In this report, ABAH ADAH highlights the challenges of artisanal miners in the country.
While speaking at a function recently in Abuja, the Minister of State for Mines and Steel Development, Abubakar Bawa-Bwari , noted that about 80 per cent of mining operators in the country fall into the category of artisanal and small-scale miners. This means their contribution is key to the development of the sector while it is an undeniable source of livelihood to many.
He equally noted that government was working towards formalising their activities and addressing the myriad of challenges facing the sector, adding that there were no plans to phase them out but to integrate them in the development of the sector.
This is a right step in a right direction. However, experts have said it goes beyond that to developing an operationally- enabling legal framework in order to have an organised ASM that would generate income for the government and the operators.
Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) as a vehicle for social and economic development, particularly for disadvantaged communities that were excluded from participating in the mainstream national mining economy offers alternative economic opportunities for the majority that reside in rural parts of the country in severe poverty.
The experience of South Africa has shown clearly that ASM not only contributes so much to the development of mining, it also provides employment to many, especially the less privileged at the grassroots level that may not be catered for by large- scale mining. South Africa is recognised as a global leader in mining. With an estimated in-situ mineral base of about $2.5trillion.
It was in 1994, following the change in government, that the ASM sub-sector was formally recognised in South Africa. This recognition saw the main legislative framework endorsing all forms of mining, including ASM. The inclusion of ASM in the Minerals and Petroleum Resource and Development Act (MPRDA) led to the establishment of support structures directed at the development of the sub-sector.
The Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), as the main administrator of the mining industry, introduced several initiatives in an attempt to advance the sub-sector. Most of these produced mixed results, especially if measured against the policy requirements as initially outlined in the 1998 Minerals and Mining Policy (MMP) for South Africa.
ASM in South Africa is defined as a “mining activity employing less than 50 people, and has annual turnover of less than R10 million with fixed and moveable assets of less than R15 million.”
This formal definition is adopted from the National Small Business Act which is legislative framework enacted to promote Small, Medium and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs) development in the country.
In fact, large-scale mining companies, government, and civil society at large have to adopt a cooperative approach to devise sustainable, workable, and realistic ways to convert ASM miners into contributors to sustainable development.
The Nigerian mining sub sector has been grappling with so many challenges, compounded by the age-long neglect of the entire sector by successive governments. Notable ones as pointed out by industry operators include:
Artisanal miners are at a great disadvantage during sales negotiations when they lack information on mineral and metal prices, contributing to a cycle of systemic economic insecurity. Many of them are either not literate or not exposed to standard price per quantity (if there is any in Nigeria) of whatever kind of mineral they exploit. In that way, they labour just to put food on their table, while the opportunists feed fat on their sweat. This inhibits growth as far as business is concerned.
Health And Safety Issues
Even for workers employed and trained by formal large-scale companies, mining is a dangerous job. It becomes even more deadly with ASM, as miners work with basic tools and little or no safety equipment in very dangerous environments. ASM excavation pits typically have poor ventilation – which increases the chance of methane or coal dust explosions – and no support structures to prevent unexpected collapse.
Besides the dangers that exist at the bottom of an unsafe pit, improper use of chemicals and burning for the extraction of metals also greatly endanger miners and their communities’ health. Mercury can cause irreparable damage to the nervous system and lead to death, but it is not the only silent killer of artisanal miners. In northern Nigeria, 400 children died in 2012, due to lead poisoning after lead-laden rocks were pulverised in search of gold.
The use of toxic chemicals in the processing of metals, such as mercury amalgamation to extract gold from ore, not only endanger the health of miners and their families, but contribute greatly to irreversible and widespread environmental damage. ASM techniques oftentimes result in the buildup of silt and dumping of effluent in rivers, while inadequate mine closures can lead to acid rock drainage that further pollutes local water sources. With rivers spanning entire continents, toxins are rarely restricted to the mining community alone; in fact, toxicity from ASM techniques can contaminate and destroy entire ecosystems, from forests to families of fish due to mercury or cyanide poisoning.
Inadequate Capacity and Productivity
Subsistence miners almost always work independently and use their own resources during the extraction process. They rarely have the proper equipment to increase their productivity, or use malfunctioning tools discarded by others that can prove dangerous to their safety while impeding their efficacy.
Challenges Of Informality
ASM is an informal economic activity, and small-scale miners typically work without permits and legal mining titles. This informality limits miners’ ability to settle disputes, file grievances, or access financial and government services. The informal nature of their work also puts them at risk of human rights abuses by mining companies’ security personnel or local police.
These challenges are common to ASM all over the world. For instance, recently, armed police reportedly burned down an entire ASM community in Peru’s Amazon Basin, destroying large swaths of rainforest and endangering the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of miners and their families in the process.
The roadmap already put in place by this administration to revive and transform the mining sector to restore its glory of about three decades ago, has some things embedded in it that could help address the challenges confronting the sector, including the ASM subsector. However, many industry watchers have expressed fear that poor implementation could be a bane.
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