BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe

Artisanal Mining (ASM) in the Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes Region is endowed with a large number of mineral occurrences that have been explored and exploited – some for more than a century, others relatively recently. These include the “copper belt” (copper and cobalt mineralization) in the DRC and Zambia, the 3T minerals (tin ore, cassiterite; tungsten ore, wolframite; and tantalum ore, coltan) in the eastern DRC, Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, gold (in almost all countries, with the largest production located in Sudan, Tanzania, and the DRC), nickel (Tanzania, Burundi), gemstones and semi-precious stones (Kenya, Tanzania, DRC) to name but a few.

Small-Scale Artisanal vs. Large-Scale Industrial Mining

Some of the region’s minerals are amenable to industrial extraction depending on a number of factors (deposit geology, international commodity prices, infrastructure, political stability, investment conditions). Other minerals are preferably or additionally exploited artisanally. The nature of mineral extraction – industrial or artisanal – is flexible and may change through time. For example, during colonial times and in the early years of independence, industrial or semi-mechanized mining by state-controlled enterprises was relatively widespread in the eastern DRC and Rwanda. Progressive failure of some of these enterprises partly encouraged the development of artisanal mining and the associated regional mineral trading networks. Nevertheless, ASM intensity in general also depends on a range of additional impact factors.

Much of the “conflict mineral” production of the region – the 3Ts and gold (3TG) – derives from artisanal and small-scale mining activities, although industrial gold mining is increasingly widespread as well. ASM mostly employs unskilled labourers performing low-productivity manual or poorly mechanized mining activities through loosely organized small production entities (e.g., family or community groups, cooperatives). As far as the 3TG sector is concerned, the eastern DRC has more than 200,000 active artisanal miners (80% of which work in gold), Rwanda 35,000 (all of which work in the 3Ts), Burundi 10,000 (2/3 of which work in gold) and Tanzania 600,000 (many of these working in gold). Each of these miners typically provides for 5-6 dependants such that in the end millions of livelihoods depend on ASM in a region where income alternatives in rural areas are sparse.

Country-specific proportion of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) Country-specific proportion of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) dependants relative to the national population, and current number of miners engaged in the “conflict mineral” (3TG) sector of selected countries of the Great Lakes Region (data: BGR research from multiple sources, 2015) Source: BGR

Development of the ASM sector has significant relevance for economic growth and poverty reduction. While it is sometimes stated that artisanal miners are being exploited and receive low, unfair prices for their mineral production, in reality there is a wide spectrum of payment conditions for these miners. In many cases, miners receive a share of 25-40% of the mineral export value which often allows them to earn sufficient money to sustain themselves and their families. Compared to other activities (e.g., local teachers), artisanal mining may actually be a financially competitive activity. In other areas, ASM is mainly poverty-driven and much of the miners’ income may need to be paid to service debts. Also, ASM activities may be performed on a part-time base (e.g., influenced through seasonal patterns of agricultural activities) and may not be the only source of household income.

Regulatory Challenges for Artisanal Mining in the Region

Many artisanal miners are opportunistic and seek to increase their incomes through maximizing the prices they receive for the minerals they produced, as well as through maximizing the frequency of such payments. In this context, they are susceptible to avoid taxation and engage in illegal trading and smuggling activities – this behavior has been observed in the Great Lakes region for decades and complicates ASM formalization attempts.
On the background of the national regulatory framework for mining, artisanal mining itself may be legal, illegal, or occupy various positions in-between, depending on the national context of mining permits and miners’ registration. Conflicts with organized large-scale mining may arise and local government are often challenged by the fact that ASM, while representing a significant local employment opportunity, has little fiscal relevance and is notorious for its risks of child labor as well as low environmental and health and safety standards. However, the socio-economic development potential of the ASM sector through legalization and formalization increasingly comes into the strategic focus of local and national governments as well as regional organizations such as the ICGLR. While some governments tend to favor large-scale mining over ASM, others explicitly aim to leverage the ASM sector as part of their national economic development and poverty reduction strategies.

In the context of its regional cooperation program with the ICGLR and selected member states, BGR has established a range of detailed baseline and analysis studies reviewing and evaluating supply chains in the ASM sectors of Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC, where more details on the local ASM characteristics can be found.


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