Artisanal mining: the dangers that come with the job

JP Casey 9 May 2019 (Last Updated May 9th, 2019 17:09)

With 40 million people working in the artisanal mining sector worldwide in 2017, the industry has a significant impact on global mining. These small-scale operations, which are typically undertaken outside of the law and without compliance with industry standards, can promise great rewards. But there are significant risks for both the miners involved and the communities and countries in which they work, from physical injuries and air pollution to damages to local infrastructure and national economies.

Artisanal mining: the dangers that come with the job
Artisanal miners are less likely to be equipped with effective safety gear, and could be forced to work with malfunctioning or dangerous machinery.

Personal injury

The most direct danger of artisanal mining is the risk of personal injury faced by miners themselves. As artisanal mining typically occurs outside of the law, these projects may not conform to regulatory standards with regards to the quality of tools and equipment, or safety practices.

As a result, miners are less likely to be equipped with effective safety gear, and could be forced to work with malfunctioning or dangerous machinery. Such circumstances saw nine miners die at a Zimbabwean mine in January this year when a routine blasting operation went awry, collapsing the roof of a tunnel and burying the workers.

Artisanal miners also face increased risks as the mines in which they often work  have been built outside of government regulation, with little attention paid to the navigability of the surrounding area but simply the wealth on minerals which lie there. Up to 100 miners were trapped in an unlicensed gold mine in Indonesia earlier this year when a landslide hit the region, and rescue workers were forced to try and reach the trapped miners by digging with their hands, as they waited for conditions to improve so digging machines could be safely deployed.

Infrastructure damage

As many artisanal operations lack the resources needed for exploration and construction of mines, many small-scale miners move into mines built by larger companies that have been closed or left unused. The same inconsistencies in equipment and working standards that endanger miners can also risk damaging the mines they operate in.

In 2014, AngloGold Ashanti closed its flagship gold mine in Ghana, the Obuasi operation, and for the next four years, artisanal miners moved into the tunnels and began mining their own gold. The Ghanaian army was eventually needed to evict the miners, which numbered 12,000 by the time they were removed from the mine. AngloGold Ashanti has had to spend $500m to repair and mechanise the mine, ahead of its conversion to an automated operation.

Economic losses

Small-scale operations can threaten the profitability of a country’s mining sector by depleting resources, by not paying tax on the money made from their excavations and by making it harder for licenced companies to turn a profit.

The amount of artisanally mined minerals and metals sold is significant, with the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IFM) reporting in 2017 that illegal operations are responsible for 80% of the world’s sapphires, and 20% of the world’s gold and diamond production. Zimbabwean mining is particularly dependent on the sector, with All Africa reporting that illegal miners produced 13.2 tonnes of gold in 2017, compared to 11.6 tonnes by large-scale mining companies.

There is also a greater risk of mined minerals being undersold by artisanal miners compared to minerals sold by international corporations. In 2018, artisanal miners in South Africa sold a 55-carat diamond R6m, which was then immediately sold on for more than five times that value.

Environmental pollution

The UN reported that the small-scale mining sector is the world’s largest source of mercury emissions, with the industry responsible for releasing 1,000 tonnes per year, equal to 40% of the world’s total. The metal is often used in mining as it is a cheap and easily-available ingredient in the extraction of gold from ore.

However, the extraction processes are often inefficient or outright dangerous. The IFM named two methods of gold extraction using mercury, one of which typically captures less than 30% of the gold in a piece of ore, while the other is a more involved process where the ore is burnt with mercury, usually in miners’ homes and places of residence, exposing a number of people not directly involved in mining to poisonous fumes.

The practice has also significantly damaged vulnerable environments such as the Amazon rainforest, where illegal mining operations are not bound by the legislation intended to protect such regions. In 2018, the Amazon Socio-environmental Geo-referenced Information Project released a map showing the impacts of illegal mining across six countries in the rainforest, where there have been 37 cases of illegal mining in protected indigenous reserves in Brazil.