IIED shines a light on small-scale mining

Small-scale and artisanal mining — a sector that governments and development agencies often see as only as a problem — could be a source of sustainable livelihoods for millions of marginalised people, say researchers at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

News, 05 March 2013
Small-scale gold miners in Madagascar. Photo: Global Environment Facility

Small-scale gold miners in Madagascar (Photo: Global Environment Facility)

Today they have launched a report that identifies the serious knowledge gaps in the sector and sets out options for a major new IIED project-in-the-making. This project will aim to help policymakers ensure small-scale mining meets its potential to improve lives and take better care of local environments.

It will do this by connecting stakeholders, including miners and their communities, and ensuring that better quality information is generated and used effectively in policymaking at local, corporate, national and international levels.

"Small-scale and artisanal mines can be a force for good just as small-scale forestry and agriculture are – but right now they operate in a hidden world," says Sarah Best of IIED. "We want to identify ways to overcome the challenges — in information, investment and institutions — that prevent small-scale mining from realising its potential to contribute to sustainable development."

The sector is a paradox — productive but undervalued, conspicuous yet overlooked, and 'small-scale' but economically and socially significant. It produces about 85 per cent of the world’s gemstones and 20-25 per cent of all gold. Its mines provide jobs and income for 20-30 million of the world’s poorest people and support the livelihoods of five times that number. 

Overall, artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) employs ten times more people than large-scale mining. But it takes place in very remote areas, usually involves poor and vulnerable people, — including women and children — and is renowned for severe pollution and harsh working conditions. 

Despite all of this, development agencies and national authorities have historically given little attention to the sector and how to make it sustainable, instead focusing on large scale mining. Rather than supporting small-scale mining, governments’ policies are often poorly designed or implemented, or even repressive. The miners themselves lack access to the rights, financial services, market information and technology they need to make this is a prosperous economic activity with reduced environmental impacts. As a result, many are often driven to operate illegally – and it is this illegality that has biased attitudes about the whole ASM sector.

Donors often ignore small-scale and artisanal mining, perceiving activities such as small scale agriculture and forestry to be more ‘positive’ livelihoods for the poor. Large-scale mining companies often only engage with the small-scale sector in cases of conflict over land and resources. 

The report shows that, while there is good hands-on experience and innovation on-the-ground — for instance, with some governments adopting more inclusive policies and with the beginnings of ethical sourcing — these are often not widely known about, or face huge implementation challenges which stall progress. 

"Governments, development agencies and the private sector have tended to overlook small-scale mining, seeing it as a source of problems or something that should not exist," says Abbi Buxton of IIED. "This neglect has to end, particularly as the demand for mineral resources continues to grow."

IIED's new programme of work follows earlier work on mining. In 2000-2002, the institute ran the 'Mining Minerals and Sustainable Development' (MMSD) project, a major review that gathered evidence and engaged stakeholders around the question of ‘how can mining and minerals best contribute to the global transition to sustainable development?’

In 2012, IIED published a ten year review to assess progress and identify the way ahead (see MMSD+10: Reflecting on a decade of mining and sustainable development). ASM was identified as an area where little progress has been made over the past decade. This new programme will seek to address some of the underlying and ongoing challenges to ensure progress over the next ten years.

It will overcome weaknesses in the way that knowledge is gathered and influences policy, such as the lack of information from artisanal or small-scale mining communities, and limited coordination between sector stakeholders. It will promote dialogue, learning and leadership at national and international levels and find practical solutions to sector-wide challenges, such as child labour, health hazards, informality, human rights, pollution, and transparency in supply chains. And it will embrace diverse collaborations at national and international level.

The new report presents several programme options that IIED has identified following initial consultations with ASM sector stakeholders. The institute now welcomes responses to these options and expressions of interest in collaboration.

Download the report (available from 5 March)