Around the world, at least 40 million people, mostly poor, work in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Though it is typically informal in nature and workers often labor under difficult conditions, ASM accounts for approximately 20 percent of the world’s production of gold, diamonds, tin, and tantalum, and 80 percent of colored gemstones.
The conditions can be dangerous and the pay low. Still, ASM is an important source of livelihoods for millions of people and tends to pay more than other options in many developing countries.
While a country’s mineral wealth can translate into widespread prosperity and social progress, too often this wealth leads to a downward spiral of corruption and violent conflict. In many developing countries, illegal and unregulated mining, particularly ASM, contributes to armed conflict, funds criminal networks, and damages the environment.
A key reason for these negative impacts is the capture of the mining sector by disreputable, powerful groups. Corrupt officials, illegitimate regimes, and powerful companies or criminal groups often gain control over the sector through intimidation, violence, and corruption. They receive most of the economic benefits, while many more people suffer the negative environmental, social, and economic impacts.
ASM increasingly occurs in areas of high biodiversity such as protected tropical forests, which can result in damage to ecosystems. Gold mining in creeks, rivers, and streams has deforested over 62,500 hectares in the Amazon’s uniquely biodiverse Madre de Dios region over the past 20 years, while contaminating waterways with mercury. At least 10 million ASM miners in more than 70 countries use mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin, to recover very small pieces of gold from sediment or soil — resulting in the largest source of mercury pollution on Earth.
Illegal and unregulated ASM also generates billions of dollars in illicit funds for international criminal organizations. In 2016, the value of illicit gold production in South America was estimated to be at least $7 billion. In Africa, artisanal diamond, gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten mining has helped finance deadly conflicts in Angola, Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
To help address these challenges, USAID is working with governments, civil society, communities, and the private sector to reduce the negative impacts of ASM, and ensure that the wealth generated contributes to more inclusive economic growth and development.
Over the last five years, USAID has awarded programs with an anticipated total value of $125 million to address illegal and unregulated ASM in countries such as Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Peru, and Rwanda.
In Colombia, USAID programs have helped to formalize 42 gold mining operations as part of efforts to promote legal and responsible mineral supply chains in Antioquia and Chocó. These programs have eliminated nearly 40 tons of mercury from mining production and assisted in generating $110 million in legal gold sales. In addition, USAID rehabilitated 17,000 hectares of land negatively impacted by mining.
In Peru, USAID recently launched a new, five-year $23.9 million program to strengthen institutions to prosecute environmental crimes; reduce environmental crimes in key landscapes in and around protected areas and indigenous land; and support civil society and the media to serve as effective watchdogs.
In the Central African Republic, USAID helps reduce the flow of conflict diamonds by improving compliance with the international Kimberley Process Certification Scheme. In 2013, the Central African Republic was temporarily suspended from the Kimberley Process due to lack of compliance and concerns about conflict diamonds, leading to an embargo on diamonds from the country. USAID worked closely with the government to improve compliance, which led to a partial lift on the embargo in 2015. USAID continues to support the government to improve compliance and strengthen social cohesion in mining communities.
In the DRC, USAID supports the establishment of legal, responsible mineral supply chains for tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. In 2010, the United Nations reported that almost every mine site in eastern DRC was under the control of armed groups. Since then, USAID has supported the validation of more than 600 ASM sites as conflict-free. By 2017, an estimated three out of four tin, tantalum, and tungsten sites were free of armed group control. USAID is also supporting the creation of conflict-free supply chains for gold. Through the Public Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade, USAID partners with major U.S. companies such as Apple and Google to develop responsible conflict-free mineral supply chains that end up in consumer products such as phones and computers that are sold in the United States.
USAID will continue to partner with countries that are committed to improving their regulation and management of the mining sector for the economic, social, and environmental benefit of their people. Part of the journey towards self-reliance is effective management of natural resources, including high-value minerals.
To learn more about USAID’s work on ASM, visit: https://www.land-links.org/issue/artisanal-and-small-scale-mining/
About the Author
Jeffrey Haeni is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment.