Small-scale gold miners

ASGM gold production

ASGM gold production

It is widely known that artisanal and small-scale gold miners (ASGM) -most of whom reside in developing countries – use hand methods and low technology to mine and process gold. Their practices pose a long-term global environmental and economical threat. The statistics are worth repeating: The number of people in the ASGM sector is estimated to range between 13-20 million men, women and children in over 70 countries. About 100 million people are directly or indirectly dependent on this activity for income and survival.

The ASGM sector accounts for 25-30% of the world’s gold production. ASGMs cause more environmental damage than industrial mines; around 1/3 of the mercury used in the world, or 1,000 tonnes, is lost by ASGM and released every year into the environment.

Due to a lack of infrastructure, workers in ASGM communities are more likely to contract diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, influenza and cholera, and sexually-transmitted diseases, such as HIV and AIDS.

Despite the staggering environmental and social impacts of this practice and the solutions that exist to improve the conditions, very little is being done on a global scale to alleviate it. Most governments are not prepared to deal with this situation.


In 2002, the United Nations Industrial Organization (UNIDO) received $6.8 million US in financial support from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Development Programme (UNDP) to initiate the Global Mercury Project (GMP). Last year, Kevin H. Telmer of the University of Victoria and Dr. Marcello M. Veiga of the Department of Mining at the University of British Columbia (Chief Technical Advisor for the GMP) contributed their findings to a recent report on mercury emissions at ASGM sites in Brazil, Indonesia, Laos, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe (Telmer and Veiga, 2008). Mercury amalgamation is the easiest, cheapest and quickest way to extract gold, but not the most efficient or safest method. When mercury is used in arti-sanal mining, it escapes into bodies of water as droplets, or is emitted to the atmosphere when the amalgmams are heated inadequately. If a retort or fume hood is not used, miners are exposed directly to mercury vapours, which poses an immediate health threat. For the majority of miners, the small income that results from ASGM outweighs the health risks of using mercury.

In their pilot studies in Brazil, Sousa and Veiga (2009) reported that the 40,000 miners in the Crepori area of the Tapajos basin consume, on average, 40g of mercury per month per miner. When mercury is used in combination with cyanide – a growing trend in artisanal gold mining -the rate of emission is even higher and more dangerous, as the mercury-cyanide complexes can be easily bioavailable, particularly in aquatic organisms.

The mercury emissions are creating severe health and neurological problems in the local population, with local food chain and ecosystem contamination. The level of consumption was recorded as being hazardous in more than 24 other countries.

Telmer and Veiga (2008) reported that global ecosystem damage is already occurring due to mercury emissions, with tens of thousands of sites reported as polluted and hazardous to the surrounding population and environment.

Mercury-free alternatives in gold mining include electro-oxidation and leaching, but require time and investment in technology and social development. Government authorities are not equipped with the resources to teach miners about these practices, and there are also no economic incentives for ASGMs to apply the techniques. Therefore, the elimination of mercury is not a sustainable solution for most miners in developing countries.

Economic situation of artisanal miners

ASGM has emerged as a necessary activity for the survival of millions of people, due to rising poverty in the last three decades and the rising price of gold. While some miners work full-time, others work seasonally in farming or agriculture and operate as they migrate in search of ideal mining sites.

Because gold values remain stable, even in countries with unstable currencies, gold represents one of the more important economies in mining. Current practices involving mercury result in the loss of up to 30 grams per gram of gold produced. Mercury prices have increased to up to four times the international price in most developing countries.

The cost of treating illness due to mercury consumption is another economic factor, not only for miners, but also for governments and community members who are indirectly affected by conditions in the mining regions.

Solutions to the plight of ASGM

Although they exist, solutions to the environmental and economic impacts of ASGM are inaccessible for many.

The Global Mercury Project ended in 2007, but left a legacy of education and training of over 30,000 miners, community members, health workers, manufacturers, inspectors, academics and NGO representatives.

Miners in Brazil and Indonesia were taught to contain mercury emissions using fume hoods, retorts, pipes and kitchen bowls, and to recycle up to 95% of the mercury from vapouriza-tion. Consumption was reduced by 50% where mercury re-activation or cleaning methods were used, and reduced by 90% in places when the process of eliminating whole ore amalgamation was terminated (e.g. using an equal amount of mercury to gold vs. 10g mercury to 1g of gold).

Artisanal mining remains illegal in many areas where sites operate, and miners tend to migrate to where better gold resources are found. There is very little communication between the sector, society and government authorities. Authorities can put policies in place to reduce the use and impact of mercury in ASGM by:

  • Reducing the mercury supply;
  • Implementing technological controls;
  • Reducing quantities of goods that result in mercury emission;
  • Creating mercury emission taxes;
  • Using cap-and-trade (CAP) approaches;
  • Controlling subsidies and restrictions on the sale and disposal of mercury;
  • Improving communication on fish consumption, occupational risks and product labeling.

However, the most sustainable solution is the education of ASGM in order to formalize and legalize the activity. This is the first step required to transform this squad of unprivileged miners into citizens, creating structure for them to form organized small-scale industries. In fact, this can be a long-term solution for the migration of people from rural areas to towns.

The presence of small-scale and organized miners can be a temporary solution to bringing wealth to the rural areas where miners exploit resources from small deposits, usually overlooked by large mining companies. The government should revive the concept that “small [mining] is beautiful” to organize the ASGM sector and create ways to diversify the economy and develop the remote regions.

With an initial push from the GMP, one company that has taken the issue into its own hands is Falcon Concentrators, located in Langley, British Columbia, Canada.

Dr. Veiga took a key part in developing Falcon’s Individual Concentrator or “iCON.” Using Falcon’s 20+ years of experience in gravity concentration equipment for the mineral processing industry, the 100kg iCON produces a low weight, high-grade gold concentrate by capturing fine, free gold pieces that would normally be lost with typical panning techniques involving toxic chemicals. Although the iCON is priced at under $6,000 CDN, it has been criticized for being too expensive for artisanal miners to purchase. However, a few of the company’s methods have been successful in the distribution of the technology.

Small-scale expatriates, such as RMD3 Engineering in Montreal, have mining claims in an area in Mali and employ the workforce to run iCONs. ASGMs can purchase the equipment themselves by forming co-operatives, and some form more sophisticated small mining businesses that also employ the local workforce. This has been the most successful method of iCON use in mining areas. Falcon has attempted to work with the World Bank and environmental NGOs who could purchase the iCON and provide microloans to artisanal miners; however, they have not yet been successful and it is not known how long it would take for miners to recover the cost of the loan. The GMP purchased two iCON units, and over 200 have been sold in over 25 countries. Falcon currently has an extensive network of global agents who are engaged with the local markets that are likely to purchase the device.

Communities and Small-Scale Mining (CASM) is one global community that aims to foster relationships between miners, local communities, major mining companies and government agencies. With 35 organizations in 25 countries, CASM receives support from the World Bank Group. UK Department for International Development (DFID). Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) and other donors. The community also advocates environmentally responsible techniques for mining and compliance with international standards of employment, health and safety regulation.

CASM Africa’s mandate is to represent the interests of ASGM communities, provide guidance and small grants, and record achievements and contributions relevant to the African continent. Grants are awarded in five programmes: development and sustainability; special projects; social issues; health and safety, and education.

In Columbia, the Alliance for Responsible Mining develops strategies involving communications, research, capacity building, partnerships and lobbying activities for all types of miners.

Hopefully, more of these organizations will set the example for government authorities to advocate the policy, education and technology required to alleviate the devastating impacts – but not the economic benefits – of global artisanal gold mining.

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