Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) refers to mining by individuals, groups, families or cooperatives with minimal or no mechanisation, often in the informal sector of the market (Hentschel et al. 2002). The ASM sector is usually high labour intensive and requires low investment levels. Compared to the Large Scale Mining (LSM), the demand for land is usually lower, due to the small concessions areas, and legal status is mostly informal on the production site.
According to recent estimates provided by the Delve platform, more than 40 million people worldwide were directly engaged in ASM in 2019, 30% of which being women. In Africa, the share of women is about 40-50%, in Asia less than 10% and in Latin America between 10 and 20% (IGF 2017). Women are usually not involved in digging and other heavy mining activities, but participate in various activities like ore processing and sale and provision of food to the miners (IGF 2017).
According to very rough estimates, artisanal and small-scale mining produces around 15-20% of global minerals, including 80% of all sapphires, 20% of all gold, and 20% of diamonds (IGF 2017). ASM is also a major producer of raw materials strategic to electronics manufacturing, and accounts for 26% of global tantalum production and 25% of tin production (IGF 2017) (figure 1).
The sector is very heterogeneous in terms of scale, legality, demographics and seasonality. Operations exploit marginal and small deposits, are labour intensive and have poor access to markets and support services. Being informal and unregulated, much ASM activity operates outside of health, safety and environmental legislation or standards. In some cases, artisanal miners are controlled by armed groups and the resources extracted in this contexts are then financing conflicts and insurrections. Conflicts with LSM operators due to land disputes and access to resources can also occur. In cases where ASM and Large Scale Mining (LSM) operate in the same or neighbouring concessions, clashes over land disputes and access to resources are significant.
ASM sector can also have positive impacts in local communities when it receives adequate support and fair access to markets. Many authors agree on the benefits arising from the formalization of the ASM, which would also drive an improvement of working conditions and a reduction of environmental impacts. This is also acknowledged in a recent UN IRP report on Minerals Resource Governance, which urges the private sector and other stakeholders to implement transparent practices across the supply chains and support ASM integration into local, national, regional and international supply chains.
Some responsible sourcing initiatives for improving the conditions of artisanal mining have been implemented in recent years. For instance Fairtrade gold, Planet Gold, Fairmined (for gold) and in the case of cobalt, Better Mining and Mutoshi Pilot Project.
The impact of the above-mentioned initiatives on cobalt ASM has been analysed in the JRC study “Responsible and sustainable sourcing of batteries raw materials”.