Artisanal mining: a dangerous trade or a misrepresented industry?

Scarlett Evans 19 September 2019 (Last Updated October 11th, 2019 14:36)

Artisanal mining is often painted as the dark side of mining, an industry riddled with smuggling, fraud and danger. Small-scale mining does however provide a livelihood for millions, a fact that non-profit Pact believe should act as a rocket for improvement, rather than demonization. Scarlett Evans reports.

Artisanal mining: a dangerous trade or a misrepresented industry?
Artisanal miners use mercury to separate gold from sediment in Omai, Essequibo, Guyana. Credit: Chika Ohasi, UNDP Guyana.

Non-profit Pact launched the program Mines to Markets to emphasise the vital role the artisanal and small-scale mining industry, and to help improve it rather than attack those who subsist off it. Here, Scarlett Evans talks to M2M director Cristina Villegas about the misconceptions of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) and the potential it offers.

Scarlett Evans (SE): Tell me about Mines to Markets – how did it come about as a programme?

Cristina Villegas (CV): M2M started in Eastern Congo, where Pact has an office. Pact itself works in health, livelihood and governance, and we quickly realised that a lot of these problems were found in the mining industry in the area. We started working with the cobalt miners, and it just started to expand. We moved into the three T’s; tin, tantalum and tungsten, and now we work on everything from gold to copper and cobalt, sand, salt, coal – and everything in between, in 12 of the 40 countries that Pact works in.

The goal of the programme is to assist in both large and small-scale mining, but from a financial and human capacity ASM need our help more. We help to make them become formal, safer and more productive.

SE: Artisanal mining gets a lot of bad press- is this fair?

CV: I get very frustrated whenever I hear people say that ASM is bad for economies. Because if you actually look at the data, from a resource efficiency point of view there’s room for everyone. From a jobs perspective, I don’t think people realise how enormous ASM is. It accounts for 90% of all mining labour in the world and between 10-15% of all global production, which is not small.

While I think a lot of countries and policy-makers hope that large-scale companies will come in and develop, it may not actually be appropriate for solely large-scale mining operations to be there. You may need a mix of solutions, a mixture of small and large-scale mining.  It’s not only a solution that can maximise the local social benefit of mining, it’s also great from a resource efficiency point of view because there are very few sites in the world where the whole deposit is used. Usually the large-scale mine will only want a portion of it, even though they’ve done the research for the whole deposit. So why not hand over that data to locals who are eager and want to work, and are interested in exploiting the rest of the site?

I think stereotypes get in the way of our analysis, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to corporations about working in these areas, and they say ASM’s are all foreign, illegal workers, but in reality they’re all locals. Just because it’s not in the formal economy doesn’t mean it’s not generating economic wealth and while it may not be in official national statistics, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

SE: How should governments and companies be responding to erase the problems ASM faces?

CV: Large-scale companies will say the same thing that I’m about to say – which is that it’s about the right policies. You have to have the right environment for people to behave the way you want them to. So you have to think what the right policy environments are to create what you want to happen.

We encourage governments to lower the amount of minerals required for miners to sell to them, and to increase convenience by licensing traders to buy gold on behalf of other workers. You could also innovate to offer services such as healthcare and credit opportunities in exchange for minerals. The policy environment is huge, and I think places are beginning to realise that.

The thing that drives us crazy is when governments come in and revert corporations by sending the military in. This has never ever worked – it’s expensive, it leads to human rights abuses and it militarises the area. We’re trying to show a different way forward, and show the good that can happen.

We’re really changing the game on what people thought was possible in terms of transparency in local markets, health and safety, and one reason we speak so loudly on Twitter is we are frustrated with the continuous use of enforcement actions when there is another way forward. When countries want to develop, they need to look at where the jobs are. And the jobs are in both small and large-scale mining, provided large-scale operations do social, local programming correctly and work constructively with artisanal miners.

SE: There seem to be so many challenges to take on. How do you focus your programmes?

CV: Different places have different challenges, and while these might seem huge, with the right local partners and the right expertise you can make some pretty remarkable changes. It’s important to break down big issues into manageable pieces, and each problem will have very different engagement strategies. It all depends on the place and the challenges, and if we’re not able to work on something we will find the right partner.

Pact has 5,000 members of staff – we often joke we’re the biggest non-profit you’ve never heard of. It’s very much a field-oriented organisation and we also work with local partners, local staff and local NGO’s. The privilege is that the people we work with often want to innovate with us, and they’re serious in the long term about solving these tough challenges.

SE: What does the future hold for M2M?

CV: There are 40 million artisanal and small-scale miners out there in 70 countries. So I think we’ll be around for a while.

We’re at a tipping point right now, which is really exciting. Five years ago people were saying ‘why should we engage with ASM?’ It’s dirty, it’s chaotic. But now, if you don’t you’re actually the one who’s backwards. I think there’s a realisation that there is another way forward, and for us our role is to work with companies who understand that but need help getting there, and who realise that they need organisations who can help navigate local realities and the opportunities and challenges they raise.

It’s a new time, and you can feel it.