Artisanal mining and the SDGs
By Kevin Telmer - March 14, 2016
The September fanfare of agreeing to 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is over. It’s 2016, and the clock has started ticking. A starting point to realising the SDGs requires an understanding of where and how our work intersects with them. The mining sector – large, medium, small and artisanal – is no exception. How the artisanal sector in particular unfolds and develops in the next 15 years will affect our collective ability to reach the SDGs. While developments in Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) can be linked to all of the SDGs, 8 of the most pertinent ones are discussed below, reflecting on what this means for the sector and for the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC).
Jobs, economic growth and poverty (SDG1 and 8)
The sector has a tremendous poverty alleviation potential. ASGM can be a lucrative income generating opportunity in rural areas. ASGM is unlike large scale mining in the number of people it employs per gram of gold produced, and the portion of revenue generated that ends up in the hands of miners. It is estimated to involve 10 million people and support a secondary economy of roughly 100 million people in more than 70 countries. In remote areas, many miners send remittances back to their families. Transforming the sector can thus have a large impact on rural poverty.
At present, many artisanal and small scale gold miners operate on the periphery of the formal economy, and as such do not benefit from some key aspects of social security (i.e. labour rights, employment insurance, health insurance, disability leave, maternity leave, pension, etc.). Informality can give rise to vulnerability, whereby miners need to make payments to access sites, risk losing access to mine sites by interventions from the state (police, local government officials) or from the large scale mining industry. This state of uncertainty can limit miners’ interest in investing in operations that could be seized or that they could lose access to. This results in miners using the cheapest practices, which also tend to have the worst impact on the environment.
Within the informal ASGM sector there are tiers of social stratification. The ability to take advantage of the opportunities ASGM offers is not equal for men and women. Women in many societies continue to bear the majority of the burden in the care economy, providing essential and unpaid services for their families. This, combined with gender norms and existing inequities, can lead to women’s economic marginalisation within the sector. Women tend to work in less well-paid positions.
In some places, children work in artisanal and small scale gold mining, and due to the hazardous working conditions it is often considered one of the worst forms of child labour. Decent work in this case, begins with the foundation: access to education and training for children. Harnessing the economic potential of the sector, formalising and addressing poverty in these rural communities is essential for children’s futures.
As the AGC engages with ASGM communities, we focus on ensuring safe, healthy, adequately remunerated work that is accessible for women and men. The ASGM sector on its own is a vehicle for local community economic development. However, this can be furthered through:
- Adoption of better processing techniques: For example, moving to mercury-free processing of gold improves working conditions for miners while simultaneously increasing gold recovery and revenues.
- Organisation of miners: Organised miners are better able to interact with the state and to bring attention to their needs and priorities. This is a first step towards formalisation, which enable many other responsible behaviours.
- Supportive regulatory frameworks: Governments can create an enabling environment that allows miners in ASGM to flourish, by easing access to the formal economy, and taking measures to ensure that miners are able to sell their gold at a fair price to legitimate buyers.
- Services: Accessible education/training, health, social security, child care and basic infrastructure (energy, sanitation) will allow communities to fully benefit from ASGM.
- Investments from the financial sector: Miners often do not have access to financial institutions and their services and are unable to raise the capital required to invest in better processing techniques. Since these techniques can be more environmentally friendly and yield higher economic returns (through an increased throughput and increased recovery), investments in the sector can stimulate sustainable improvements.
- Creation of a responsible artisanal gold supply chain: Linking miners to responsible markets creates a responsibility reinforcement mechanism. It provides miners with a demand for responsible gold, and provides an incentive to continue meeting responsible gold requirements.
Health and wellbeing (SDG3)
While the economic incentives (income opportunity, combined with a lack of alternatives) lead to people seeking out a living in ASGM, their health and that of their families and communities can suffer. While wealth and health are often closely connected, the processing techniques used in generating wealth in this case directly jeopardise health. The most salient is the use of mercury. Mercury is a cheap, quick and readily accessible way for miners to retrieve gold from the ore that they mine. Handling mercury and being exposed to mercury vapour has well documented negative neurological impacts. Women of child-bearing age and children are particularly vulnerable to mercury exposure. The Minamata Convention on Mercury Use (2013) brings this issue to government’s attention.
Exposure to silica dust is another major health risk for miners and communities. This exposure can be minimised by simple equipment and wet processing techniques.
Located in rural areas and in the informal sector, miners often have inadequate access to preventative, primary and higher levels of care. Precarious living conditions (access to drinking water, sanitation, etc.) lead to a high incidence of infectious disease and there are high rates of injuries from hazardous work.
AGC supports governments in the development of National Action Plans, which include carrying out rapid health assessments, and creating public health strategies. AGC has also built curriculum for health professionals, and does awareness raising directly in communities and with miners. Addressing the risk factors as well as providing solutions such as health services will promote greater wellbeing in ASGM communities.
Gender equality (SDG5)
Gender inequalities overlap with other inequities relating to age, geography, income and race. Men, women and children work in ASGM to different extents and in different roles around the world. This can worsen gender inequities or can be a vehicle to lessen them. ASGM affects productive, reproductive, family, learning, community and leisure aspects of workers and their communities’ lives. At its worst, ASGM can exclude women from income generating opportunities, marginalise their participation in decision making, increase their reproductive (unpaid) work, expose them to gender-based violence and expose them to a neurotoxin. Alternatively, when women are included, they can improve their socio-economic status, decision-making power in communities, gain financial independence and control their own health protection measures. Moreover, investing in women benefits their development prospects and communities as a whole. It is well documented that women invest in their family education and health, sharing their personal improvement in well-being more broadly than men.
AGC works with women and women’s organisations to ensure that they capture development opportunities. Our engagement at the community level, begins with consultation with men and women to prioritise areas of intervention. This can include facilitated awareness raising workshops for men and women on gender issues as well as providing training to women, organisational strengthening support to women’s organisations or building physical spaces that can be used to organise, store ore or care for children to meet women’s needs. At the same time, AGC works with government to put women on the agenda in mining and environmental offices, with the end goal of engendering workplaces policies relating to ASGM.
Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG6)
ASGM activities often use and affect water. On the one hand, water can be used in mineral processing with varying demand associated with different ore deposit types and processing techniques. Alluvial mining for instance is done directly in or near rivers and other waterways. More mechanised hard rock mining can also require water as an input for process control. In addition, ASGM generates tailings, which if not properly managed can contaminate water sources. Depending on how roles are distributed with communities, water use and contamination in ASGM can differentially impact men and women, with women more likely to be adversely impacted by changes in access to water.
As part of environmental monitoring at ASGM sites where the AGC works, it tracks some key indicators of water use and water quality, recognising the importance of water to communities. While the processing plants that AGC works with require about 1000 liters of water which reduces dust. Recycling rates are about 90% and so consumption of water is about 100 liters per day. AGC uses its presence to raise awareness among miners about good water and waste management practices.
Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG12)
International efforts aim to reduce and eventually eliminate mercury use through the Minamata Convention. For these efforts to be successful, governments will have to engage with miners in ASGM, in order to facilitate the responsible production of gold. As this transition happens, in conjunction with the due diligence guidelines for trade in gold, demand for artisanal gold that meets international standards will increase.
AGC engages with international policies that affect ASGM to ensure that the needs of artisanal producers are considered. AGC also engages with responsible consumers to increase their interest in sourcing responsible artisanal gold.
Life on Land (SDG15)
Artisanal and small scale mining can greatly transform land use and therefore jeopardise habitats and biodiversity. Regulation alone will be insufficient to contain the sector’s impact on life on land. Strong institutions, dialogue with communities and rural employment opportunities will need to combine to meet this goal.
Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions (SDG16)
Building effective, accountable institutions can facilitate the formalization of the sector, allowing for broader development goals to be reached. It will be needed to curb child labour and illicit financial flows in ASGM. The AGC engages governments at the national, regional and local levels as well as with international organizations (i.e. UN) and educational institutes (i.e. universities and vocational training institutes) to deliver technical assistance to strengthen institutional capacity in technical mining policy governance and markets.
Developments in the ASGM sector are moving on many fronts. Internationally, the Minamata Convention, OECD Due Diligence Guidelines and international buyers are driving change. Governments are providing frameworks within which miners work – whether this is through provision (or lack thereof) of key services, prohibitive regulations that encourage informality, or the framework for formalization, which helps miners become legitimate operations. Miners themselves respond directly to these landscapes and to the availability of other income generating opportunities. Civil society organisations, like the Artisanal Gold Council and its partners, engage a variety of these actors in transitioning the sector to one that sustains livelihoods and the environment – a responsible artisanal gold mining sector.