Boris Ivanov, Founder, Emiral Resources, discusses how mining companies have a responsibility to steer artisanal mining towards safer processes.

An important appendage to any discussion about African mining invariably involves the presence and contribution of artisanal and small scale mining. Over 60 million people depend on artisanal mining to earn their bread according to a 2019 estimate from the World Bank. Though artisanal mining remains a source of rapid profits and continues to attract a steady stream of workers, especially in developing countries, it can also result in several harmful effects, including environmental degradation, child labour and poor health and safety standards. Dangers include inhalation of toxic substances like mercury, fumes from explosive blasts, mining pit collapses, and falls.

Gold mining is the leading commodity when it comes to artisanal mining, with the informal sector extracting almost 20% of the global gold supply.

However, while artisanal gold mining is widespread, it is also a very dangerous occupation with mining accidents common in unregulated mines across sub-Saharan Africa. Reliance on a largely unskilled workforce using rudimentary and unsafe practices to extract and filter gold results in poor environmental and health conditions. Chief among them is the uncontrolled use of mercury in the refining process, particularly relevant in the African context, with unrestricted and unsafe usage resulting in significant health risks that include memory loss, kidney malfunction, acute anaemia, and respiratory diseases.

Several African countries are proactively trying to tackle these issues and co-exist with artisanal mining operations by providing artisanal miners with safe working conditions, safety mining headlamps, timely healthcare solutions and support.

This co-existence can be a boon since mining companies have the financial and logistical power to bring about positive change through educational programmes, incentives (including financial), provision of better working conditions, and training on best practices. Training should also include adopting more environment-friendly mining methods and technologies to improve mining efficiencies. Measures that encourage rather than coerce better ways of mining without affecting individuals’ pay will be better received by ASM communities.

Several African countries are also enacting legislation to protect and formalise the artisanal mining sector. It is vital that mining companies assume responsibility for communicating changes and benefits in and of legislation to artisanal miners, amplify outreach, and help steer artisanal mining towards a more sustainable and safer future. There have already been some examples of efficient collaboration between mainstream mining businesses and the artisanal mining sector. Installation of low-cost winches to transport ore have significantly brought down injuries and fatalities in Rwanda’s tin and tantalum mines, have significantly improved working conditions, and boosted productivity. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Mutoshi cobalt mine has seen positive collaboration between mainstream and artisanal mining, with the former providing onsite healthcare, protective equipment, and creating a safe and exclusive working zone for artisanal miners.

It is important to understand that artisanal mining is a source of employment for millions of people across the world, and an effective tool to bring about social and economic development. It is in governmental and private business’ interests to put their energies behind formalising this sector to help it make sustainable and safe. 

Eradicating the negative side-effects while leveraging the economic potential of ASM is a fragile undertaking and will require a strong policy framework and cooperation from key stakeholders including mining communities, mining companies, governments, and development organisations.