Africa: Study claims artisanal & small-scale mining's negative impacts outweighs big mines'; incl. on health & environment

Author: Flavia Olivieri, Lifegate (Italy), Published on: 2 December 2019

"Artisanal and small-scale mining in Africa, the environmental and human costs of a vital livelihood source"

Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) provides jobs to 13 million people in 80 countries worldwide, numbers that resemble those of large-scale mining. Whilst the latter is often undertaken by big companies, requires a substantial labour force and operations continue until sites ares completely excavated, ASM on the other hand is carried out by small groups who travel around to identify sites where they believe precious minerals or metals can be found. It accounts for 20 per cent of global gold supply, 80 per cent of sapphire, 20 per cent of diamond supply and 25 per cent of overall tin extraction, and provides essential minerals used in popular electronics such as phones or laptops. In 23 Sub-Saharan African countries, it is an important source of revenue for people living in rural contexts, where it is largely carried out as an informal and often illegal activity (for example, around 40-50 per cent of small-scale miners work illegally in Ghana). Yet its benefits are often outweighed by its costs.

The relative absence of legislation and government controls in African countries make the environmental impacts of ASM arguably on a par or worse than those of large-scale mines. These include mining in protected areas or the dumping of effluents into pristine ecosystems. Furthermore, communities around mining sites don’t have the infrastructure to deal with waste, with dire impacts on hygienic and health conditions. Other important environmental concerns associated with ASM include land degradation, deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

 

As well as the inhalation of toxic gases such as mercury and the fumes from explosive blasts, which can become lethal when combined with poorly ventilated environments, ASM-related accidents occur due to inadequate working conditions and equipment. A study shows that the Busia mining district in Tanzania experiences one to five deaths annually, and another looking at accidents and injuries in Ghana finds that fatality rates are 90 times higher than in large-scale mines. Collapse of mine pits, explosive blasts and falls respectively account for 13, 10 and 5 per cent of total incidents, with almost 3 per cent of these injuries resulting in death: seeing as the research is focused on individuals in hospitals, the authors acknowledge that most injuries are dealt with in private, meaning that the number of affected people is possibly much higher.

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