The mining industry is currently reconfiguring the economies, geographies, social relations, and laws and policies of developing countries at an explosive rate—yet there is little understanding of how local law and governance influence mining practices on the ground.  Most attention has been on how to regulate the extraction, sale, and traceability of these minerals across the globe to ensure good practices among extraction companies. Currently, 90% of extracted minerals worldwide come from the large companies that have been the attention of policy efforts, but there is ever-growing concern about small-scale or artisanal mines (ASMs) that have remained largely out of purview because of their relative informality. According to the Delve database, there are 40 million people directly engaged in artisanal mining and well over 100 million dependent upon its income. ASMs can take varied forms: seasonal to supplement agricultural incomes, permanent alongside legal companies, or a “rush” after a high-value discovery or external economic or environmental factors. Despite their low wages, they serve as a vital means of income for the rural poor when no other exists and have served as a positive source of economic opportunities in notable cases. However, at the same time, they also present exploitative labor conditions, illegality among buyers and sellers, and negative environmental impacts on local ecology. The current research challenge is how to identify the factors that drive the former and minimize the latter in mining with little regulation.

Rwamagana miners on their breaks in Eastern Rwanda. Photo: Placide Habinema.

The economic, legal, and environmental questions surrounding mining are particularly pertinent to Africa, which holds 1/3 of the world’s mineral reserves, most of these just waiting to be exploited. In contrast to formal mining that produces 90% of minerals in other world regions, Central Africa is unique in that ASM extraction constitutes a majority of its production. There is a robust literature on the link between informal mining and corruption and violence. Minerals can undermine the tax base necessary for positive democratic growth and also entrench graft. They are positively linked to both the onset and duration of civil conflict in that they first offer an incentive to topple those with power and then they prolong conflicts by serving as a revenue stream for fighters. Up to 90% of mineral profits are controlled by rebel groups using a high degree of violence against non-combatants, including gender-violence against local women and forced slave labor. ASMs also allow for an easy “spillover” effect of conflicts across borders because of the easy portability of small minerals, e.g. the role of diamonds in Liberian Civil Wars of the 1990s.

In terms of environmental impact, other studies of ASMs have found that blasting and drilling create dust that degrades crops and forests, pollute waterways necessary for fish stocks and drinking water, and are the sources of the largest releases of mercury. In turn, we know that such environmental degradation reduces access to natural resources vital to local livelihoods, thus, increasing poverty that is a conflict driver. For, without the natural resources upon which local communities rely, they are more likely to turn to illegal activities in order to economically survive. In response to the political and environmental problems presented by mining operations, the international community and African countries, initially led by Ghana in the early 1990s, have sought to place greater regulation on the mining industry.

Problematically though, these regulatory initiatives have focused on formal mining and thus distanced ASMs from the reach of the state even further. Hilson, et al. (2017) terms this “creating informality” in ASMs. Currently, intergovernmental organizations aim to set best practices guidelines and traceability initiatives. The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) created a “conflict-free” certification and implemented the Regional Initiative against the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources. This complements the work of the Extractive Industries Initiative (EITI), the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidelines, and the UN’s Economic Commission on Africa has the Africa Mining Vision (AMV), the latter of which is an agreement on best practices for the continent. Additionally, Western governments of Europe and Canada have come to encourage due diligence on supplies used in consumer products, e.g. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. Some corporations have designed corporate responsibility programs to better understand the materials they use in production, e.g. Motorola, Intel. These regional and international efforts are meant to buttress the domestic efforts of African countries that try to regulate the minerals that leave their borders. As an example, Rwanda now takes part in the mineral traceability program known as ITSCI, the International Tin Association’s tin supply chain initiative, the Africa Great Lakes region’s only internationally accepted, operational due diligence mechanism and mineral traceability system for the 3T minerals.

My research in the coming year will explore how these top-down mining regulations get translated on the ground. In particular, I am interested in how they impact the status and experiences of women in local mining communities. I am currently designed an ethnographic mapping project to draw a sociolegal map of physical extraction sites, to visually represent legalities in various spaces.