Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM)

POLINARES is a project designed to help identify the main global challenges
relating to competition for access to resources, and to propose new approaches to
collaborative solutions.

By Ulrike Dorner, Gudrun Franken, Maren Liedtke and Henrike Sievers

PDF Download

Click on the above icon to download full document.

7 Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM)

High-commodity value metals such as gold, tin and tantalum, are especially linked to ASM, which significantly adds to their world supply. The artisanal and small-scale mining sector, which provides livelihood for millions of people in the world, is part of the informal and often illegal trading chain of minerals. Mining in Central Africa has been associated with violent conflict, mistreatment of artisanal miners, illegal trading and the diversion of state funds. Resource-related conflicts are especially relevant for African countries. Tantalum is an example of a mineral fuelling local conflict when functioning state institutions are absent.

7.1 Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM)

There is no general accepted definition of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) yet. In the following context the term artisanal and small-scale mining is used to describe extraction that is manual and very labour-intensive, using only picks, shovels and basins or somewhat mechanized, using heavy machinery on a small scale (Figure 1) ASM refers to mining by individuals, groups, families, or cooperatives with minimal or no mechanization, often informally and/or illegally. In addition to large-scale mining, ASM production of high value raw materials such as tin, tantalum or gold contributes significantly to the supply of industrialized countries.

ASM takes place all over the world, but is mostly widespread in developing countries in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Central and South America. Though the informal nature and on the whole unmechanized operation of ASM generally results in low productivity, the sector represents an important livelihood and income source for the poverty affected local population. It ensures the existence for millions of families in rural areas of developing countries. Worldwide about 15 million people make their living in the ASM sector. About 100 million people – workers and their families – depend existentially on ASM (figure 2) compared to about 7 million people worldwide in industrial mining. Earnings in the ASM sector – at least in gold and diamond extraction – are considerably higher than the average income of comparable agricultural regions (about 3 US $/d in ASM, against about 0.6 US $/d for a farmer in central Africa).


Figure 1: Artisanal coltan mining, ground sluicing at Gatumba (Rwanda)

Mining 2

Figure 2: Percentage of the population depending on ASM (CASM 2009)

Most suitable raw materials in ASM are extractable by simple means, high-value and easily transportable. A broad variety of raw materials (e.g. metals such as gold, tungsten and tin as well as coal, gemstones up to construction raw materials) are extracted and processed by individuals, families or small cooperatives. Metals like tin, tantalum (coltan), tungsten and gold are mined this way worldwide in significant quantities (figure 3). Although extraction often takes place all year round, it is sometimes dependent on seasonal agriculture.

Mining 3

Figure 3: Primary global mine production of selected metals (metal content of ore mined) and the
proportion of the sources from artisanal mining. A significant proportion of global production of minerals
connected with conflict – tin, tantalum (coltan), gold and tungsten – is of artisanal origin.

High value raw materials not dependent on extensive infrastructure for production and transport are particularly suitable for ASM in developing countries. This group includes mainly metals, such as nonferrous metals (lead, copper, zinc, tin), steel additives and refractory metals (chromium, nickel, tungsten, niobium, tantalum and molybdenum), and the precious metals (gold, silver and platinum). Non-metallic commodities that are traded internationally and extracted in artisanal mining are, for example, gemstones, diamonds and industrial minerals (e.g. beryl, fluorite, mica, graphite, quartz or barite) as well as abrasive and refractory minerals (Al2SiO5 – group) (Wagner et al. 2007).

Most high-value commodities, especially gemstones and precious metals, which are extracted in ASM, are sold to processors worldwide or directly to buyers in developed countries. However, although many raw materials that may be accessible to ASM, customer demands for quantity, quality and homogeneity causes substantial market hurdles. This is especially true for bulk commodities, which include the nonferrous metals.

Mining 4

Figure 4: Low value bulk commodities such as iron ore tend not to attract ASM; artisanal miners equipped
with only picks and shovels can’t the ore fast enough to make it worth their while. At the other end, the
price of diamonds and gold draws vast numbers of artisanal producers.

Characteristics of the deposits are essential for determining the suitability of ASM. In general all factors that support mechanization and economy of scale (uniformity of deposit, width of ore bodies, depth, overburden) tend to counter ASM. However, unfavorable conditions for medium- or large-scale mining (irregular ore bodies, steep dipping seams) create a niche for economically viable small-scale mining. ASM makes it possible to mine small deposits which large companies would not be in a position to extract. Poor quality can be a limiting factor for artisanal miners, as their processing technology is usually not capable of processing low-grade ores (Hentschel et al. 2003).

The share of mineral production by ASM differs considerably between different raw materials as well as at certain times as miners are often the so called “swing-producers”: in times of low market prices the sector tends to lower production, sometimes with the miners turning to other sources of income such as agriculture if available. Gold as well as the high-tech and electronic metals tin, tantalum, tungsten and cobalt are produced to a high degree in ASM operations. Nevertheless, the redistribution of income from ASM shows that only the smallest part of the extracted wealth eventually reaches the miner, because of inefficiency of transport, illegal taxation as well as long trading chains. This is also due to the fact that ASM is often part of the informal and illegal trading chain of minerals. Although artisanal and small-scale mining is dealt with in most mining regulations, the actual effectiveness of the monitoring and regulation of this sector by the national mining authorities is low. The process of extraction in ASM is usually carried out unchecked, ignoring fundamental labour standards (e.g. the elimination of forced and child labour, workplace safety, equal treatment). Social and ecological aspects are paid scant regard. Working conditions are generally poor, and child and forced labour are particularly abundant in weak governance regions. Missing or neglected mine safety procedures are the cause of frequent work accidents, environmental impacts can be devastating.

In addition, the lack of free market access for artisanal mineral production, caused by insufficient infrastructure or by legal restraints, is another obstacle for the thriving of this sector. Because the local and intermediary trade of minerals needs a secure business environment especially in conflict-affected areas, the traders have to buy security support from local political and military rulers or private companies. Part of the revenue from mineral trade is lost by illegal taxation and corruption or can contribute to finance conflicts (Franken et al. in press).