Informal mining (Global)
|Informal mining 🌍|
|Definition: ‘Off-the-books' mining around the world|
|Keywords: Global – Mining – Extractive industry – Corporate informality – Tax avoidance – Borders|
|Clusters: Market – Functional ambivalence – System made me do it – Survival – Informal entrepreneurship|
|Author: Alvin A. Camba|
|Affiliation: Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University, USA|
|Website: Personal website|
By Alvin A. Camba, Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University, USA
|‘Informal mining’ describes the locally-based exploration and extraction of precious and base metals. ‘Mining’ in this sense does not denote a particular manual activity. Rather, it describes a series of activities such as digging, marking, panning and shoveling that leads to the extraction of minerals. Meanwhile, the term ‘informal’ denotes mining by individuals, groups and cooperatives that is carried out without formal restraints and sometimes even illegally. In this way, ‘informal mining’ (also known as ‘artisanal’ or ‘small-scale’ mining) is distinguished from ‘formal,’ capital-intensive mining carried out by large state or transnational mining companies.|
Informal mining has the following characteristics: (1) reliance on physical labour for all types of operations, making minimal use of technology; (2) lack of legal mining-licences, titles, leases and claims to the mineral areas for exploratory and extractive activities; (3) low levels of productivity per mining operation, resulting from relatively small geographical areas and water resources; (4) absence of economic, health and environmental security for miners, workers and local communities; and (5) the transient character of employment due to the seasonal dependence of mining.
Informal mining has deep historical roots throughout the world, but recent changes in the world economy through the decline of agriculture, logging, foraging and state-sponsored employment have caused increasing numbers of people to become informal miners. The World Bank put the number of informal miners in 2014 at 13 million. Meanwhile, as many as 100 million people are estimated to depend on informal mining in 80 countries across the world (Hentschel, Hrushka and Priester 2002). The spread of informal mining has been further fueled by the rollback of state regulation of the economy in the Global South. Recent neoliberal reforms there mean that state companies that had traditionally held a monopoly over access to leases and employment have effectively been disenfranchised in many states. As a result, informal mining associations have sprung up across the world to compete for loan and credit opportunities (Bridge 2012; Camba 2015; Hilson 2010, 2012).
Informal mining relies on labor-intensive methods to extract minerals. Manual labour such as shoveling, picking, digging and extracting, and the use of explosives such as mercury and cyanide, are common features in underground mining-tunnels. While capital-intensive mining digs deep into specific sites, informal mining tends to move on to other sites as soon as easily accessible mineral deposits have been gathered (Camba 2015; Hilson and Garforth 2013). Membership in an informal mining firm is subject to social and market concerns, which include community involvement, ethnic kinship and families (ELLA 2012; Hilson 2012). As organisations grow to employ more people and as demand for minerals increases, market-based employment concerns take increasing precedence over social ones.
Often the families of informal miners take part in the mineral-production process. In most cases, informal mining has been and remains male-dominated, with men involved in manual work and handling of technical equipment (Hentschel et al. 2002; Hilson 2010, 2012). Even so, informal mining enterprises in many places employ female workers. Typically, women supply food and water, handle tools and provide auxiliary services such as vending, marketing and bartering (Hilson 2012). In Guinea, 75 percent of informal employees are women; in Madagascar, Mali and Zimbabwe the figure is 50 percent; while for Bolivia it is 40 percent (Hilson 2012; Hentschel et al. 2002). Children are often employed as auxiliaries, going on to become full-fledged miners when they reach adulthood. Gold-panning is carried out in some places by children aged as young as three, picking by those aged six, and underground extraction by twelve year-olds (Hilson 2010; Hentschel et al. 2002).
Informal mining, like other human pursuits, may act both to bring workers together and to provoke conflict among them. A gold- or gem-rush can attract hundreds or even thousands of people, leading to aggression and encouraging the take-over of an area by armed groups. In the Philippines, 150,000 informal miners swarmed into the Diwalwal gold-mines after the mineral sector was neoliberalised in 1986 and the mines were abandoned by state companies (Nem Singh and Camba 2016). Local governments, regional mining-companies, community-based miners, indigenous organisations and rebel groups all fought for access. The conflict ended in a truce only in 2011, when the various groups carved out niches in their own areas.
Overall, informal mining provides 15 to 20 percent of precious metals such as gold, along with gemstones such as rubies and sapphires, while the rest of the market is taken up by the production of base metals such as bauxite, marble, iron ore, copper and nickel.
National governments, local agencies and communities have tried to create formal structures to legitimise and tax informal mining. In the Philippines, the People’s Small-scale Mining Act of 1991 gave local governments the power to approve licenses and operations for informal miners. Various kinds of informal-mining organisations have been created by local communities to lobby the state and protect their rights. Similarly, Tanzania tried to formalise informal mining by liberalising the gold trade (Hentschel et al. 2002), while Ghana has gone through a similar experience in recent years (Hilson and Clifford 2010). However, many informal mining organisations have been reluctant to deal with the state authorities because they fear bureaucratic rent-seeking and corruption (ELLA 2012; Hentschel et al. 2002; Nem Singh and Bourgouin 2013). Their unwillingness has not, however, prevented these and similar illegal practices (Hentschel et al. 2002; Hilson 2010). Indeed, informal mining often operates in a black market that thrives on rent-seeking, smuggling and money-laundering (Hilson 2010, 2012). Middlemen and dealers profit financially precisely because there are fewer people in the production chain. In 2010, the value of illegally and informally mined Peruvian gold was estimated at $2.9 billion (ELLA 2012).
As mentioned above, informal mining has deep historical roots throughout the world. The 21st century has seen an flux of Chinese financial investment that has further increased the global demand for informal mining. In the Philippines, for example, informal mining firms have been formed by local communities in response to Chinese demand, and millions of dollars’ worth of gold is annually shipped to Hong Kong and mainland China. Across the world, Chinese investments in Peru, Mali, Namibia and Burma have fuelled similar demands for informal mining (Lee 2014). The mineral sector, both formal and informal, has become a sources of resource conflicts, global inequalities and environmental damage.
- Bridge, G. 2008. ‘Global Production Networks and the Extractive Sector: Governing Resource-based Development,’ Journal of Economic Geography 8(3): 389-419
- United National Conference on Trade and Development. 2007. World Investment Report 2007: Transnational Corporations, Extractive Industries and Development http://unctad.org/en/Docs/wir2007_en.pdf