All that glitters is not gold: Precious metal mining in Congo should stay small for the sake of the forest

Scaling up mining operations also means scaling up deforestation in the Congo Basin.

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Photo courtesy of Bullion Vault/flickr.

YAOUNDE, Cameroon (24 February, 2012)_The harmful impacts of gold and diamond mining on the Congo Basin rainforest can be minimised by ensuring that operations stay small, so locals employed by the sector continue to be motivated to preserve the forests where they live and work, advises a new CIFOR study.

In the landscape where small-scale artisanal miners operate, negative impacts on the forest do not occur because the scale is very small and dispersed, and harmful chemicals are not used to extract the precious metals from the soil.

Artisanal miners typically also farm, fish, and hunt for their livelihoods, however it is gold and diamonds that provide cash.

“Locals see the forest as bountiful and with a provisioning function – it is like a supermarket for them, providing food, water, meat, medicinal herbs, good soils and sacred spaces,”said Verina Ingram, CIFOR scientist based in Cameroon and co-author of Is the god of diamonds alone? The role of institutions in artisanal mining in forest landscapes, Congo Basin..

“Most people expect that the presence of mining automatically equals deforestation – but we didn’t see that in areas of artisanal or small-scale mining, generally you see just a few saplings cut down and small streams diverted. Whereas large-scale gold mining, if it employs technology, chemicals and then you get the kind of impacts that are apparent in other areas of Africa, where exploitation and overlords dominate.”

Over 191,000 people work in small-scale mining operations in the Sangha Tri-National Landscape of the Congo Basin, roughly five per cent of the local population, who find small amounts of gold and diamond throughout the forests.

There is a huge demand for minerals at the moment, and mining looks to boom throughout the region in the coming years, promising to have serious impacts on the forests of Africa. In Peru this past November for example, it was revealed that deforestation rates were six times higher in regions along the Amazon River where gold mining was taking place.

Deforestation is just one of the environmental impacts of larger mining and uncontrolled small-scale operations around the world – the use of cyanide and mercury to release the precious metals from the soil can lead to widespread environmental contamination, and have especially serious impacts on the health of miners, their families and other people downstream in developing regions without drinking water infrastructures. Soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and pollution of river systems can also result.

Small-scale mining in the Congo is largely ungoverned by formal institutions – the incomes are untaxed, and permits are not widely used. Thus, a common strategy for development in the region is to scale-up and industrialise the mining operations into an engine for economic growth – but this could have extremely profound consequences both for the forests and people’s livelihoods.

“Formalisation could lead to much greater environmental impacts and any policy intervention needs to be carefully thought through,” Ingram said.

Moreover, authorities may intend to increase living standards through upscaling, but this can actually have negative impacts on their social autonomy and quality of life, she says.

“Small scale miners have few rights to start with, so when authorities start trying to professionalise the sector, it is the artisanal miners who may lose out,” she says.

Ingram points out that the International Labour Organisation’s Convention of Safety and Health in Mines, which guarantees a minimum level of protection for miners, has not been ratified by any Central African country.

At the moment, miners throughout the Congo Basin still enjoy a high degree of independence and autonomy compared to miners in other parts of the world – particularly in Western and Eastern Africa’s notorious “conflict diamond” zones, where exploitation and child labour are endemic.

The vast majority of miners in the Congo Basin on the other hand, are self-employed – 70 per cent in Cameroon and 63 per cent in the Central African Republic. Upscaling could lead to miners grouping together into unions and increasing their ability to assert themselves, but the opposite could happen, and exploitive conditions could proliferate and overlords dominate.

Moreover, any policy measures need to be adopted throughout the nations of the Congo Basin – the border between Cameroon and the Central African Republic is porous, and a lack of harmonisation between countries may increase smuggling, trafficking and illegal activities.

“We need to remember that these are fragile governments trying to manage remote areas where there are transboundary issues,” says Ingram.

These issues, of course, do not apply only to central Africa. Worldwide, more than 13 million people are employed by small-scale mining. When their dependents are factored in, more than 100 million people around the globe depend on artisanal mining for their livelihoods. Potential for economic development is enormous.

“The key to maintaining the current low level of environmental impacts is only possible if we take into account the shape of current types of organisation. So how can people still be allowed to make a living, but do it sustainably and safely?” asks Ingram.

This new publication is part of CIFOR’s research program on Forests and Livelihoods and was sponsored by the World Conservation Union, Central and West African Office (IUCN-PACO).

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