CMJ and its readers have certainly heard of artisanal mining. We have seen documentaries on television showing South Americans or Africans with heavy baskets balanced on their heads as they climb out of holes via rickety ladders. Their plight can be improved if we follow the lead of Christina Echavarria, the director of the MINING POLICY RESEARCH INITIATIVE (MPRI) sponsored by the INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT RESEARCH CENTRE (IDRC) of Canada. Echavarria was in Canada a week ago to address a forum in Montreal, and she made a stop in Ottawa during which she spoke to CMJ.
Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is open to abuse. The working conditions are frequently unsafe. Violence is a common means of protecting individual claims. The wages are low and intermittent, leaving workers in poverty and undernourished. I was surprised to learn that women participate in significant numbers: 40% of the artisanal miners in Bolivia are women; 50% in Madagascar, Mali and Zimbabwe; and 75% in Guinea. When a mother works in the mines, her young children work at her side. Those children should be in school if they are ever to have something better to look forward to. ASM can also be brutal to the local environment. It is leaving a legacy of mercury contamination in the Amazon and heavy metals in Bolivia.
When large mining companies, with their mantra of sustainability, expanded into Third World countries 10 or 15 years ago, many thought that ASM would disappear. It hasn’t. As Echavarria told her Montreal audience, in Africa ASM produces between 20-25% of all non-fuel minerals and provides close to US$2 billion in gold and gems. In six countries, it is responsible for 15% of all diamonds mined or US$1.2 billion. ASM employs an estimated 11 to 13 million people, and perhaps as many as 100 million depend on it for their diversified or seasonal livelihoods. "It employs today more people than the large-scale mining industry," she added.
Many organizations believe that ASM can be profitable, productive, safe and healthy, environmentally acceptable, and child-labour free. Transforming the sector would have positive impacts on poor families in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. "Ignoring it will only postpone the problem and deepen poverty, illness and inequity in the many ASM regions of the world," Echavarria said.
"We need an integrated, long-term solution, and that takes political will," she said. Both governments and the international mineral industry must work together to find the answers.
"We need joint ventures between small and large miners. That way the larger companies provide learning, mentoring, financing and market access for the smaller partners," Echavarria explained. "The process involves cultural change and education over the long term."
As an example, she pointed out Coeur d’Alene Mines’ San Bartolome project near Potos, Bolivia. Mining rights are controlled by local co-operatives which employ hundreds of artisanal miners. The company is negotiating a development agreement that balances benefits and costs for all parties. The agreement also covers ore processing and local hiring preferences. In that way the project will be more sustainable than if Coeur came in, extracted the silver and left.
Bringing ASM into the 21st Century won’t happen overnight, but steps are being taken toward improving it. Echavarria proposes that artisanal and small-scale mining become formalized, organized and profitable within the next 10 years; that it adopt efficient technologies; that it be socially and environmentally responsible; and that it develops within a framework of governance, legality, participation and respect for cultural diversity.
There is much to do. Learn more at www.iipm-mpri.org or contact Christina Echavarria directly at email@example.com.