Sustainability in Artisanal Mining: the Role of Major Stakeholders

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The Case of Ghana: An Introduction to Mining. Mining can be traced back in history when its activities were informal and unregulated. Today, the formal mining industry can be said to be a ‘child’ of an informal mining sector whose contribution to the development of mining cannot be overemphasized. Some countries, like Canada, the United States, Australia, and others, in the course of developing their mining sectors, formalized their artisanal gold mining industry through the provision of services such as transportation, communication, technical services, access to markets, and in particular capitalization (Lynch, 2002).

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This process streamlined the activities involved in mining and made it possible to quantify its social, economic, and environmental effects. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), associated with developing countries and mainly understood as an informal activity within the mining industry, has become a crucial economic contributor worldwide. The definition of ASM is contentious due to the complexity of its activities. Hentschel, Hruschka, and Priester define “artisanal and small-scale mining” as mining conducted by individuals, groups, families, or cooperatives with minimal or no mechanization, often in the informal (illegal) sector of the market (2003, p. 5).

The Minamata Convention on Mercury defines Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) as “gold mining conducted by individual miners or small enterprises with limited capital investment and production” (Eriksen & Perrez, 2014). Meanwhile, the International Labor organization describes its activities as labor-intensive, with mechanization at a low level, and basic (ILO, 1999). The World Bank emphasizes the economic and social effects of ASM as a “largely poverty-driven activity, typically practiced in the poorest and most remote rural areas of a country by a largely itinerant, poorly educated populace with few other employment alternatives” (World Bank, 2013). From these definitions, it’s evident that ASM is an informal work activity with limited use of mechanical tools, is labor-intensive, has limited capital and productivity, engages in deposit exploitation, and has restricted access to land and markets (Hentschel, Hruschka & Priester, 2003; MMSD Project, 2013), which renders ASM unsustainable. These characteristics illustrate the many sustainability issues in ASM, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty faced by many artisanal miners. A World Bank report indicates that ASM occurs in approximately 80 countries worldwide and constitutes about 100 million artisanal miners globally plus their families, compared to about 7 million people worldwide in industrial mining. ASM production supplies account for 80% of the global sapphire market, 20% of gold mining, and up to 20% of diamond mining (World Bank, 2008).

Despite the informal nature, the lack of technical knowledge, and the often unregulated nature of Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) activities, resulting in low productivity and high environmental disruption, the sector represents an alternative livelihood for many rural communities facing a lack of job opportunities. Environmental impacts of ASM activities are also linked to deforestation, river dredging, or the use of toxic chemicals. In this report, I discuss some of the commonly shared sustainability issues concerning ASM in developing countries worldwide. Drawing from specific examples in Ghana (West Africa), I will illustrate some of the sustainability issues affecting artisanal miners in the country and how the unsustainability of ASM creates a cycle of impoverished livelihood. My view is that, to help sustain the livelihoods of artisanal miners, specifically in Ghana and other developing countries, the major stakeholders in the formal mining industry (in this case, governments and large mining companies) should take up the responsibility of providing the necessary help to artisanal miners to avert any social, economic, and environmental risk to the mining sector as a whole. In the following report, I will discuss the issue of artisanal mining in Ghana, examining its impacts from the perspective of the three pillars of sustainability, and finally, conclude by suggesting alternative sustainable livelihood approaches for ASM and the role that major stakeholders can play. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM), popularly known in Ghana as ‘galamsey’, has been in existence since pre-colonial times, and currently, tens of thousands of artisanal miners are operating. It is a very significant avenue for income generation for some rural youth and women in Ghana facing a lack of opportunities in other industries. However, galamsey, while serving as an alternative, is not without its own problems. Recently, ASM has increased due, in part, to the vast influx of ‘illegal foreign miners’ and, in some instances, the expansion of large-scale gold mining activities. The activities mentioned above have attracted small-scale miners to their tailing dams, concessions, and downstream regions. The challenging national economy is also fueling the drive for people to venture into ASM, many without a license to operate.

It must be understood that not all ASM in Ghana is illegal. In fact, the country was the first Sub-Saharan African country to pass legislation regulating ASM back in 1989 (Hilson & Potter, 2003). Currently, the Minerals and Mining Act of 2006 serves as a regulatory instrument containing provisions for ASM processes, including registration, permits, health and safety, and environmental management. Despite this, the processes required for registration and licensing are burdensome and time-consuming, creating disincentives for miners to formalize their operations. Hence, despite all the legal instruments, the majority of the ASM sector remains illegal, rendering their operation unregulated and, in that case, environmentally and economically unsustainable.

The cause and effects are now clear: Mercury, which is commonly used in extracting gold from the ore by artisanal miners, has been identified as a highly toxic pollutant in the Pra River, one of the largest rivers in the Eastern region of Ghana. Other carcinogenic chemicals have also been found in the river, which ultimately poison the fish and the locals’ water supply within the catchment area. The environmental and health authorities continue to warn against the severe health and environmental impacts of the activities of ASM. Therefore, given the evident causes and effects, one may ask why no solution has been implemented yet.

Some scholars and technical experts have suggested a few reasons (Hilson & Potter, 2003): A transboundary issue is proposed since there is a view that the country’s decentralized governance structure makes it incredibly challenging to address the transboundary nature of river pollution.

The administrative board in charge of the river basin comprises assemblies at three different administrative levels (Metropolitan, Municipal, and District), and a range of other stakeholders. As the river covers 41 administrative districts cutting across 4 regions, it renders the administrative body ineffective and unmanageable. Additionally, the Board must coordinate their activities with the mining sector (large and small-scale operators) and with regulators in other sectors (land and natural resources, environment, and national security); this makes a joint effort exceedingly difficult to realize.

Other issues include limited enforcement: The effective enforcement of current regulations on ASM activities has been identified as largely insufficient. A task force was established some years ago to address the issue but has been largely unsuccessful. Some experts argue that the lack of political will among government officials and traditional authorities, not their capacity, is what allows illegal mining to prosper.

Poor investment is another factor: Due to the lack of investment in non-extractive sectors, many rural poor people seek alternative and more dangerous sources of income by engaging in illegal mining activities. Combined with the toxic pollution in the Pra River, farmers and fishermen are compelled to seek other ways to earn a living in order to feed their families. Without support for traditional economic sectors such as agriculture, communities will continue to participate in the ‘illegal activities’ of those upstream in their search for gold.


The Role of Major Stakeholders: Governments and Large Mining Companies. As the introduction of this report has shown, the mining industry as it is known today was born out of the informal mining sector. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that ASM activities today cannot be part of the formalized mining sector. Canada, the US, Australia, and others formalized their artisanal gold mining sectors through provision of services such as transportation, communication, technical services, access to markets, and, in particular, capitalization. Today, many artisanal miners in developing countries continue to face numerous sustainability issues that threaten their livelihood and the future of their generations. ASM is estimated to be the largest source of global mercury pollution in the world, projected to account for more than a third of global anthropogenic emissions (Wotruba, Hentschel, Livan, Hruschka, & Priester, 1998). In addition to this, ASGM has also resulted in other negative environmental impacts such as deforestation and biodiversity loss, and it is often associated with child labor, other human rights violations, and reduced environmental security, sometimes being linked to armed conflicts over access to mineral reserves. However, ASM’s important role as a source of livelihood for millions of rural poor communities makes it a critical factor in understanding the broader picture of poverty reduction and socioeconomic development programs. The livelihood of miners involved in ASM continues to be affected by structural and institutional systems that perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Therefore, to help sustain the livelihood of artisanal miners, major stakeholders in the formal mining industry (government and large mining firms) should assume the responsibility of providing the necessary support to artisanal miners in order to avert any social, economic, and environmental risk to the mining sector as a whole. Rather than focusing on eradicating ASM altogether, the focus should be on integrating miners into the formal economy. The responsibility of governments should be to create a platform of engagement between small-scale miners and large-scale miners to promote collaboration. This would encourage ethical practices and minimize negative environmental and social impacts. For large-scale mining companies, the focus should be on creating a supportive environment for co-existing with artisanal miners by providing systems, such as vocational training and skills development for small-scale miners, offering part-time employment when necessary, and making mineral market information and geological data accessible to ASM to improve productivity. Vocational training will allow more miners to create an alternative sustainable career path for themselves. Access to market information and geological data would also help artisanal miners to become more profitable and minimize any environmental impact (World Bank & ICMM, 2009). In this way, the consensus will be not only to identify the problems of ASM but to start contributing to the professionalization of the sector and to help make it sustainable.

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Sustainability in Artisanal Mining: The role of major Stakeholders. (2019, May 19). Retrieved from