Building bridges between the money and the many in mining

Abbi Buxton reports on efforts to overcome distrust and conflict between artisanal and large-scale mining operations, through an international project that will bring the two sides together to seek sustainable ways to coexist.

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Abbi Buxton
11 February 2014
A panel discusses artisanal and small-scale mining at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town (Photo: Abbi Buxton/IIED)

A panel discusses artisanal and small-scale mining at the Mining Indaba in Cape Town (Photo: Abbi Buxton/IIED)

When 8,000 mining sector players gathered in Cape Town last week, there were more than a few notable absences.

Their meeting — the Mining Indaba — is among the world's biggest mining conferences, but is largely for industry, by industry. It is not about the 'little guy' — the 20-30 million artisanal and small-scale miners who form the bulk of the sector in terms of numbers. A space for those people to gather and discuss their issues simply does not exist.

This is a huge gap. Rarely do all the different mining players – big, small, public, private, local, international — come together to address big challenges, which in the case of artisanal and small-scale mining include child labour, pollution and links to conflict.

Yet, large and small-scale mining are not isolated activities. They often operate side-by-side or even overlap, but their relationship is marked by distrust and discord.

And while governments tend to see small-scale mining as a problem, the sector could provide sustainable livelihoods for millions of marginalised people. It's essential then that the various interests learn how they can work together for mutual gain.

Time to talk

Despite a growing number of sustainable development side events at such conferences, they remain a niche interest. There never seems to be enough time on the agenda to draw on the knowledge of diverse stakeholders about what works, and what doesn't, in addressing mining's big challenges.

One reason is that there is no neutral space for players with disparate and conflicting interests to come together to identify common problems and shared solutions. Collaboration, the key to achieving "shared value" in the extractives sector, is elusive.

The International Institute for Environment and Development aims to provide exactly that space through our programme on artisanal and small-scale mining. We have identified major issues facing the sector, as well as big gaps in knowledge and processes that prevent progress towards sustainability.

Our work draws on success in the forests sector, through The Forest Dialogue, in pulling together stakeholders to identify win-win solutions to contentious issues. We will run national and regional dialogues that gather small-scale miners, big businesses, NGOs and government players to identify ways to move forward together.

The time to act is now. International guidance and regulations are forcing these players to consider how to improve their interactions. To avoid knee jerk, reactive initiatives that entrench isolation and waste resources, we need to come together, take stock of what we know and see how we can collaborate most effectively to achieve change. 

Bridge building

There's growing interest in building bridges. At the Mining Inbada the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development hosted a side-event on artisanal and small-scale mining in response to demands from its members — government actors from 48 resource rich countries — to better understand the sector, its needs and opportunities.

I joined a panel of representatives of governments, big business and small-scale miners to discuss the terms on which they would be willing to come together to examine problems and identify shared solutions. (Here's my presentation). Some common responses emerged:

  • Before they engage, individuals need to know the benefits, risks and opportunities of doing so — and the risk of not
  • Participants need to be confident in the process and that there is a realistic chance it will lead to actual positive outcomes.

There are other important concerns. The process of identifying who should be at the table needs to carry legitimacy and involve the very players it seeks to bring together — to create a shared sense of ownership from the start. Artisanal miners won't risk participating if they are regarded as illegal, illegitimate players. Big business meanwhile does not just want to be seen as the payer for solutions.

It was also clear that as well as identifying shared solutions, a dialogue process could enhance governance and accountability, through the very act of bringing players to the table.

The event showed there is appetite for engagement, so long as everyone knows what to expect. It's a sign that the time is ripe for building bridges between the money and the many, the two sides of the mining coin that could – if spent wisely – bring sustainable benefits for all.

Abbi Buxton is a researcher in the Sustainable Markets Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development ([email protected])

This article was first published by The Guardian on 11 February 2014.