihoods of those who undertake it and the communities that it occurs in.

Studies in Burkina Faso by a institute called Globedev have shown that artisanal mining plays a part in improving the livelihoods of people who engage in it because it provides a regular source of income that supports households and extended family thus increasing the economic consumption spend of households.

Increased consumption is linked to increased access to goods and services and consequently improved standards of living.

The study goes on to draw parallels with the impact of large-scale mining projects in that while returns are higher with commercial mining, the benefit to communities surrounding mining projects is not as direct because proceeds are first collected as taxes by government then eventually expected to trickle down to communities as initiatives funded from the national budget.

Sometimes these revenues do not find their way back as direct initiatives for communities in mining areas.

Corporate social responsibility initiatives from mining companies also try to create direct benefits where donations fund and support income generating projects however, the sustainability of such initiatives relies on the financial capacity and well-being of the mining entity which is inconstant.

Thus, the remedy to uplifting the livelihoods of communities and individuals in mining environments is to support their local enterprises and create an enabling environment for them to grow.

One such effort is supporting artisanal mining, if this sector is formalized and reinforced through regulation and technical assistance it can have significant impact on improving the livelihood of communities and families and tackling unemployment, poverty and crime.

National statistics showed that in 2018 small scale miners in Zimbabwe outperformed large scale mines in terms of the deliveries to the national gold buying body Fidelity Refiners.

It is commonplace that part of this gold also came from artisanal and unlicensed miners because their product always finds its way into the formal supply chain.

Therefore, it is important to also recognize and acknowledge this group for its contribution to the national fiscus and minerals reserve pool by creating conditions that enable them to undertake responsible and sustainable mining.

What needs to be done?

The first step is to find a way to formalize the sector, this can be done by introducing a special type of license or registration system unique to artisanal miners.

The registration process should be free in order to enable miners to come forward. Registration can be structured to culminate in the allocation of a personal identification code for each individual which is linked to their personal information.

This code can thereafter be utilized to track each individual’s progression in terms of areas of operation and product submitted for sale to government and remittance of money.

Such a system would also create an invaluable data base from which numerous aspects of the sector can be analyzed.

Currently the main deterrent for participants of artisanal mining to regulation is lack of resources, fear of taxation, lack of direct access to formal supply chain and regulatory fees.

In order to address these inhibitors government needs to craft legislation, policies and institutional capacity to introduce licensing which is free and accessible and a taxation and regulation system which is considerate and commensurate with the objectives of supporting broad based development.

It is inevitable that trade-offs need to be made.

Once the issue of legitimacy is addressed the second critical step is to organize and sanitize their areas of operation. This includes shutting down operations in environmentally unsuitable areas, improving on condoning off disused and closed mine shafts and on areas that should not be mined on.

The process also includes allocating and availing productive claims for them to work on.

This effort requires a robust and coordinated effort from the Ministry of Mines and Environmental Management Agency to identify and sanitize existing work sites and to also avail more claims that artisanal miners can legitimately access.

Once access to claims has been organized, the availability and access to technical assistance, improved technology and equipment should be addressed.

In order to improve the health, safety and productivity issues that plague artisanal miners there is need to deliberately create support structures that enable them to improve their conditions of operation.

This phase of the formalization process requires ingenuity and capital. Equipment can be salvaged from both public and private enterprises for this purpose.

Many useful materials lie in mining entities scrap yards that can be donated, rehabilitated and re-purposed for artisanal miners to access.

Where equipment needs to be purchased such can be funded by apportioning part of tax revenues received from the mining industry towards the incubation and development of support structures for artisanal miners.

All sourced equipment can be pooled and accessed by miners through support centers along the lines of what Shamva Mining Center once was between 1989 and 1998.

In 2018 the Government sought to re-ignite this business model through the establishment of Gold buying and selling Centers. The concept can be opened up to all mineral groups that artisanal miners currently participate in.

These centers can offer diversified services ranging from safety and health training, technical and equipment support, selling points and knowledge centers.

Government could also look into partnering with private entities and organizations so as to enable sustainability of the concept.

Artisanal mining needs to be taken out of the shadows of the mining sector and embraced for its immense potential.

In order to obtain buy in from artisanal miners to make the cross over from illegal mining to formal mining, government must create an environment where these miners can see and attest to the advantages and benefits of partnering and cooperating with authorities.

The culture will not immediately cease but once a sustainable and viable option has been tabled, young men and women who embark in artisanal mining can make a choice.

Criminalizing artisanal mining is justified when there is a viable option on the table for those who want to engage in mining at an individual or small-scale level to do it legitimately.

If such a choice does not exist, then enforcing the criminalization of artisanal mining becomes difficult because the act is not prompted on by criminality but instead derived from a need to find a means of survival.

In developing countries this need is real and many embark in illegal mining activities because they are limited job options.

It is time the mining sector embraces inclusiveness when it comes to how the poor and under resourced can also play a part in the industry in a sustainable and safe manner.

It is time to offer a safe and viable platform for the integration of artisanal miners into the industry.

Early civilizations around the world were built on the backbone of artisan enterprises especially in the mining sector.

In Zimbabwe the early Mutapa and Great Zimbabwe States leveraged artisanal mining efforts to develop a mature economic system built on the trade and use of copper, gold and iron.

What the early civilizations did successfully was to organize supply chains from small mining enterprises which then fed and nourished the political and economic systems of that day.

They managed to achieve considerable economic development on which the foundations of the modern states were built.

However, as the political and economic systems of the state modernized, they sidelined artisanal enterprises and focused on mainstream economic models that concentrated on large scale production and higher returns to the state.

The modern state went as far as shutting out small individual miners through the introduction of prohibitive licensing and taxation requirements which immediately alienated artisanal miners.

By doing so states and governments have also shut out the considerable potential of artisanal mining to eradicate poverty, propel development and ignite the diversification of rural economies.

The Indian diamond polishing and cutting industry in Surat is a good example of the successful integration of small and artisanal skill into the larger minerals market.

It allowed for the integration of small individual enterprises to become part and parcel of the larger diamond cutting and polishing industry.

Around 2012, joint efforts of the Surat Diamond Association, the Gems and Jewelry Export Promotion Council, the Indian Diamond Institute and the Indian District Rural Development Agency saw tribal women being trained in diamond cutting and polishing.

After training the new artisans get assistance to establish small cutting and polishing companies.

This initiative feeds into the national development programmes seeking to create sustainable livelihoods for rural areas.

As a result, many villages and tribal areas such as Mandvi, Vankal and Dang have been noted to have flourishing small diamond cutting and polishing enterprises, some of which are run by women and which feed into the main diamond industry.

This example shows that successful integration can be achieved. Large scale mining as we know it today was born from artisanal mining.

A conscious effort needs to be made to harness the potential that this sector holds in bringing mineral wealth to the doorstep of communities and families.

We need to recognize that even in its rudimentary form, artisanal mining has the greatest potential of achieving sustainable development and eradication of poverty in developing countries.