Artisanal and Small-scale mining (ASM) refers to informal mining activities carried out using low technology or with minimal machinery. It is estimated that more than 100 million people rely on this sector for income, mainly in developing nations. In some areas ASM takes place alongside large-scale formal mining leading to conflicts.
Artisanal & Small-scale Mining (ASM) Overview
The term Artisanal & Small-scale Mining (ASM) broadly refers to mining practised by individuals, groups or communities often informally (illegally) and in developing nations. A common definition for this sector has not been adopted as its legal status, defining criteria, and local definitions vary from country to country.
It is difficult to estimate the extent of ASM due to the lack of a common definition, its use of seasonal and occasional workers, and a lack of official statistics. In 1999 there were a reported 13 million people working directly in ASM, with the livelihoods of a further 80-100 million people affected indirectly. A more recent estimate notes that these numbers have likely risen in response to higher gold and commodity prices, and that there are now at least 25 million artisanal miners, with 150-170 million people indirectly reliant on ASM.[2, p.9]
The reasons that individuals enter ASM are varied and include both ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. In Africa, increased participation in ASM has been linked to a decline in the viability of agriculture, or as a way to supplement agricultural income. Other push factors include poverty, conflict, natural disasters, or economic crisis. Pull factors that encourage people to enter this sector include the potential for high profits or gold-rush type situations.
Key Features of Artisanal & Small-scale Mining (ASM)
In the absence of a common definition, Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM) is often characterized by its key features, which include:
- Minimal machinery or technology used; instead, ASM mining relies on simple techniques and physical labour;
- Operates without legal mining titles (concession, claim) or a valid contract with the title holder;
- Low productivity since ASM often takes place in very small or marginal plots, is limited to surface or alluvial mining, and uses inefficient techniques. (However, total recovery is improved by repetitive scavenging & reprocessing);
- Lack of safety measures, health care or environmental protections;
- May be practised seasonally (e.g., to supplement farm incomes) or temporarily in response to high commodity prices; and
- Economic insecurity.
ASM can potentially contribute to development by providing employment, increasing local purchasing power, stimulating local economic growth and slowing urban migration. However, this sector also creates social, environmental and financial challenges that may undermine development.
ASM Social and Environmental Concerns
The artisanal mining sector can adversely affect mining communities and may provide them with no benefit at all during or after mining. ASM can lead to an influx of workers and create conflict with existing miners, communities, and indigenous populations. Sanitation and basic health care are often lacking in ASM areas and substance abuse, alcoholism and communicable diseases often increase. Women and children are also frequently involved in ASM activities creating specific health, physical and psychological concerns.
The lack of formality (legality) in the ASM sector also affects worker safety. Dangers in the workplace include lack of training, poor ventilation, lack of safety equipment, improper use of chemicals, and obsolete equipment. In fact, ASM can be very dangerous; at least 6,000 workers are killed each year in small illegal Chinese coal mines alone.
ASM communities may also be affected by environmental degradation. ASM can pollute waterways through mercury use, dam construction, a build-up of silt, poor sanitation, and effluent dumped in rivers. Improper mine closure and lack of reclamation can also result in acid rock drainage. Monitoring and enforcement of environmental regulations is hampered by informality, the remote location of mine operations, and a lack of resources.
Finally, ASM presents financial challenges for governments. Miners involved in ASM trade gold and minerals informally and do not pay tax or royalties, limiting the ability of governments to provide services or enforce laws. ASM may also be used to fund corruption, launder money, and support guerilla activities while undercutting the viability of legal mining.
Relationship with Large-Scale Formal Mining
ASM activities often take place near or within the formal mining concessions of large-scale mining (LSM) operations. ASM may take place in abandoned mining areas, in tailing dams, or in downstream areas. Interactions between LSM and ASM are increasing as both sectors expand; relations can range from violent confrontation to cooperative support.
Risks to Mining Operations
The presence of ASM can create a number of risks for LSM. First, when ASM takes place on formal concessions, it can create health and safety risks for LSM miners. Increased security may also be necessary to protect LSM workers and mining equipment, and conflicts between LSM and ASM workers can result in work stoppages. Conflict between large-scale mines and artisanal miners has created controversy and significant tension in some areas, such as Tanzania, leading to high-profile conflicts and negative perceptions of international mining.
Risks to Public Support
ASM can also damage the reputation of LSM operations and threaten community support for the larger mines. ASM is much more environmentally damaging than LSM, and can leave a legacy of water and land pollution, river damage, and abandoned pits and shafts. ASM activities may also be tied to illegal activities, child labor, and human rights abuses that are not related to LSM but are nonetheless picked up by the media and pressure groups and used to damage the reputation of LSM companies.
The response of LSM operations to ASM varies depending on the situation and nature of interaction, but increasingly consultation and discussion helps manage and minimize risk. Such engagement can also bring benefits for the LSM operations beyond risk mitigation. ASM may help in exploration activities, and their inclusion in post-mine closure plans can help ensure that a positive mining legacy remains. ASM engagement may also be part of the Corporate Social Responsibility strategies of mining operations, and contribute to a sustainable and positive post-mining legacy.
The legal framework governing LSM and ASM interaction can vary significantly and there is not an international legal framework specific to ASM. A number mining codes and conventions are relevant, however, including:
- International Council on Mining & Metals [ICMM] 10 Principles
- Kimberly Process
- Global Reporting Initiative Mining and Metals Supplement
- ILO 182 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention