Making small-scale mining less of a gamble in the Congo Basin

BOGOR, Indonesia (2 September, 2011)_Gold and diamond mining remains a risky business in the Congo Basin, but the development of coherent mining policies and improvement of the knowledge and skills of small-scale miners is necessary to ensure secure livelihoods and maintain minimal impact on the surrounding forest area, suggests a new study.
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Photo by Bas van Abel, Waag Society/flickr.

BOGOR, Indonesia (2 September, 2011)_Gold and diamond mining remains a risky business in the Congo Basin, but the development of coherent mining policies and improvement of the knowledge and skills of small-scale miners is necessary to ensure secure livelihoods and maintain minimal impact on the surrounding forest area, suggests a new study.

Small-scale or artisanal mining employs over 13 million people in developing countries, and 100 million more people indirectly depend on the sector for their livelihoods. Gold and diamond deposits have been found throughout the Congo Basin and have a long history of exploitation and conflict in the region.

“Mining income is far from secure; in fact, it is a risky gamble. There is huge variation in revenues, and losses are common. The price artisanal miners get for the mineral depends on their ethnicity, their education, their skills and experience,” says Verina Ingram, scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and co-author of the study.

“And because these mining activities are not formalised, miners have very little bargaining power, making them prey to exploitation by middlemen and to harassment by officials. Some get trapped in a poverty cycle where they are unable to reinvest their earnings but still depend on the mining for income.”

The study, a collaboration between the Central and West African Office of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN-PACO) and CIFOR, focused on the Sangha Tri-National Landscape of the Congo Basin: a unique cross-border conservation cooperation agreement between Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of Congo and home to an array of diverse flora and fauna.

At least five percent of the 191,000 people living in the vicinity of the Sangha Tri-National Landscape depend primarily on income from artisanal mining and yet most miners often supplement this with up to six other secondary sources of income such as agriculture and gathering non-timber forest products.

As the forest plays an enormous role in the livelihoods of artisanal miners, with more than three quarters of their income based on natural resources, the study investigated whether these income-sourcing activities are harming the natural environment on which these people depend.

They found that the small and dispersed scale of artisanal mining, with no use of polluting chemicals and mainly manual labour, means minimal environmental impacts on the forest, despite some encroachment into the national parks.

“However, this may change. The number of artisanal miners in the region is expected to increase due to migration and population growth, and exploration is attracting large-scale mining to the area,” explains Jolien Schure, lead author of the study.

“Combined with the increasing pressure on the landscape and a lack of environmental awareness, this could cause destruction. In such situations the artisanal miners, local populations and indigenous owners, who rely on natural resources for so much, are likely to be the losers.”

Another problem, says Schure, is that land is being allocated to multiple users, with no coordination between the ministries issuing permits or land use rights. There are situations where the claims of large-scale mining overlap those of timber operations, protected areas, and access to the forest by the local population, creating situations ripe for conflict.

“To make artisanal mining a more secure livelihood, and maintain a low impact on the environment in the future, special attention should be given to avoiding conflicts of interest. Mining companies should state explicitly how they will interact with local communities and artisanal miners during their daily operations, as part of their social responsibility.”

Adding fuel to the fire, cross-boundary agreements concerning the Sangha Tri-National Landscape currently do not address mining. A regional approach to mining policies would reinforce beneficial outcomes for the landscape and for families in the area, strengthening the existing Sangha Tri-National Landscape agreements on sustainable management, says the study.

Ingram and Schure suggest that miners would benefit from being given the information and tools to increase their bargaining power with buyers and to confront corrupt or ill-informed officials. This could mean clear information about their rights and about accessing mining titles and legal permits; about ways to avoid the wide income swings; about sustainable techniques and tools; and about setting up their own knowledge-sharing miner forums.

“And at the grassroots level, improving the income, knowledge and skills of miners should be embedded in the policies and activities of the government, development and private sectors,” says Schure.

Artisanal mining revenues for families in the Congo Basin are plagued by uncertainty, vulnerability and risk. But with some agreement and coherence in forest and mining policy, artisanal mining could become less of a gamble for both families and forests.

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