Life is like a prism – how an expert views artisanal mining

[This article was originally written by Estelle Levin for the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM). ARM’s blog is a space that aims to promote dialogue on the political context of the ASM sector and its challenges. Photos by Alliance for Responsible Mining, Manuela Franco and Eduardo Martino.]


Alliance for Responsible Mining

“Life is like a prism. What you see depends on how you turn the glass.” [1]

My first experience of ASM ‘in the field’ was in Sierra Leone in 2004. I had travelled by plane, helicopter, and 4WD to get from Vancouver to Koidu to do a sustainable livelihoods analysis of artisanal diamond mining supply chains. It was my intention to use this as the basis for evaluating if the Peace Diamonds initiative planned by the USAID-funded Integrated Diamond Management Program would deliver the promise of peace and prosperity to Kono’s miners and traders.

Sustainable livelihoods was a brilliant lens through which to understand the motivations and risk profiles of the miners and traders, and the benefits that ASM brings them and their households. But I have learned over the years that a focus on livelihoods as a framework for generating solutions is dangerous. ‘We must find the miners alternative livelihoods,’ is something I hear time and again in conflict situations, and in ASM-LSM relationship management for example. I now listen to such statements with heavy scepticism. A Sustainable Livelihoods lens, without the use of other lenses, can create interventions that are naïve and patronising, and that deny the miners’ agency and will.

Most of the artisanal miners I’ve interviewed, be they professional, occasional, seasonal, or starter, mine as a way out or a way up, and as the preferred livelihood. We can do more to respect their decision and seek to understand why mining is better in their minds. Only then can we empower miners to build resilient futures for themselves and their communities.

ARM miners

At ELL, we use a range of lenses to assess an ASM situation. Typically, these include: Sustainable Livelihoods, Sustainable Development, Political Economy, Human Rights, Compliance, Market, andHuman Security lenses. By highlighting a few, I wish to illustrate how these different lenses work together to unpack the whys, and in so doing, drive solutions that are more likely to succeed.

In 2004, deep in my masters degree, I was regarding ASM as a development ‘problem’: child labour, forced labour, violence, criminality, environmental devastation; the list goes on and on. I still take stock of these challenges. I also take into account the different scales of impact for the people working in the mineral sector, to their families, their communities, and their nations (today and in the future). While ASM is a development issue, I now see these negative social and environmental aspects as trade-offs of an enormouseconomic development opportunity – one that the miners realise (this is why they do it) and one that is stymied by poor policies, capacity constraints, and barriers to responsible markets.

One way of unleashing the Sustainable Development power of the ASM sector is to build the commercial wherewithal of the miners themselves. Professionalization is such a crucial counterpoint to the Alternative Livelihoods lens. Many ASM are labourers, mining for reasons of subsistence; not all want to take risks, preferring the ‘security’ of ‘support’ or wage labor. But many ASM are entrepreneurs: speculating through minerals to amass power and wealth and/or raise capital to invest in other businesses. A Livelihoods analysis might reveal this, but will not give you the tools for addressing it.

Entrepreneurial miners need to learn how to be better business people. This means learning to assess and mitigate their risks systematically, to keep books and do accounts, to stay liquid and access finance, to organise in ways that drive efficiency and performance, to mine in ways that uses their resources productively and profitably. Teaching miners and traders to be better business people also helps other economic sectors, since people in the mining sector often have other livelihoods to which they can apply their mineral business lessons.[2] All of this constitutes the professionalization of the sector and is paramount to it realising its economic potential.

Of course how you professionalise should also be driven by market expectations. Downstream businesses are giving greater scrutiny to the risks of white collar crime and human rights violations in their supply chains thanks to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance. This makes sourcing from ASM riskier reputationally and more costly.  Helping ASM access new markets, and particularly responsible businesses, will help emancipate the entrepreneurial miners from business relationships that may maintain informality or be exploitative. A supply chain and market analysis provides important focus on what types of commercial dependencies an ASM entity faces.

ARM miners

In complement, a Political Economy analysis of the value chain reveals the distribution of (in)equality between different categories of individuals, households, and communities. It exposes the winners and losers, as well as vested interests. It raises questions like: Who’s getting what out of this and at whose expense? What do they have to do to maintain that privilege?

These political questions lead to the domains of Governance and Human Rights. Donors and producer governments often frame the issue as: we must improve governance to enable formalisation and thereby raise revenues for the state. I approach this from a different way: asking after the reasons behind informality. In particular, what political, commercial (including fiscal), and cultural factors determine if and how a miner can and will operate formally?

One of the biggest impediments to the formalisation of ASM is lack of political will; a Human-Rights Based Approach can nurture this will quite assertively. I have seen the power of a Human Rights Based Approach in action in SDC’s and Mongolia’s Sustainable Artisanal Mining project. There are many positives to this approach, but one of its most exciting aspects is that government agents realise their job is not just about enforcement, but it is also a duty to protect the human rights of the nation and ASM as citizens.[3] This transforms government agents from controllers to enablers, creating a very different political culture. It can be enormously empowering for the miners in their capacity as citizens able to claim their rights. It can also be empowering for the professionalization of artisanal mining businesses as they come to understand their responsibility to respect the rights of others.

Any one of these lenses provides an invaluable perspective on an ASM situation, but when used in combination, we are more able to generate solutions that are pragmatic, more likely to gain traction, and more able to deliver impact for ASM and their stakeholders. A multi-lens approach is necessary to understand the landscape of opportunity and constraint that miners must navigate; a multi-lens approach also generates solutions that are more respectful of the miners as agents of their own destiny. And when this happens, then real change will follow.


[1] Quote by Jonathan Kellerman
[2] Let’s not forget that the gold and gems sectors are frequently deeply integrated into other sectors, by virtue of the precious mineral serving a commercial cash or profit management function for import-export businesses.
[3] Thanks to Felix Hruschka for this observation.