Artisanal miners: vital but neglected

Gavin Hilson

Reform of the mining sector in Africa has provided no clear benefits for those at the low-technology end of the business, despite it being a crucial source of employment across the continent. 

Reform of the mining sectors in Africa has been central to the economic success of several countries, especially over the past decade of rising commodity prices. Ghana led the way by passing its Minerals and Mining Law in 1986, and it has been followed by Mali, Mozambique, Tanzania and many other countries. 

Targeting mainly gold, the most tradable commodity in the world, these countries now offer incoming companies a combination of low royalties, extended tax holidays and waived import duties on mine equipment and other consumables. Large-scale gold mining now flourishes in all corners of Sub-Saharan Africa. But at what expense has this success been achieved? 

This growth translates into few benefits for catchment mining communities, say NGOs concerned for the empowerment of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). This activity is rudimentary and labour-intensive and involves indigenously controlled pockets of mineral processing and extraction – the very antithesis of the type of mine development that governments have been ushering in. 

The reality is that in Ghana, and elsewhere in Africa, the formalisation of small-scale mining activities has featured rather peripherally in the reform exercise, despite being one of its stated objectives. The problem remains of environmentally destructive activities spawning makeshift communities that have fast become centres of prostitution, drug abuse and alcoholism, as well as diseases such as HIV/AIDS. 

Artisanal and small-scale mining provides direct employment to over 10 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, and millions more depend on it for their livelihoods 

The existence of ASM in this form is largely a result of its operators carrying out their activities outside the legal domain. African governments, and their bilateral and multilateral partners, have for the most part, condemned this form of mining while failing to recognise that the ‘brand’ of ASM now widespread throughout the region today is largely a product of their own inaction. Rather than reforming ASM at the same time as large-scale mining, the authorities have only just started revisiting the idea of formalising ASM now that the reforms to the large mining sector are complete. One problem is that a significant share of land has been demarcated to foreign multinationals, making it difficult for individuals to secure a small-scale mining licence and depriving subsistence families of access to traditional farmlands. In Ghana, over 12 percent of land is in the hands of foreign multinationals, and in Tanzania some companies have been granted concessions of 150 km2 for prospecting and exploration alone. 

With no security of tenure, the priority for marginalised people is to make ends meet rather than to protect the environment. The challenge for African governments is how to bring these miners into the legal domain, where they are in a position to access formal support and improve their quality of life. 

Although local media outlets have tended to paint a negative picture of small-scale miners, equating their activities with thievery, armed robbery and chaos, there is compelling evidence to support ASM’s developmental value: it contributes far more socially and economically than large-scale mining, which creates few jobs and tends to function in an enclave. In Sub-Saharan Africa, ASM provides direct employment to over 10 million people, while millions more depend on it for their livelihoods. Overall, ASM is bringing jobs to an increasing number of individuals in the only region of the world to experience negative income per capita growth during the period 1980-2000. 

Why large-scale mining is being promoted over ASM remains a mystery. When Ghana last revised its mining legislation in 2006, all mentions of community development issues and ASM seem to have simply been a cover for continued implementation of a blueprint of export-based mineral growth to cater for Western demands at the expense of local needs.

About the author:

Gavin Hilson is a Reader in Environment and Development at Reading University, UK


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