Mining Dilemma: Although Small-Scale and Artisanal Mining Have Potential, They Require Government Regulation to Avoid Environmental and Safety Abuses

By Ali, Saleem H. | Alternatives Journal, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Mining Dilemma: Although Small-Scale and Artisanal Mining Have Potential, They Require Government Regulation to Avoid Environmental and Safety Abuses


Ali, Saleem H., Alternatives Journal


NATURAL RESOURCES are often the most elemental means of livelihood for the world's poorest populations. When all else fails, people look to the land to either grow their subsistence or to find whatever wealth it can offer. Small-scale miners are regularly driven to dig the earth due to economic pressures and an elusive promise of treasures.

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With regard to mining, the well-used adage "small is beautiful" is often a rallying cry of environmentalists. The ecological economist E.R Schumacher coined this phrase in the title of his classic book, which urged us to consider the scale of industrial development at multiple levels. As an economist for the National Coal Board of Britain, mining was top of mind for Schumacher, and the scale of large industrial mining operations across Europe at the time was indeed staggering. Mines in the developed world were huge complexes with gaping pits and shafts that were hundreds of metres deep. In comparison, coal mining in China, India and other developing countries occurred at a much smaller scale. However, these smaller mines defied the usual assumption of minimal impact, and were often more problematic in terms of environmental damage and occupational health than their larger cousins.

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Even now, the scale of mining operations is a conundrum for environmentalists and development professionals alike. Small-scale mining provides a livelihood for far more people than large-scale mines, but incomes are sporadic, and environmental health and safety are poorly regulated. According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development's 2002 Report on Artisanal & Small-Scale Mining, around 13 million people in 30 countries are engaged in small-scale mining and another 80 to 100 million individuals across the developing world rely on income that is indirectly derived from the industry. A substantial portion involves extraction of gold or gemstones, but small-scale mining of most minerals is found around the world.

Defining scale is difficult, but necessary. The term "artisanal mining" is perhaps best used to describe the highly informal mining activities of gold panners, family coal gatherers and diamond diggers. Such mines tend to be transient and largely unmechanized. In contrast, although small-scale mining is often transient, it is generally more mechanized, though still not at the level of large industrial operations. Lack of mechanization and transience may suggest that the impact of these forms of mining is ephemeral, but regrettably, that is not the case.

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The high pressure water hoses that are used to expose the ore can cause massive erosion and land subsidence. The pits that are dug by miners are often poorly reinforced with wood and can be safety hazards. Artisanal gold miners generally use mercury to amalgamate and concentrate gold, which poses a direct hazard to their health and is a persistent environmental problem. Once the gold has been concentrated, the miners heat and vaporize mercury from the amalgam to release the precious metal. Mercury's unique properties make it difficult to replace. Since it bioaccumulates and remains in ecosystems over extended periods of time, the pollution generated by this process can stay long after the nomadic miners have left. The use of retort devices can reduce mercury-vapour inhalation, but the potential for mercury to enter the ecosystem remains high, since mining operations are remote, and equipment is seldom disposed of properly.

In 2002, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization began instituting cleaner mining techniques for small-scale gold miners in Brazil, Laos, Indonesia, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. However, the project focused on using mercury retort devices rather than on finding alternative techniques for gold concentration. Most new techniques avoid the use of mercury, but are not widely accepted by miners. …

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