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The horrifying impact of artisanal mining in Africa

By Simon Mwebaze

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV.

Most minerals you will come across worldwide are due to artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). ASM contributes between 15-20% of all the minerals sold across the world. Additionally, it employs over 13 million people in 80 countries. This makes it a pivotal part of the mining sector that deserves attention. 

ASM is the practice of miners moving from one area to another looking for minerals. In the process of extracting these minerals, they use rudimentary tools and techniques to extract and purify the minerals which they sell on a subsistence level. Since many of the miners are semi-skilled and uneducated, they cannot compete for formal jobs. ASM provides a source of income for them. But it is also heavily unregulated and has some negative impacts that are difficult to ignore.

For one, artisanal mining must take place at sites. In the process of finding those sites, miners often harm the environment. Trees are cut down to access mineral sites and energy for their operations which leads to deforestation. In Zimbabwe, 30% of the forest cover is being lost to artisanal mining. It also leads to land degradation since some miners mine protected areas and dump waste that damages the soil. The use of dynamite in mining activities also destroys the land and its ability to sustain plant and animal life. 

The other negative impact comes from the techniques used. For example, with gold, mercury is heavily used to separate the gold ore from the soil. Mercury is poisonous and the vapor released from the process affects the respiratory organs of miners. More so, mercury may be disposed of in water bodies and the ecosystem, poisoning animals and water bodies that the communities consume. 

To put it in perspective, mercury from small-scale mining is the largest source of mercury emissions in the world. It is responsible for 1,000 tons of gas per year. It is commonly used because it is cheap and available to poor miners who are unable to afford better tools and techniques.

While ASM assists to provide economic activity for miners and their families, it takes away from the government. Since most miners are not licensed and operate without government insight, it denies revenue to the government. In South Africa, it is estimated that 30,000 illegal miners account for $8 million worth of gold revenue per year. Most of their gold goes to the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland which is a loss to the state in taxes and fees. 

When you consider the percentages of minerals sold like this across the world, the figures get more startling. In 2017, it was discovered that 80% of the world’s sapphires, and 20% of the world’s gold and diamond production, were from illegal operations due to artisanal mining. Countries like Zimbabwe are highly dependent on such trades to the extent that the gold from illegal miners accounts for larger quantities than legal mining. In 2017, illegal mining accounted for 13.2 tons of gold while large-scale mining accounted for 11.6 tons of gold. 

What makes this a problem is the fact that most illegal miners sell at below-market prices and do not get the best value from these sales. In South Africa, one such sale was made for a 55-carat diamond at close to $360,000 which was later sold for almost five times that. When miners make losses like this, it affects the opportunity to make their lives better. Without regulation by the government, they cannot be protected from such issues. 

Socially, ASM has negative impacts on communities as well. Since the nature of the job is to travel to different sites where they create temporary establishments, the sites are neglected for healthcare services. The problem with this is that the nature of the job is dangerous. Miners are prone to injury or health issues from their operations in the mine and exposure to dangerous chemicals.

The mining sites also turn into grounds for prostitution and crime. In 2021, illegal miners that called themselves “zama zamas” attacked police that were trying to stop food parcels from reaching them. In 2022, 140 illegal miners attacked gold miner Sibanye-Stillwater’s mothballed Cooke shaft near Randfontein. Toward the end of 2022, there was a horrific robbery and gang rape of a film crew at a mine dump close to West Village.

It may seem that ASM may be more of a cost than a benefit. But the unique circumstances of the miners clue us into why it makes sense for many of its participants. Most miners are poorly educated or lack any education. Mining is one of the only forms of employment they can take up to uplift their economic circumstances. It also employs a significant percentage of women who make up 40-50% of the artisanal workforce. More so, in countries like Guinea, ASM contributes to economic expenditure in sectors like health, education, and infrastructure development. It also accounts for 80% of export expenditure and 20% of GDP.

Despite the benefits, ASM needs assistance from governments and NGOs to make it safer and more efficient for all stakeholders affected by its activities. Governments should intervene with appropriate policy and regulatory frameworks to facilitate and manage artisanal mining as a livelihood strategy. More so, with the help of NGOs, they should provide education and training to equip artisans with better and safer mining techniques. This can also help them understand the dangers of conducting mining with rudimentary tools and techniques that endanger them, their community, and the environment. 

While changing mindsets may take a while, it is a step in the right direction along with regulatory and policy changes.

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Simon Mwebaze

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