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Artisanal mining - formalization for safety

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By Rob Karpati

· 5 min read


A pattern of tragic accidents resulting in loss of life and injury exists in artisanal mining. The sector lacks access to non-predatory financing that is needed to procure basic equipment and to transition miners toward good practices. Formalization changes safety outcomes as broader practices are professionalized. Equipping, training and shifting toward good practice supports a shift toward more consistent practices where safety is prioritized consistently with the desires of miners.

Context

Statistics on the number of deaths and injuries in artisanal mining accidents are not generally available. What we know comes from a pattern of news reports and targeted academic studies.

In this context, recent safety incidents in January/February of 2024 include:

  • January 1: 22 deaths occurred when a landslide took place at a small-scale mine in Tanzania

  • January 19: Over 70 deaths when an informal gold mine collapsed in Mali

  • February 9: Over 20 deaths in Ethiopian artisanal gold mine collapse

  • February 20: Over 100 deaths in Venezuela when a small-scale open pit gold mine, Bulla Loca, collapsed; this tragedy is the second recent accident in Venezuela, where at least 12 miners were killed in a December 2023 incident

Tragedies resulting in tens of deaths make the news, but there are uncounted smaller accidents, where handfuls of miners die or end up injured. A study in Ghana identified 622 fatalities over a 14 year period in the country, 44 miners/year on average. These were generally smaller incidents, individually not receiving the kind of media play that the 4 accidents listed about received. 

Ghana has an estimated 1.2 million artisanal miners, 2.7% of the global ASM population. If we assume that Ghana’s fatality rate is reflective of the global sector so that we can prorate the statistics in that country across the world, then over 23,000 deaths have occurred globally during the same time period. Recognizing that statistics do not exist, there is no way to validate worldwide figures.

Along with accidents, mercury poisoning is common across ASM gold, degrading the health of miners, eventually resulting in deaths. Along with miners, mercury that contaminates soil and water results in community contamination. As with accidents, credible statistics on numbers of miners and community members hurt or killed by mercury are unavailable. What is known is that many years after the Minamata Convention agreed to the replacement of mercury in artisanal gold mining, it is still used as a default given the low cost and lack of awareness around alternatives.

Formalization – Changing Safety Outcomes

ASM is largely informal, lacking access to non-predatory capital that is crucial for professionalization.

Impact and mining investment enable professionalization, which changes outcomes on the dignity and productivity of work. Training, equipping, organizing and transitioning miners to good practices enables fundamental shifts in outcomes for artisanal miners. This includes reducing poverty, increasing productivity, lowering vulnerability to predatory intermediates and human rights abuse, and for this article, improving outcomes on safety.

Low-cost approaches that improve safety outcomes as professionalization takes hold include:

Design and reinforcement of the mines themselves: ensuring that potential for tunnel collapses and landslides are minimized. Basic engineering and technical support can make a real difference in delivering low-cost solutions that improve safety

Basic safety equipment: simple equipment can fundamentally improve on-the-job safety. An example is PACT’s Illuminating Small Scale Mining project, where artisanal miners in Rwanda were equipped with rechargeable headtorches. Enhanced lighting improves safety of course, but also reduces vulnerability of female miners to potential sexual violence and increases productivity given that miners can see better. This project is a nice example of how seemingly small improvements can shift multiple outcomes, including safety.

Mercury elimination: there are low cost widely available alternatives to mercury for artisanal gold mining that are non-toxic for people or for the environment. As formalized miners are shifted away from mercury, the deleterious health affects on them and on neighboring communities is eliminated.

The Bottom Line

Estelle Levin, founder of Levin Sources and a recognized global expert on artisanal mining, defines formalization as ‘the transition toward organized and professionalized systems of production in and through which responsible business conduct and sustainable development are more feasible and desirable, and thus more likely.’ 

Stable predictable business relationships and behavior take hold as formalization matures, improving the dignity as well as the productivity of work. Safety is a natural core element of this work, where strong practices and fit-for-purpose equipment change outcomes. As the rechargeable headtorch example shows, equipment that enhances safety can catalyze multiple positive impacts, in that case, a reduction in risks of sexual violence and an increase in the productivity of miners. Solution designs need to be systemic, improving safety while recognizing that interdependencies may have broader implications at mine sites.

The real bottom line is that the most important thing that comes out of a mine is the miners themselves. Safety improvements in the context of formalization add value of course as productivity is also enhanced. Productivity increases make this work commercially reasonable for investors. More fundamentally, safety improvements actualize basic human rights around reduced risk of injury or death in work environments that can and should be safe.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Rob Karpati is a multi-national finance leader, currently serving as Senior Advisor to The Blended Capital Group. His focus is on delivering significant positive social and environmental impact through the definition and delivery of paradigm altering approaches to the global artisanal mining sector based on commercially realistic formalization methodologies.

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