Listen and learn: lessons from the small-scale mining sector

Not enough has been heard from local voices in the mining sector over the last 10 years. In the next year, this needs to change.

Abbi Buxton's picture
Insight by 
Abbi Buxton
05 February 2015
Miners pushing a cart out of a mine near the Bolivian town of Potosi. For centuries this area had the richest silver mines in South America. Today many of the mines are worked by local cooperatives, but conditions are still harsh (Photo Nyall & Maryanne, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Miners pushing a cart out of a mine near the Bolivian town of Potosi. For centuries this area had the richest silver mines in South America. Today many of the mines are worked by local cooperatives, but conditions are still harsh (Photo Nyall & Maryanne, Creative Commons via Flickr)

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.  

                                                         -  T.S. Eliot

The last 10 years have seen the mining sector continue to struggle with social issues. Efforts by companies to engage with communities and secure the all-important "social licence to operate" have not achieved the type of progress seen on other issues such as the environment, and health and safety.

Next week, many in the mining world will meet up in Cape Town for the annual Indaba Investing in African Mining conference. Few, if any communities or artisanal and small-scale (ASM) miners will be present. 

IIED thinks that it is time communities had a bigger voice at the table in defining the language of sustainable development for the sector. It is only in this way that the industry will be able to address the issues that continue to plague it.

MMSD: changing the agenda

From 2000-02, IIED housed the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) programme. It was a landmark initiative for its time, challenging the way the mining sector approached sustainable development. Its outputs continue to shape the industry's approach to sustainable development. But more than that, MMSD challenged the approach to dialogue by pursuing multi-stakeholder engagement and engaging local voices.
When we reviewed MMSD in 2012, we received feedback that there were areas where the agenda needed to be pushed further and where not enough progress had been made. Key among these were the areas of community relations and the artisanal and small-scale mining sector.

In both these cases, there needed to be more engagement with local voices in the sector's policy and decision making, with communities given a greater voice in defining what sustainable development means for mining.

Artisanal and small-scale mining

IIED engages with small-scale producers in agriculture, forestry, fishery and energy – building capacity to get their voice into decision making. The voices of those involved in ASM seem to have been long forgotten.
ASM presents a complex development challenge, with social, economic, environmental and governance dimensions. ASM communities are hugely diverse and face a range of livelihood realities that demand specific and long-lasting solutions.
The sector also has huge potential to bring about transformative change for local and national development – offering significant income earning and employment opportunities to poor communities in remote areas.

The small-scale mining sector, governments, mining companies, NGOs and donors all have a role to play in bringing about this change, but they cannot act alone. Such change requires a holistic response, building trust and recognising rights, to improve relations across the sector.
While decades of changes in policy and practice have failed to respond to these complexities adequately, or at the scale needed, there is now a sense of an opening policy space, and a moment to act.
More of the people involved in ASM are expressing their rights, strengthening community voices. Equally, governments are starting to recognise the economic importance of their ASM sectors, and donors are looking at the sector in a different light. Companies are exploring partnerships for dealing constructively with the complex social issues that arise.

A unified approach may now be within reach – one that enables all actors to understand their roles and responsibilities in driving forward a shared vision for a transformed sector that delivers sustainable development.

The solution is dialogue

How do we ensure that as the industry moves forward, this year's words are both inclusive of local voices and perspectives and proactive in moving the debate forward?
IIED has continued to engage with stakeholders in understanding how best to approach the ASM sector – and our engagement has provided us with lessons that seem valuable. Some of the messages we have heard include:

  • Move beyond talking shops, to address how to implement solutions
  • Make sure the right people are at the table who can implement shared solutions with clear roles and responsibilities
  • Focus dialogue at the local level, so global dialogue is informed and driven by local realities
  • Do not replicate good work already done, but collaborate with those with scalable and replicable solutions
  • Focus on common hopes, fears and approaches, so as to break stalemates
  • Offer the space to challenge widely held worldviews on the ASM sector that have hindered progress in the past, and
  • Bring new voices into the debate – especially the marginalised and excluded (whether the artisanal miner or the company geologist) – in ways that work best for them.

IIED has been listening to these messages and we plan to learn and share from them as our work on mining continues.

Abbi Buxton ([email protected]) is senior researcher in the Sustainable Markets Group.