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Latin America Notes: Solutions to ASM mining conflicts, a need for stakeholder participation

According to the Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros en América Latina (Latin American Observatory on Mining Conflicts) there are more than 150 significant conflicts in the region, with many more smaller conflicts occurring. Mining conflicts generate high levels of strife and impacting negatively all stakeholders; hence it is important for decision makers, at the institutional and corporate levels, to understand how they affect the livelihoods of all actors.

When referring to mining conflicts the image that generally springs to peoples’ minds is one of local communities pitted against a gigantic transnational company. However, often things are more nuanced. Conflict can, and does, happen between all actors whose livelihoods depend or are impacted by mining activities including between different segments of local communities. Any extractive activity will impact the rights of the local populations, and unless processes are set up for the local communities to express their opinion and influence decisions about impacts on their life, conflict is inevitable.

 In Colombia, conflicts between local communities and artisanal and small-scale (ASM) miners abound, this is particularly acute when incoming ASM miners set up in an area with no history of ASM, as local ASM miners are not there to act as an interface and there are no existing systems in place to mitigate the special impacts mining causes. In fragile ecosystems or where established communities depend on the provision of fragile ecosystemic services, the presence of only a few miners can have significant impacts and generate potential conflicts, as the case below will illustrate.

 

Located a 4 hour drive away from Bogota and Medellin the Rio la Miel and its tributaries are one of the favoured spots for sports fishermen in Colombia. This activity has created a strong demand for local guides and lancheros (boat operators), ensuring sustainable revenue for the local community with a minimal environmental impact. Additionally, numerous guides and lancheros have built personal relationships with recurrent visitors and as a result have received educational gifts such as computers. These populations view their sustainable source of income as a right and are consequently ill disposed toward any activity disruptive to their livelihoods.

Recently a small number of ASM miners have moved into the same tributary system with mini-dredges (see picture), designed to be operated by 1-2 persons. While there has been significant mining activity for a long time in the upper section of the river, migration of ASM miners to this area is a very recent phenomenon. While this has yet to manifest visible impacts, they are predictable and presented below. 

Caldas-_Manso_River_Dredges_III.JPG

 

Given the absence of historical ASM activity in the lower part of the river system, there was no existing interface between the local community and the newly arrived ASM miners. The ASM miners are currently living away from the population centres, along the riverbanks, in isolated structures (see picture); and not fostering integration with the local populations. The exact triggers behind the sudden appearance of ASM miners in the area are not yet known.

Caldas-_Manso_River_Illegal_Miners_Site_dredge_operatos_II.JPG

 

The negative impacts ASM dredging generates in the area that will impact the local livelihoods include:  

- Mercury poising of the whole river food chain, including the endangered neotropical otter, an animal cherished and sometimes kept as pet by the local communities, and the local populations. The issue of mercury poisoning has the potential to reach noticeable levels in a short time span, as initial settlements of dredge-operating ASM miners tend to process their findings directly on the riverbanks. Only at latter exploitation stages does the collected ore get treated in dedicated processing centres;

- Modification of the riverbed which negatively impacts levels of sedimentation, flood risks, and reproduction areas of the fish species the local populations depend upon;

- To sustain themselves at a minor cost ASM miners rely on local resources through fishing, hunting and foraging, thus notably depleting the local resources.

 Knowing the consequences of this activity, it is no surprise that the local population are ill disposed toward dredging as it directly affects their livelihoods. The lack of a proper interface between the local population and the local miners hampers the resolution of conflicts.

 

A further challenge of the resolution of this conflict is that a number of indicators in the region point to the backing of illegal groups:

- Informal/Illegal ASM tends to occur in remote areas with little or naught infrastructure, where visits from agents of the state are rare. On the contrary the Rio la Miel is well deserved by roads;

- Up to recent times the region has counted with the confirmed presence of big actors of the Colombian underworld, structures called BACRIM (for the Spanish Bandas Criminales) that have in the recent years diversified into the mining sector;

- Dredges are left on exposed riverbanks (see picture). Under the art. 106 of the Law 1450 of 2011 the use of dredges is forbidden without possession of a mining title, and State institutions have gone to great lengths in order to destroy similar machinery;

- Finally, the starting investment ASM miners have to put down to acquire a dredge is substantial and is beyond what most ASM miners can put upfront. Coupled to a lack of formal money lending mechanisms, ASM miners are likely to turn to sources of financing controlled by illegal groups.  

Caldas-_Manso_River_Dredges_I.JPG

 

As this case overview has illustrated, challenges to peaceful cohabitation and co-exploitation of natural resources between local populations and local miners are numerous. In already entrenched situations, intervention by a third party familiar with the resolution of resource-use conflicts (such as CSOs, NGOs, private companies, or government bodies) would be necessary to resolve the lingering issue within the limits set forth by the applicable legal codes and the interests of all stakeholders.  However for this process to happen, the case will first have to be brought forward to these actors. 

In more complex situation, where ASM miners are operating in an informal/illegal manner, and where there is involvement of illegal groups, a more comprehensive intervention is necessary and should be carried out by the State. In these situation solutions cannot be only local but have to address both the pull and push factors behind the ASM miners’ migratory flows, and may have to do so over vast territories. Except for major deterrence (in the form of strict law enforcement at the miners’ level) pull factors cannot be mitigated. Push factors are more feasibly modified through the use of the appropriate instruments, such as: ASM formalisation strategies (including the provision of financing mechanisms), State or social-enterprise funded gold buying programs, reform of the appropriate legal texts, closer fiscal monitoring of national gold production, livelihoods diversification schemes, land restitution programs, among others.

When pursuing programs aiming at mitigating the mining conflicts generated by ASM, it is important to consider that in economic terms seven to ten people indirectly profit from the activity of each miner. These dependencies have to be addressed for the implemented solutions to work on the long term. These programs have to be implemented in the long run and well coordinated on a large scale in order to create synergies that will allow ASM miners to either pursue their activity in a regulated and sustainable way, or to transition to other livelihoods.

Original post by Nicolas Andres Eslava. Accessible on RCS Global website: http://www.rcsglobal.com/blog/asm-mining-conflicts-and-conflicting-...

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Comment by Ronald Smit on August 12, 2014 at 9:06

I had the opportunity to consult briefly (in late 2011 and early 2012) to the Contraloria de la Republica, Colombia's comptroller-general, which has an oversight function over other government agencies. The general topic of my work concerned the environmental effects of mining, seen against the background of an environmental ministry which appeared to be unable or unwilling to fulfill its mandate.

I recall discussions about huge existing coal mining operations and a large gold exploration project in the mountains. There were undoubtedly serious and long-term environmental and social issues to resolve, but at least government agencies can interact with a small number of large companies, and these have international reputations and stock exchange rules to abide by.

When we discussed small-scale mining, however, there appeared to be a perception that the problem was a lot smaller:

- A perception that the environmental impacts were less;

- A perception that the social impacts were small, since these were merely local people eking a living out of their immediate surrounding, not unlike farming.

I have worked in the gold exploration industry in West Africa (Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali), and have been involved in mining governance projects in countries like Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mongolia.  Small-scale mining is a serious problem in all of those countries, one that cannot merely be wished away or legislated out of existence.  In contrast to the perceptions described above, I've noticed that:

- The environmental impacts can be huge, including mercury-related issues (whether used in sluice boxes like in Colombia, or whether 'merely' used in the amalgamation of gold from concentrates, on land).  Moreover, small-scale mining activities generally add a lot of sediment into river waters, and this increased sediment load has a serious effect on the aquatic life in these rivers.  And river beds, often dug up to extract gold from old river terraces, are left disturbed, not replanted, etc.

- Social impacts, probably initially not so heavy, always increase over time.  Outsiders turn up, also start working in the same areas, but as the article above notices, they tend not to integrate well with local communities.  In Ghana, however, I've seen that even when they interact with communities, this usually brings all the problems associated with quick money: alcohol, drugs, prostitution.

- Unlike large mining companies, small-scale miners tend not to pay royalties, which essentially means that they are stealing the country's wealth from the current and future citizens.

The main problem for governments is the fact that the very large numbers of small-scale miners makes it very difficult for them to be governed in any meaningful sense.  At the same time, groups of small-scale miners working in profitable areas tend to grow into rather structured cooperations, with persons renting out earth-moving equipment, pumps, setting up service industries (ranging from catering to prostitution, etc.).  This may have a beneficial economic effect, but it has been noticed in some countries that real benefits tend to accrue to a small number of people (owners of equipment, for instance) while the local people merely eke out a survival in an environment that deteriorates rapidly.

ASM is an industry that will not go away, cannot be legislated away, cannot be easily governed or controlled.  The only sensible solution (even if it's only a partial solution) is to regularise the industry, licensing operators, thereby allowing them access to (loan) funding, and at the same time to organise some sort of government-led buying scheme so that royalties can be extracted or withheld. If ASM operators can be convinced to form cooperatives or companies, these also become somewhat easier to govern and it becomes somewhat easier for government agents to impart knowledge about environmental practices, etc.

I therefore agree completely with the various formalisation strategy described above.

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