Time to tell a new story about artisanal and small-scale mining: time for a new "indaba"

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11 February 2015

As the mining sector gathers in South Africa for the annual Indaba meeting, Steve Bass suggests that ongoing purposeful dialogue could make a big difference in tackling the problems and potentials faced by the artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) sector.

A group of miners who are working the Kawa Ijen volcano in Java, Indonesia. The miners carry sulfur down the volcano and to the processing centre where the sulfur is weighed and the miner is paid (Photo: Adam Cohn, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Every year, some of the biggest names and stakeholders in the mining industry converge on Cape Town for the Investing in African Mining Indaba. Although there are an increasing number of discussions on community and artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) issues, key voices continue to be missing from the main discussion, including those of communities and artisanal and small-scale miners themselves.

This really matters where issues and challenges in the ASM sector continue to plague the industry as a whole. Unless these issues are addressed by all mining stakeholders, it is questionable whether the large-scale industry can thrive. A plan for mining that reflects community voices, including those of ASM, is now a must for securing the social licence to operate that continues to evade even the sector's leaders.  

Shifting perspectives

To address these issues requires us to face the reality that there are huge asymmetries of power and information within the mining sector. Artisanal and small-scale miners need the power to contribute to the conversation – so that the industry as a whole can become better informed. And some of the pervasive myths about small-scale mining need to be challenged with better information – for example, that the sector makes a negligible economic contribution.

Better information about ASM will also reveal, for example, how informal ASM can operate well and sustainably with reference to clear rules. These may be community-based or regulatory but are not formally recognised. We want this kind of better understanding to lead to a new vision for ASM sectors that contribute towards the wealth, equity and sustainability of the mining sector as a whole.

How to achieve change

IIED's experience has taught us that this kind of change cannot be achieved through top-down policies or clever recommendations. Instead we have found that creating spaces where the different people involved can come together and discuss their perspectives helps to build both a shared knowledge base and social capital for change.

IIED wants to apply this kind of experience to the ASM challenge. We will be creating the space for a series of dialogues: bringing together artisanal, small-scale and large-scale miners, government and civil society; exploring different geographic and stakeholder realities; and shaping and confirming solutions.

It is important that as part of this process, those involved have time to learn, consider, understand – and change their minds. We hope that commitment will grow alongside knowledge and understanding, creating alliances and champions to develop the vision and deliver real change.

How do we know it works?

This approach has been tried and tested in IIED's previous work on forests. For example, following the 'Sustainable Paper Cycle' global study, The Forests Dialogue (TFD) was set up to help actors work through 'what', 'how' and 'who' to embed sustainability across value chains.

The Forests Dialogue worked through one major issue at a time, in a specific local context. The solutions agreed and the dialogue process itself built confidence and trust, which has proven infectious, encouraging the next dialogue to be even bolder.

Dialogue is purposeful, not just for talk's sake. It leads to tangible results: TFD has helped to mainstream forest certification, and encouraged disparate family, small-scale and community forest associations to federate. It is not just a one-off process but a growing multi-stakeholder group established to continue to drive progress in the forest sector.

In the mining sector, our Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development thematic and regional dialogues provided essential diversity of information and opinion for the global review of mining and sustainable development. Again, there were several tangible results including shaping the purpose, shape and commitment of the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM). Ten years later, our MMSD+10 consultation highlighted ASM as the next challenge – as explored in Abbi Buxton's blog.

We now want to put our increasingly rich dialogue approach to work to improve ASM. We will draw on the above and other experiences, too, such as our involvement in bottom-up national dialogues on the green economy in 10 developing countries. Our 'indaba' dialogue process will go beyond an annual meeting – an intensive process over two years to create the momentum to share ideas and build confidence in solutions for systemic sector change.

Dialogue is a mature and human approach to big challenges. In South African cultures, 'indabas' have traditionally provided a space where people can get together to sort out the problems that affect them all, where everyone has a voice, and where everyone seeks a shared perspective or a common story.

The mining sector needs a common story to address the challenges that continue to plague the industry. We think it is time to hear that story told by new voices.

Steve Bass (steve.bass@iied.org) is head of IIED's Sustainable Markets Group.

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