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The importance of thinking and working politically in finding ‘best fit’ solutions to ASM-LSM cohabitation

The importance of thinking and working politically in finding ‘best fit’ solutions to ASM-LSM cohabitation

July 6, 2020, by Terah DeJong


The interaction between artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) and large-scale mining (LSM) can be dizzyingly complex. In a single site, some miners may be financed by international criminal networks and others may scrape by each month with less than a gram of gold to avoid starvation. There may be rival self-defence groups staking out different territory, or all miners may be under strict control of a dynamic local chief who gets a share of ore each week and invests it in community infrastructure.

The government’s response is often equally bewildering: a local mining official may be paid off by miners while shutting down some sites for those who do not pay up. A high-level member of government may be waging a public PR campaign against illegal miners. The military may be pressuring LSM companies to contribute to their fees in return for clearing their concessions of ASM. Environmental NGOs may expose mercury poisoning, while a party in power may use the pretext of mercury poisoning to annul permits and snatch up prime sites for cronies.

Even in stable situations the complexity can be overwhelming. And while it’s true that it’s hard to see beyond the tip of the iceberg, there are tools and practices that can help clear the waters enough to get a sense of what lies below. In fact, understanding the bigger picture and working to engage less superficially is essential for avoiding the conflict, loss and risk associated with poor ASM-LSM cohabitation.

A key aspect is learning how to think and operate politically. This doesn’t mean operating in a partisan manner, but rather understanding and effectively engaging the powers and interests behind all ASM situations and at all levels. It also means avoiding cookie-cutter ‘best practice’ solutions and instead fostering processes that develop ‘best fit’ solutions tailored to each circumstance.

An artisanal diamond mining site near Seguela, Cote d’Ivoire. While a site may appear chaotic, there are almost always organized systems for monitoring and managing claims. Effective ASM engagement requires going beyond appearances.

Political economy analysis (PEA) is a broad field that offers some useful tools including the following categories, summarised in a 2017 UKAID guide:

  • Structural and contextual analyses. These broad-level analyses help understand the big picture in terms of political dynamics, economic trends that may be driving ASM behaviour, and so on. For example, how is an upcoming election influencing the situation on the ground? How involved with ASM are political parties locally and nationally? How are agricultural land pressures driving an expansion of ASM?
  • Stakeholder analysis. This is crucial to understanding both the individuals and the institutions that wield power and influence on the ASM-LSM situation. A local chief may be vocal, but does he command the respect of the miners? Is a member of parliament pulling the strings behind the scenes? Who funds the excavators given to miners? These are all questions that good stakeholder analysis can help answer.
  • Analysis of bargaining processes. As most community relations professionals in LSM companies know all too well, negotiating with villagers can follow a completely different logic from negotiating for a new research permit. Money talks, but so do cultural norms and other unwritten rules of the game. More than just business transactions, an analysis of bargaining processes sheds light on how actors engage with each other, constrain each other and reward each other.
  • Analysis of incentives and ideas. Understanding incentives is crucial for effective engagement with ASM. For example, in some situations a local chief may be motivated by money received from ASM but also a sense that he is not respected enough by the government or the LSM operator. Harmful ideas and beliefs may also hold influence, such as xenophobia against certain ethnic groups involved in mining.

These general analysis tools have been further developed to specifically gain a better understanding of political economy in ASM and connected supply chains, for example in the Handbook for identifying financial flows (IFFs) linked to artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

To the list above one might also add policy analysis, to help uncover the official and unofficial ways a given government treats ASM. This is crucial because official statements and laws alone can be misleading. In some contexts with harsh restrictions against ASM inside of exploration concessions, the government in practice may turn a blind eye or even encourage LSM operators to accommodate the ASM. On the other hand, some governments may apply strong political pressure to stamp out ASM despite a conciliatory official policy.

Analysis of legal systems and cultural dynamics is equally relevant. In many countries in francophone Africa, for example, civil servants are trained not to manage dynamic situations but to apply the letter of the law and regulations. If the law says that ASM miners must get a decree from the minister in order to operate, then that’s what they must apply. They may also rely on top-down orders and be wary of trying anything new. By understanding such dynamics, an LSM operator may know that they need to get the mining minister to sign an official order to try an ASM-LSM accommodation, or they may know who to call in the capital to get the local official to act.

Indeed, understanding the policy and institutional framework is also a precondition for influencing it. LSM operators often underestimate their clout when it comes to ASM policy. Governments often want to please their large foreign investors, and they respond to cues from the companies. If companies are telling them to send in the military, that might influence their actions just as if they tell the government to create a viable ASM zone near a concession.

Mining companies can be reticent to engage on such sensitive issues, but not doing so can lead to sub-optimal outcomes, such as expensive and ineffective military operations that may further degrade relationships with communities, generate human rights abuses or mask what is really going on. In those cases, engaging through trade groups, mining chambers and diplomats can be particularly effective. A mining chamber can have an official position on ASM policy, for example, or might organise seminars and invite experts and government officials to debate key issues and make new decisions.

Indeed, a sound understanding of political dynamics is not enough; companies must also learn how to engage politically in a sustained and effective manner. One way to do so is to train personnel and create internal practices that constantly feed relevant information to decision makers. For example, the community relations team can be encouraged to share insights on a regional mining official or an influential relative of a chief, so that executives understand what is going on.

Externally, companies can engage in local and national processes that foster dialogue and reform. For example, mining trade groups can participate in and encourage governments to have a national multi-stakeholder working group on ASM and ensure the LSM perspective is understood by policymakers, diplomats and NGOs. Local multi-stakeholder groups can also be set up to create spaces for bargaining and finding durable solutions.

While PEA done poorly can cause insight to be lost in jargon, systematically using its tools to think and act more politically can help make change more durable and effective. Indeed, complex problems like ASM-LSM cohabitation require tailored and constantly updated solutions; we want ‘best fit’ and not ‘best practice’. Then, and only then, can LSM operators faced with challenges from ASM meet bottom-line objectives while contributing positively to the places where they work.

Terah DeJong is an associate at Levin Sources and a specialist in artisanal mining and sustainable development. He has advised governments in Central and West Africa on ASM policy, and has run miner formalization programs in Côte d'Ivoire and the Central African Republic funded by USAID and the European Union. In Côte d'Ivoire he worked on a unique ASM-LSM cohabitation model in diamond mining regions and organized a regional conference on ASM in 2017. He currently serves part-time as a technical advisor for a USAID ASM project and as an independent consultant for clients including Conservation International and the World Bank.

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