Yes, You Should Care About Artisanal Mining in Africa - Here is Why

Yes, You Should Care About Artisanal Mining in Africa - Here is Why

Imagine for a moment that you are an artisanal miner in Africa. You have a chisel and hammer in each of your dirt-stained hands. The sun is beating down your neck while your hard hat is barely shielding your eyes from the bright rays. You have been pounding rock for hours. Later, you may be in a stygian shaft hundreds of feet in the ground. But just now, you found a small nugget of gold (though it hardly looks like it) and some colored pebbles. Is this enough to lift you and your family out of the squalor in which you live? Maybe, but you could end up with little to nothing too.

This is the reality for millions worldwide, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. As of late sub-Saharan African countries, such as Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania, have received heightened attention in the media. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) has also boomed in recent years. Today, over 40 million people are in the industry; nearly two decades earlier, only 13 million were in ASM.

While the history and procedures of artisan mining in sub-Saharan Africa are fascinating, you might be wondering: why does it matter? There are several key reasons: health, poverty, the environment, and production.

Hand-panned gold, small nuggets

As our gold and pyrite blog describes, many developing nations use mercury instead of cyanide, the industry standard, for mineral extraction. While both are toxic and have been criticized by environmentalists, cyanide is the "lesser evil" due to strict industry regulations and procedures. Furthermore, mercury is far worse for two main reasons: contamination and toxicity. While cyanide can kill, it requires a much higher dosage to be lethal and doesn't contaminate as easily as mercury (but can be just as deadly in disasters). By comparison, just a few drops of mercury can cause permanent brain damage or death. Mercury contaminates much easier than cyanide, seeping into crops, water, and soil. Because of its high contamination rate and toxicity, mercury poisoning has become an endemic issue in sub-Saharan Africa.

Artisanal mining can be seen as a relatively easy way to lift people out of poverty. It won't make someone wealthy, but it can be a steady, small local revenue stream. Better yet, it has high employment rates. It is so widespread that there are sometimes few alternative job opportunities. In sub-Saharan Africa, Agriculture and ASM are often conducted together. When farming cannot be done, families work in the mines; when farming has to be done, the family returns to the field.

Lastly, production is significant for producing companies and individuals and for consumers (i.e., you, dear reader). Despite its name, artisanal and small-scale mining has substantial output. For example, almost 80 percent of all sapphires come from ASM. ASM also accounts for about a fifth of all diamonds and gold

All That Glitters – Gold and Artisanal Mining

Gold is one of the most significant products of artisanal mining. Artisanal mining accounts for as much as 90% of employment in gold mining. Furthermore, gold is one of the most important revenue streams for local populations and governments.

Some see gold mining as a "rush" driven industry in Africa. Sometimes, it is seen as a poverty-driven industry. These assumptions couldn't be further from the truth, however. Artisanal mining in Africa is diverse and spans many countries; it is impossible to generalize gold-driven ASM's motivations.

The introduction of gold complicates and exacerbates existent issues already mentioned and then some. Migration, for example, has become a significant issue for some countries. Thousands of Chinese migrant workers have entered Ghana to prospect for gold illegally. Uganda has seen many migrant workers enter the country to hunt for glistening nuggets in sand and rock. However, migration and control of illegal work are far from the worst problem.

Gold extraction is a complicated process. There are many ways to extract gold from ore, but historically leaching was used. At first, it involved highly toxic mercury. Later, the cyanide process was invented. Developed nations have long adopted the cyanide process and have almost wholly forgone mercury. Developing countries, however, have clung to mercury. But if mercury is so toxic and the rest of the world doesn't use it, why do artisanal miners?

Someone chiseling away at stone - small scale mining

Many miners aren't aware of the toxicity of mercury and expose themselves to dangerous amounts frequently. Some argue that mercury without a retort (a method to capture deadly mercury emissions) is cheaper and takes less time. Due to a combination of a lack of knowledge and profit incentive, Africa has arguably suffered the most mercury contamination today.

There are criminal issues regarding gold mining too. Miners want to get in and out as quickly as possible, and not using a retort is remarkably fast in the view of the local miners. The quicker a miner can get away with their haul, the better, as bandits prowl the countryside looking for booty to rob from unsuspecting locals.

When You Dig a Hole...

Artisanal miners can use a pan or hunt for superficial veins to chisel some glinting stones. Still, both methods are time-consuming and not as profitable as using machinery or digging. However, the problem with digging and extensive working of the land is the near damage done to the earth. Worse yet, these mining efforts can exacerbate already existent health issues. Holes that aren't sealed when the miners finish will store water. These holes become small ponds and are home to one of the vilest insects on the planet: the mosquito. While many in the West do not fear this small bug (it is more of a nuisance than a threat), the case is quite different in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes, can kill with ease. Today, most of the world's malaria cases and deaths can be attributed to sub-Saharan Africa.

Pits can be dangerous for other reasons. A study in Kenya revealed that, among other issues, pit mining has resulted in accident-related deaths. In some cases, a miner working in a pit will experience a shaft failure, and the mine will collapse, resulting in almost assured death. Furthermore, the shafts are prone to flooding. Sometimes locals who aren't even miners may fall into a shaft or pit. A study in Ghana revealed that over a quarter of workers were injured annually. Of those injuries, about a third were slips and falls. The vast majority of miners did not have safety training nor had safety regulations in the workplace.

Beyond the Stone

While diamonds, sapphires, gold, and other precious stones are beautiful commodities, artisanal and small-scale mining produces minerals used to power electronics and many valuable alloys. For example, as much as a quarter of all tin supplied to the global market is a product of ASM.

One example is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Between 15 to 20% of the cobalt produced by the DRC comes from artisanal mines. The DRC supplies more than half of the world's cobalt supply alone. Cobalt is a necessary element in many electronics. About half of the world's cobalt goes into rechargeable batteries. As more electronics are made and demand increases, so do the prices.

Hammer on raw stone

The combination of such high cobalt production and the involvement of artisanal have produced tragic effects on locals. Despite the mining boom, the DRC and many other African countries are still relatively poor. While ASM can lift people out of poverty, it has yet to elevate a country to "developed nation" status (not that it would be expected to), and the locals are still poor compared to using Western standards.

Why Does This Matter?

All of ASM's issues and benefits in sub-Saharan Africa have a global impact. Let's talk about benefits for a moment. The production of ASM in sub-Saharan Africa is significant to today's mineral and gemstone market. ASM has been a considerable source of income for local populations and governments in sub-Saharan Africa too. The public demand for minerals and metals (especially gold) makes it a fairly reliable source of income.

Environmentally speaking, some practices are exceptionally detrimental to the Earth that we all know, love, and, well, live on. Certain methods of extraction, such as blasting, can create plumes of pollutants that contaminate water and air. Poisoning and ecological contamination are just two major issues that have received intensive studies from scientists lately. While mercury poisoning or toxic water contamination in sub-Saharan Africa may not immediately impact you today, it may be down the road.

There are also serious ethical concerns, especially regarding human rights and child labor. Numerous human rights groups have fought to see better conditions in sub-Saharan African countries, but this will be a long and challenging road to improvement.


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“Fact Sheet about Malaria.” World Health Organization, 1 Apr. 2021,

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Nakua, E.K., Owusu-Dabo, E., Newton, S. et al. Injury rate and risk factors among small-scale gold miners in Ghana. BMC Public Health 19, 1368 (2019).

Reuters. "What Is Artisanal Gold and Why Is It Booming?" U.S., 15 Jan. 2020,

Aliyu A. Warra, Majeti N.V. Prasad in Bio-Geotechnologies for Mine Site Rehabilitation, 2018. Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining Waste Rehabilitation With Energy Crops and Native Flora—A Case Study From Nigeria

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