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Exploit the full potential of artisanal mining

Artisanal gold mining in Uganda today employs way more than the oil sector will ever employ in its lifetime. The bulk of artisanal mining occurs in gold-rich areas.

By Chris Musiime

A woman 'washes' the powder using water and mercury to extract the gold.

A woman at work in an artisanal gold mining camp in Mubende District. (Photo: C.Musiime)

Every once in a while, Ugandan media will report a ‘gold rush’ usually in central and eastern Uganda, where thousands of people storm an area following a new discovery of gold.

These discoveries are usually made by artisanal miners although in some rare cases, ordinary village folk will accidentally stumble upon gold nuggets or traces of it in their backyards and gardens. There was a case in Mubende, where a family was digging a pit latrine only to discover gold veins a few feet into the pit. Another family in Bugiri was digging a grave and also encountered the ever elusive gold veins.

In both cases, the villagers immediately abandoned their regular income generating occupations and turned into artisanal gold miners almost overnight. Word then went around and soon, other people from neighbouring villages joined in and an artisanal gold mining camp was born, just like that.

Artisanal mining, strictly speaking, is the most basic form of mineral extraction where the miners use basic tools like pick axes and shovels. There is very minimal investment in machinery at the onset. Small scale mining is a notch higher. Such mining operations have basic machinery like power drills and small generators. Combined, they are referred to as Artisanal and Small Scale Mining (ASM).

It can be hard to tell the two operations apart when you visit a gold mining camp in Uganda. Miners seem to oscillate from one to the other depending on how well they are doing financially, some even border on medium scale mining. I have been to some artisanal gold mining camps and seen power generators that cost at least forty million shillings (approx. $12,000) supplying power to the underground pits. The days when artisanal miners used only pick axes and shovels are fast diminishing, the new generation now uses heavy duty electric drills.

Artisanal mining is a lifestyle, a lucrative source of income that the miners are willing to invest in irrespective of their legal status. At a civil society meeting in Kampala recently, an artisanal miner fearlessly introduced himself as “an illegal gold miner.”

His courage stems from the reality that it is almost laughable that Ugandan law does not recognise artisanal mining when it is estimated that the number of Ugandans directly involved in ASM has doubled in the last three years to an estimated 400,000 in 2015, with another 1.5 million indirectly benefiting from artisanal and small scale mining activities.

Globally, ASM occurs in over 80 countries and employs 30 to 50 million miners (90% of the global mining workforce). Ironically, it only contributes 10% of the world’s minerals- up to 20% in the case of gold. Industrial mining on the other hand, employs only 10% of the global mining work force but produces 90% of the world’s minerals.

This equation somewhat makes ASM a delicate matter especially with politicians world over. How do you appease such a big constituency that contributes virtually nothing to your economy and yet maintain good business relations with the large scale miners who have the potential to support a significant chunk of your national budget?

The answer to this puzzle lies in understanding and appreciating ASM. The economics of ASM are such that the miners work for daily survival normally because they have failed to secure any other form of employment. I have not met any miner who confesses he or she is living their childhood career dream. They were mostly forced into the sector one way or another by very difficult circumstances and only care about one thing-survival. And while they are at it, there is a whole value chain that is feeding off them as well; restaurant operators, clinics, lodging facilities, sanitation, airtime vendors, gold brokers and buyers, and many others. Every mining camp is some sort of self-sustaining economic ecosystem in its own right.

There are hardly any services that the government provides to the mining camps. The miners procure everything for themselves: electricity, water, health care, education, even security. Nevertheless, they are desperate to win the government over and so are willing to cooperate with government, pay their dues and in turn acquire some form of legal recognition so that they build legitimate businesses.

This is an opportunity that government must exploit. It should start looking at ASM as a potential money maker that can be organised, regulated and controlled, not a nuisance that curtails investment in the sector. It is possible for both ASM and large scale mining to co-exist.

There are many negative things associated with ASM, some of them extreme, like the huge environmental foot print they leave behind by using mercury and cyanide; frequent accidents that are often fatal and (sometimes forced) child labour. But these can be handled. In many respects they are happening because of the temporary state the miners are working in. No one can make any substantial investment in an area when they are not sure that they will be allowed to stay there for the foreseeable future.

Chris Musiime is the Managing Editor, Oil in Uganda