Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM)

8. Negative impacts due to informality

The widespread informality of the ASM sector and of miners operating illegally, has given rise to a range of negative social and environmental issues. In turn, these issues have led to increased pressure on government and local communities to better monitor and enforce existing laws and regulations, as well as develop more effective policy and governance responses.

To date, it is the negative impact of ASM activities that have received the most attention from the media, governments, and international development community, as opposed to building on the positive contribution of the sector and its potential for development.

By focussing on initiatives and policies that support the sector, many of the negative social and environmental impacts could be reduced. These could include education and technical training, access to finance, land, support services, and more efficient equipment, as well as effective monitoring and enforcement.

The following pages outline some of the common negative impacts of ASM that need to be addressed.

Social Issues

  • Increases in waterborne diseases and infections, and general illness due to unsanitary working conditions.
  • Poor health and safety, and hazardous and dangerous working conditions leading to serious injury as well as death often as a result of the collapse of pits and underground mine shafts.
  • Increases in school and college dropouts in ASM communities as children and young adults go into mining.
  • Child labour – though in some cases ASM also helps support parents and children to pay for their school fees, books, meals etc. enabling them to have an education they otherwise may not have been able to afford.
  • Increased instances of substance and alcohol abuse, violence, and sexually transmitted diseases in mining communities.
  • Women face particular challenges and are often disproportionately negatively affected relative to men. Issues for women working in ASM include dropping out of education, facing a greater risk of sexually transmitted infections and diseases, and suffering acts of gender-based violence.
  • Women also tend to face discrimination in ASM due to broader social and cultural norms. This often results in women being paid less and confined to unskilled labouring jobs, experiencing difficulties with buying land and mining licenses, and relying on the support or permission of male family members.
  • Mercury poisoning. Poor education and regulation around the use of mercury in gold amalgamation (removing and combining small gold particles from sediment) and the open burning of the amalgam during refinement can cause mercury poisoning. The release of mercury into water bodies used by local communities can result in bioaccumulation.
  • Cyanide poisoning. Cyanide may sometimes be used by small-scale miners to leach gold from rock ore.
  • Proceeds from ASM are used to fund illicit and illegal activities and conflict.
  • Buying up, destroying and polluting farmland for mining activities leads to a loss of livelihoods once mining activities have ceased, and causes food insecurity.
  • Illegal encroachment of ASM activities on large scale concessions leads to local conflict and community unrest.

Environmental issues

  • The destruction and pollution of streams, rivers, and water bodies due to sedimentation and run-off from mine sites and release of mercury used in gold amalgamation. Many of which may be sources of drinking water, for fishing, and irrigation.
  • Destruction of forests and landscapes. ASM activities often focus on near surface deposits working laterally and therefore affecting large areas.
  • Release of cyanide, sometimes used by miners to leach gold out of rock ore, into the environment.
  • Depletion of forest resources as timber is used to reinforce mine shafts, build mine site buildings and homes, and for charcoal making.
  • Lack of environmental reclamation of land and adherence to environmental laws and regulations.
  • Encroachment on and destruction of protected areas of land.

Economic Issues

  • Poor and below market rates paid to ASM miners compared with international prices. Often this is attributed to ‘unscrupulous middlemen’ who take advantage of their position in the supply chain. However, there is evidence to suggest that in some instances buyers and dealers may have more complex pre-financing and lending agreements and other mutually beneficial working relationships.
  • Government often misses out from ASM revenues as they are informal and untaxed. Gold, diamonds and gemstones are also often easily smuggled out of the country due to porous borders.
  • Labour drawn away from agricultural activities in rural economies.
  • Illegal encroachment of ASM activities on large scale mine concessions resulting in greater costs and loss for mining companies and potentially affecting their interests to invest.