“Poorly regulated artisanal mining benefits no one, pushes people into criminality”

2021-06-10 13:11

The Mongolian Mining Journal /May.2021/

Tugsbilegt spoke to Andre Xavier, Honorary Assistant Professor at the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia, about a recent study titled “Assessment of the Social and Economic Impact of COVID-19 on Women Artisanal Miners in Zaamar Soum of Tuv Province in Mongolia”.

What was the context of the project?
There are over 40 million artisanal miners globally, and with most of them forming vulnerable communities, the World Bank has been working in this area for many decades.  The Extractives Global Programmatic Support (EGPS), a multi-donor trust fund administered by the World Bank created an emergency response fund to support artisanal and small-scale mining communities impacted by COVID-19. The range of interventions considered by the emergency response included research to understand in more detail what was happening to these communities during the pandemic. The University of British Columbia in partnership with the German Mongolian Institute for Resources and Technology responded to the first round of call for proposals and we were awarded a short project with a duration of approximately five months. Our project aims to understand the social and economic impact of COVID-19 on women artisanal miners in the Zaamar soum of Tuv aimag. 

Did you feel that artisanal mining in Mongolia should be developed? There are many who strongly feel that there is no need for this. 
Not all mining deposits are big enough to justify building a large industrial mine. Their small resources do not attract corporate investment, on the other hand creates the interest and open a space for artisanal mining.  I would say the majority of these artisanal mining projects or artisanal mining initiatives are poverty-driven activity, by which I mean that lack of other economic opportunities in the region induces people to go into artisanal mining as a mean to put food on their table.

 Why does artisanal mining take place around industrial mining? Any region with a large mining operation is likely to have enough resources open for exploitation, not needing large investment but also not promising very attractive returns. If the region is not well developed or doesn’t offer too many opportunities to be formally employed, people would go into artisanal mining, mainly because there are no better alternatives. This is true not only in Mongolia, but in many other countries as well. Maybe Mongolia has more areas with these two conditions that naturally attract a large number of artisanal miners. Since they are there, the sector needs to be formally organized, as unregulated and unstructured ways of work do not benefit anyone -- neither the government, as it doesn’t collect royalties, nor the miners as their informal status keeps them out of the social security or social support system.  

This has been clear for long, and governments, international organisations, and investors have all favoured formalization of artisanal mining activities. As long as the conditions are there, artisanal mining will continue in Mongolia, whether you like it or not. If the government doesn’t take the necessary steps to organize the sector, to build capacity and to formally regulate it, we shall always have a situation where the very informality of their working practices and lack of regulation push individuals who are trying to make a living into becoming “criminals”, which is not the intention of anyone.

What is the situation elsewhere in the world? 
About 20 percent of the total gold produced comes from artisanal mining that involves around 15 million people worldwide of those 4-5 million are women and children.

Artisanal mining has several negative features, mainly in relation to the environment and health. Historically, the cheapest and the easiest way to separate gold from the ore or alloy has been to mix mercury in it and thus forming a mercury-gold amalgam. This is then heated, vaporizing the mercury to obtain the gold. Mercury is relatively cheap but is a toxic element, and on vaporization, it goes to the atmosphere and enters people’s body with their breath. This can have severe consequences over time on the human neurological system, with women and children the worst to suffer. Minamata, a 2020 film starring Johnny Depp, shows the effects of mercury poisoning on the citizens of Minamata in Japan. 

Not just the air, the mercury used to separate the gold also goes into the soil and into both surface and underground water. This goes into the human system through fish and other river food that we may eat. Artisanal miners use mercury in any way convenient to them, unaware or not caring for the contamination it causes to the environment and their health and of their family. Governments in many countries are trying to regulate the sector so that safer mercury-free technologies is used to extract gold. 

The study was conducted mainly in Tuv aimag. Is artisanal mining there on the rise or is it decreasing?
We worked with the Enkh Munkh Ergekh Holboo NGO of Zaamar soum in Tuv aimag. It has about 120 members and approximately 80 of them are women. We cannot say with any certainty if there are more miners than before, but we have a feeling, based on our interactions, that more people have been, and still are, going into artisanal mining. This is because of a combination of factors -- lack of employment, impact of COVID-19, and the increase in the price of gold. Again, this is a trend not only in Mongolia, but globally, too, there are now more artisanal gold miners.

A lot of the negative connotation often associated with artisanal miners is built around misinformation. People should understand, for instance, that the sector is a very real part of the economy. It’s very hard to know the exact number of artisanal miners, but reports suggest that it is twice as many of them in Mongolia as professionals working in large-scale mining. I would put the figures at 100,000 and 45,000 respectively, though others put the number of artisanal miners at between 40,000 and 100,000. Along with the lack of information on their precise number, there is minimal knowledge of what artisanal mining is, how they do what they do and just who they are. I think it is for international organizations, the government, universities and the media to disseminate more information among people on artisanal mining. 

What did you identify as the main challenges and opportunities for artisanal miners, especially for the women among them, during the pandemic?
Conditions are very severe for them. Women are impacted in many ways. The key challenge is lack of income. Families – both adults and kids -- are confined at home because of the lockdown, with not enough resources. The loss of income and lack of savings mean there may not be enough food to put on the table, and even when there is, its quality is likely to be poor. Something that was very troubling to me was that 75 percent of those who responded to our survey felt that domestic violence had “increased” or “greatly increased” during the pandemic. Our survey also found an increase in police violence. 

It is important that awareness is spread about this and steps are taken to ensure that the situation doesn’t escalate, and human rights protected. Another point of concern that came up in the study was about the miners’ children and their education. The school system went online, but in many rural areas in Mongolia, there is no reliable access to the internet and many families either do not have the necessary platform to access the internet, or they often have more children than the number of devices, computers or laptops. There is clear need for a thorough assessment of the situation, so that minors, children and others in a position of dependence do not suffer.

You asked about opportunities. It is hard to find any in a context like the present because everybody is affected. However, the artisanal mining sector in Mongolia has a positive side that is not always found in other countries. I talk about small-scale mining NGOs representing and advocating for the miners, and also of the presence of the Artisanal Mining National Federation that can provide support to the miners at several levels, including being their unified voice in interacting with the governments and communicating with society on their behalf. This is a matter of strength for the artisanal mining sector in Mongolia, providing the miners with an opportunity to articulate their problems, positions, and demands before the national government and to the international community so that people can see and understand what the impact of the pandemic has been, and offer support to help the sector move forward.

Can you describe some specific activities you conducted? 
I’m very pleased with what we achieved in terms of project activities. We were able to mobilize and get the engagement of the artisanal mining NGOs and the Artisanal Mining National Federation and we are in conversation to continue expanding our partnership.  We also got the support of a member of the parliament who is interested in those issues. With a short project like this we are trying as much possible to raise awareness and improving access to information to all stakeholders. We organized one initial webinar to share the results of the study with a group of future professionals, engineers from GMIT. They don’t necessarily have a deep knowledge of artisanal mining, so this was a chance for them to understand the context. We had Professor Klein from the University of British Columbia making a presentation on technical aspects of ASM. When we presented the results of the project, our intention was to raise awareness and make sure that these future professionals understand that in Mongolia there is this sector that needs attention. 

Our second activity was also a webinar/workshop, this time in partnership with the ASM National Federation. They invited representatives from 15 aimags, representing collectively more than 2,000 miners. Again, the intention was to go beyond sharing the results of a specific case study, and to open a dialogue with them so we could understand better if what we found in this particular case in Zaamar soum also reflects the experience in other aimags. And that turned out to be the case -- there are similar challenges across all regions. However, there is a need to further understand the reality in each region, as not all places are equal and the local context vary.

Our last activity was to bring the whole issue of artisanal miners’ life in the pandemic to the attention of national decision makers, the international community and the civil society through a multistakeholder webinar. In this, we shared the results of our study with the intention of raising awareness, as well as fostering dialogue between different institutions. The event was held on May 11 and was extremely well attended, with 40 participants representing 25 to 30 organizations, ranging from the academia, Government, NGOs, and the international community. They included representatives from the German and the Canadian embassies, the Asian Development Bank, UNDP, as also the governor of Zaamar soum, members of parliament and representatives from the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, Mineral Resources, and the Petroleum Authority, and the Gender National Committee.

You will submit your findings to the government. What are the principal recommendations that you make?
This was a very brief study, so we do not make any recommendation that is aimed at making a deep and transformative impact as that would require a lot of time and financial resources to implement. 

Naturally, we call for raising awareness and sharing the results of the report, but we also make a few recommendations based on our findings. One of them is about the importance of resuming collaboration. Such tripartite collaboration among the miners, the government and the big miners was seen in Mongolia in the past, but has now stopped. We recommend a return to the practice as this was a good way to create space and opportunities for the miners to be accepted as formalized entities and professionals. Our second recommendation is to facilitate artisanal miners’ interaction with local authorities, local governments, the SME community, the national government and the local mining companies. This can take place only with support from the international community.

An executive summary of the final report that we shall submit to the World Bank would be shared widely, including with the government and the many agencies that are involved directly or indirectly with the issues related to the mining sector in Mongolia. 


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