Small scale mining, and particularly alluvial panning of minerals, is a relatively new informal economic activity, which has been sweeping across the globe in the past two decades. The haphazard nature of the activity and its intense dependence on water for the panning process and firewood for fuel has resulted in uncontrolled siltation of rivers and other water reservoirs as well as rampant deforestation. The Zambezi Basin, with some of its fragile ecosystems and endangered species, has and is being negatively impacted upon by small scale and alluvial panning activities. Transboundary natural resources, including water and biological resources are at the receiving end of these activities. Flooding events (two in as many years in Mozambique and parts of South Africa – 2000 and 2001) have been largely blamed on siltation as well as climate change. The fact that the activities are more prominent in some countries than others is likely to cause tension and/or conflict between and among riparian states of the Zambezi Basin. The conduct of these operations as common property enterprises is suggested with appropriate modifications of the legal and institutional framework incorporating traditional and customary governance structures.


There is as yet no widely accepted definition of artisanal and small scale mining. The term has been used to cover a broad spectrum of activities – from the army-run Hpakant jade mines in Myamar, for example, where up to a million miners can be working on one site, to individual garimpeiros panning for gold in the remote regions of the Brazilian Amazon, as well as former state mining company workers or laid-off private company employees who have organised themselves into cooperatives (MMSD Global Report, 2002). At the other end of the spectrum, particularly in industrialised countries, are many quite sophisticated and mechanised small scale mining activities. In developing countries, most of the small scale miners (men women and children) are rural and poor. In such countries as Bolivia, Colombia, Indonesia, Mali, the Philippines and Zimbabwe, they participate in the activity seasonally when they are not involved in agriculture or during drought periods.

The activity may be poverty driven during periods of economic recession as has happened in countries including Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.

It has been estimated that in China alone, up to 15 million people may be involved in small scale mining activities and that worldwide between 80 and 100 million people may have their livelihoods directly affected by small scale mining activities.

The problems associated with small scale mining are numerous and fairly common to all developing countries of the world. They range from the disruption of local community life, conflict over land (which in the case of Brazil’s Yanomani Indians resulted in the death of about 1500 people during a gold rush in 1987), numerous environmental impacts which affect the delivery of common property services to local communities.

It is the thesis of this chapter that given the right legal and institutional framework, as well as technical and financial support, small scale mining can contribute to poverty alleviation through the encouragement of alternative economic activities for sustainable rural development. The realisation that small scale mining is largely a poverty driven economic activity demands a coordinated and collaborative approach which is geared towards poverty alleviation, improving knowledge and skills as well as improving the mining system from production to marketing. This requires cooperation by national governments, mining industry, NGOs and donor organisations, local communities as well as the small scale miners themselves.

Small-scale mining is commonly associated with informal, unregulated, under-capitalised and under-equipped mining operations, where technical and management skills are lacking. They are also believed to erratically produce limited amounts of minerals from uncertain reserves. While small-scale mining can lead to wastage of non-renewable resources and can be hazardous to human and environmental health, it can also contribute to national economies and economically empower disadvantaged groups by virtue of its low investment costs and short lead time from discovery to production. This sector produces minerals from deposits which are not economic at large-scale mining level.

Small-scale mining is labour intensive and thus provides employment and incomes to large numbers of people who are generally uneducated, poor and live in remote areas where no opportunities exist for formal employment. It is estimated that in the southern African region alone, up to 10 million people are employed or benefit directly from small-scale and artisanal mining activities involving more than a dozen different types of minerals dominated by gold and a variety of gemstones. In most of the SADC countries, mining is the only known alternative economic activity to agriculture and the employment figures within the sector increases many fold during the recurrent droughts in the region. More than 50% of those actively involved in the sector are women and unfortunately children. Globally, small-scale miners produce hundreds of thousands of tonnes of gold annually. In countries such as Zimbabwe and Tanzania, small-scale miners contribute up to 25% of the total gold production. As a poverty-driven economic activity, small-scale mining cannot be wished away.

The small-scale mining sector plays an important complementary role in relation to their large-scale mining counterparts. The former, due to lower overheads and uncosted labour, are able to work smaller and lower grade mineral deposits considered subeconomic by the latter. In addition to the creation of employment and wealth within rural communities in remote areas, a viable small-scale mining sector will also stem the common rural-urban drift. In face of all these factors, it would appear that a concerted global effort is required to remove most of the stumbling blocks to the growth of the sector for sustainable development in both the developing and developed countries.

The major stumbling blocks to socio-environmental sustainability within the small-scale mining sector are poverty, population pressure on natural resources, as well as a lack of knowledge. Indeed a number of bold measures have to be taken to ensure that small-scale mining is done in a way that is economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally/ecologically sustainable. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) noted in a recent resolution that the lack of resources, skills and knowledge meant that many small-scale mining operations suffered from low productivity, inadequate incomes and poor safety and working conditions. The resolution called on member states of the ILO and on employers’ and workers’ organisations to take a range of measures that would enable small-scale miners to work more productively, more safely and with less of a negative environmental impact.

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