Recent media articles have highlighted the emerging phenomenon of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) in the majority world, sometimes described as ‘subsistence’ mining. It is undertaken by individuals, families, co-operatives, and small-scale entrepreneurs using rudimentary methods to win easily extractable minerals for quick cash returns.
It is estimated that over 100 million people in the majority world base their livelihoods on locally mining gold, precious stones, and other high-value minerals with minimal equipment, capital, and training. It is believed these miners account for around 10% of the world’s new gold production.
Bountiful mineral resources in certain rural locations, usually combined with the lack of employment alternatives and unreliable agriculture, open up the alternative of ASM. While an important income source, ASM creates a range of social, economic, legal, and environmental impacts; the major concern of the latter is the uncontrolled use of mercury in gold mining. It is feared that 1,400 tons per year of this toxic substance is being released into the environment around the world.
Where ASM is active in an area, it is either ignored by outsiders, or they intervene along three distinct lines as follows:
1. Foreign mining company interventions
The miners may be treated as ‘barefoot’ prospectors for large scale, usually internationally financed mining companies. If the deposits are small, they will not attract further interest from them. However, if the deposits warrant exploitation that is likely to give good returns on investment, these foreign companies will register mining claims over the area through national governments that are based in far-away capital cities. Generally the state sees the foreign mining companies as reliable partners who pay their taxes, are likely to abide by their corporate social responsibilities, and conform to environmental and other laws because they are also held to account by their shareholders or the media in the West.
Once the deal is secured, the majority world governments typically outlaw or confine ASM to certain areas, leaving the locals with no chance to improve their livelihoods.
From then on, larger mining companies, which are soon caught up in the normal issues of business and security, are likely to see the ASM miners who probably brought them there in the first place as a nuisance. The original indigenous miners are likely to be offered low-skilled employment; but the attraction of being a self-employed miner who could strike it rich with the next nugget (although millions never do) is often more tantalising than that of a steady job. Even the promise of community infrastructure such as clinics or schools built by the mining company may not be enough to avoid bitter and bloody struggles over corporate versus community rights to mine.
These operational issues notwithstanding, where according to a large-scale miner, there is an inadequate return on investment forecast, the deposit may still be interesting on a medium scale.
2. Minor capital interventions
ASM activities then attract minor capitalists (local or foreign, with as little as USD $25,000 to invest) seeking local mining partners who have some formal title over their mining sites. This formalising or legalising occurs once the rush of ASM miners to a mineralised zone has settled down and the ore deposits show some longer-term potential to become small-to-medium scale mining enterprises. The ASM sector typically has no capital to invest in improving its operations and welcomes rich partners, however little altruism there may be in the relationship.
The caution over altruism partly arises because precious metals and stones have high value and low bulk (one kilogram of gold is the size of a cell phone and is worth around USD $35,000). They are easily smuggled and readily sold along the supply chain outside of any legal trading systems. Also these ‘investor partners’ are not likely to pay heed to labour and other human rights or environmental and trading laws passed by governments which rely on local rent-seeking inspectors to monitor compliance.
In this scenario, everybody benefits except the state. It also tends to lead to accusations of corruption on the part of ASM (eg that it fuels conflicts and rape, blood diamonds, child miners, and mercury pollution). It has thus attracted the attention of ethical jewellers and their customers in the High Streets of Europe and North America, resulting in the next intervention.
3. Fair trade interventions
Jewellery activists have influenced the Fairtrade Foundation and others to produce a set of standards for responsible ASM gold and precious metal mining. These standards seek to reduce the negative impacts of ASM as miners can be measured by them and certified as ‘fair producers’ once in conformity to them: for example, conflict free, child-labour free, and ecologically produced (mercury free).
There are other initiatives emanating from North America and Europe such as the Alliance for Responsible Mining, Diamond Development Initiative, Artisanal Gold Council, and Responsible Jewellery Council. The standards, from whichever of these groups, all seek to address the socio-cultural, economic, politico-legal, and environmental impacts of ASM where it is occurring.
All these efforts to supply ethical jewellery rely on sourcing the raw materials (gold, silver and precious stones) through supply chains that can be fully traced; and this in turn relies on the mining sites being legal—not always easy in the sometimes turbulent marginal areas where minerals occur.
Furthermore, the very idea of ‘trading’ requires going beyond ‘selling’ raw gold in small amounts (half a gram or slightly more) to local dealers for quick cash. Instead miners must accumulate enough to trade, ie export as a purified ingot (a minimum of half a kilogram) to a jewellery manufacturer in the developed world.
Once these requirements for responsible mining, capacity to export, and traceable supply chains are met, the importer, jewellery manufacturer, or retailer is expected to pay a ‘fair trade’ premium which is to benefit the mining community as a whole through some appropriate project. Thus the private sector, in attempting to satisfy its ethical customers, is being called upon to pay extra for its raw materials. This money will come from the pockets of the high street customer who is being charged more or from the profits of those in the value-adding chain such as the jewellery manufacturer.
In order to achieve their requirements to become responsible miners, traceable suppliers, and beneficiaries of the premiums, miners must co-operate. The requirements for certification require that the miners form membership-based ASM organisations (ASMOs). The advent of ASMOs, seeking to go beyond the typical individual or family ‘owned’ mining sites (where ownership is overwhelmingly informal), means placing trust in one another.
This is difficult where precious metals and stones are concerned. It also means managing mines, accounting for goods and finances, raising capital, awaiting payment, export permits, and many other activities beyond the scope of the ordinary miner or family group going about their daily livelihoods.
Facing the issues
In spite of the interventions outlined above, the issues surrounding ASM will persist since mineral deposits will continue to be found in the least expected places, eg diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe, rubies in Malawi, coltan in the Congo. Unfortunately, without intervention, the problems associated with minerals will also continue. These include the fuelling of conflicts; illegal mining, selling, and smuggling; miners’ health and safety; worker exploitation including child labour; and immoral lifestyles that lead to the high incidence of HIV/AIDS in mining areas.
As well as the human cost of ASM, there are environmental issues, the most dangerous of which in the longer term is mercury pollution and its effect on the food chain in rivers and soils. This has been addressed by the Minimata Convention, which aims to phase out its use over the next decades, but only ASMOs can afford to buy the relatively expensive mercury-free gold processing equipment.
My own experience with ASMOs in East Africa is that they are often made up of Christians, including many women (perhaps the majority). They see past the corrupted lifestyles of many of their selfish, independent fellow miners and are keen to implement community benefits, build churches, and disciple colleagues. Presently they have few of the managerial skills and none of the financial capacity to accumulate the quantities required for sustainable exports to the ethical jewellery manufacturers who are standing by with a known market but insufficient raw material.
International Christian responses
Christians can help, starting for example as consumers by putting pressure on their local High Street Jewellers to subscribe to fair trade systems and by purchasing wedding rings (that great symbol of love) which are made from fairly traded gold.
Readers can also help by seeking to raise the profiles of the organisations listed above which are making genuine attempts to promote responsible mining. ASM in the developing world comes up quite frequently in the media (which focus on child labour, conflict funding, and pollution); and the typical response is to ban it outright, despite the fact that it is unlikely to go away. My own experience is that people appreciate hearing of efforts being made to overcome the generally negative media profile of ASM; and this can create interesting conversations.
Where readers may be resident in—or involved in organisations working in—countries affected by ASM, they can review the standards set by, for example, Fairtrade Gold or the Alliance for Responsible Mining (available online) and talk to their staff or congregations about offering help to the miners in reaching certification.
A role for ethical capitalism
In order to make a real difference in the lives of miners and their families and communities, ASMOs need international ethical capitalism, ie people with some money who accept high risks and a wide range of possible returns on their investment. These investors will know that this is not charity but conscientious business aimed at helping the poor to escape the social injustices of subsistence mining and helping the environment escape the impacts of poor mining practices, especially mercury. Readers based in richer parts of the world could even look out for financiers seeking investments that will make a difference in establishing the kingdom of God, irrespective of the risks involved. Investing capital (from USD $5,000 to $50,000) through relevant funds (such as the CRED Foundation) would lead to partnerships with selected ASMOs, helping them to get the working capital required to accumulate gold for export and/or to purchase mercury-free gold processing technology.
In conclusion, it comes down to Christians worldwide catching this wave of opportunity and making positive changes in response to the challenges of ASM.
- The Economist had an article in May 2016, accessible at http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21698262-boom-artisanal-mining-offers-lessons-development-praise-small-miners. Another example, with excellent photographs, can be found at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-29410298. A more technical description can be found at http://www.miningfacts.org/communities/what-is-artisanal-and-small-scale-mining/, and of course there is always Wikipedia at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artisanal_mining. ↑
- Editor’s Note: See article entitled ‘Stewardship and Justice: A challenge for Christian consumers’ by Carrie Ngangnang, with response by Bosela Eale, in the November 2013 issue of Lausanne Global Analysis. ↑