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7 principles to support the professionalisation and development of a responsible artisanal and small-scale mining sector

7 principles to support the professionalisation and development of a responsible artisanal and small-scale mining sector

February 23, 2024, by Estelle Levin-Nally and Rosanna Tufo


Motivated by the imperative of industrial nations increasing their mineral security, donors and investors are looking into the role of the ASM sector in the context of critical minerals. They are scoping how they might support mitigating the challenges and advancing the development of ASM. We were recently asked “What can we do to support the professionalisation and development of a responsible ASM sector?” Here is what we advised, based on the 80+ projects Levin Sources has delivered in relation to ASM governance, engagement, management, procurement and development since 2010. This also sums up the “Levin Sources way” to doing ASM engagement and development whether for miners, mineral buyers, or multistakeholder initatitives. Get in touch to see how we could help you.

1/ Be miner-led

Work to the miners’ personal and commercial risk exposures (vulnerabilities) and resilience, including identifying and building incentives that help them address these risks, in order that they prioritise them. Put yourself in the miners’ shoes. Recognise artisanal mining as a livelihood and economic development pathway as well as an opportunity for social advancement and growing political capital. Here are some of the things they may be thinking about:

  • Why am I mining rather than doing something else? What does it bring for me and my family?
  • What is my community like? Is it thriving or struggling? How much do I need this livelihood?
  • What is my operating environment like? Is it predatory or enabling? Stable or dynamic? Predictable or uncertain? Could my operating environment present a problem for me, my family, my co-workers and my community as we seek to make a living from our mining activities?
  • How possible is it for me to operate legally (in every aspect)? Why would I or should I?
  • How can I obtain mining rights? Who can support me in the process and to ensure I retain access to production sites?
  • What security do I need for myself, my team, my product, my tools, my operation?
  • How will the weather affect the viability of my operation?
  • How can I get the upfront capital I need to start mining, and the working capital to run my mine? How can I be sure I will be able to repay this? What happens if I can’t?
  • How do I compete or cooperate with other miners to increase my chances of success?
  • Who should I work with? Who shouldn’t I work with and why?
  • Who will I sell to? How will I know if I’m getting a fair price? Can I make the sale happen regularly enough to meet my needs?
  • Can I make enough money to support myself and my family?
  • Does the money I can make outweigh the risks I will have to take?

Artisanal mining communities and their advocates have long complained about the imposition of market values that do not align with their own priorities. This can mean inequitable distribution of costs for becoming formalised, often required to build buyer comfort to be able to engage (e.g. in the context of conflict minerals). Miner-led approaches inevitably transition business relations towards more of a partnership-based model with the supply chain and financiers, rather than a policing model that is paternalistic, disrespectful and unrealistic. Being miner-led goes beyond consultation to meaningful inclusion in target setting, programme design and decision-making.

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2/ Take a human-rights based approach.

Artisanal miners are both economic actors and citizens, and in many cases are immigrants who may have inferior rights to nationals of the host nation in relation to the access to mineral rights and social welfare, or internal migrants without the support of their host community or accountability towards it. Interventions must therefore

  1. address the miners’ rights as human beings as well as their responsibilities as economic operators to respect others’ human rights,
  2. mobilise and motivate local government officials and local security services to understand and embrace their duty to protect the human rights of the miners and mining communities, and
  3. be sensitive to the differing rights afforded to individuals on the basis of their identity.

The two projects to really prove this approach were Swiss Development and Cooperation’s Sustainable Artisanal Mining project and Engaging Stakeholders in Environmental Conservation Project. These programmes successfully increased the national ASM formalisation rate and reduced environmental impacts because they empowered miners and impacted communities to claim their rights, and enfranchised government officials to recognise their role as agents of change rather than simple tax collectors and law enforcers.

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3/ Recognise the diversity of miners and inequalities between them.

It is important that such interventions don’t inadvertently benefit only the wealthy and more powerful actors in the sector. This includes consideration of the rights of vulnerable groups like women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, the LGBTQIA+ community, Indigenous peoples, internally displaced peoples, refugees, economic migrants, landowners/users, and so on. It requires taking a wide and purposefully inclusive approach to stakeholder engagement and consultation when envisioning how to support miners to derisk their operations and mine/process/trade more responsibly. Consider how your intervention might further disadvantage or harm vulnerable groups.

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4/ Consider formalisation as a long-term process, beyond programmatic quick wins.

Formalisation is deeply rooted in economic, social and political factors which can hinder or enhance its success. It should equally focus on supporting mining organisations and addressing the systemic challenges that are obstacles to the formalisation process. It must recognise that it goes beyond obtaining mining rights but should include better mining practices (taking into account the environment, health and safety, for example). A recent analysis looking at the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM)’s experience of working with cooperatives in Peru and Colombia, shows the connection between the Fairmined Certification and positive impacts on the well-being of miners, their families and communities. Although the analysis does not delve into the factors that determine improved well-being, ARM has been supporting and monitoring the progress of miners for years as they improve towards obtaining the Fairmined certification. This has ultimately facilitated market linkages with buyers interested in certified gold, creating a market-driven solution, and not a project-focused one.

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5/ Ensure legal frameworks are realistic.

Don’t promote seemingly attractive ideas that work well in theory but aren’t locally feasible. Legalise existing commercial realities and political economies as far as possible, whilst nudging them towards more rational systems of production to achieve higher formalisation rates. This requires the law to envisage formalisation as a process that is

  1. achievable because it is accessible and both commercially feasible and attractive and
  2. gradual because the miners take steps to professionalise and legitimise their activities.

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6/ Understand vested interests and design any intervention in response to these.

In many ASM sectors, powerful figures benefit tremendously from the status quo and are likely to be resistant to change. Any ASM intervention – whether led by government, international donors, downstream actors, large-scale miners, or NGOs – must understand and consider the existing political economy and the distribution of benefits and harms that accrue. Mapping financial flows through a minerals value chain and economy is one method for uncovering who holds economic and political power, and how they use the local mining, trading, processing sector to grow this. Interventions that don’t understand where power sits, and how they are likely to redistribute or destabilise existing power structures could find themselves with serious barriers to success, and personal safety issues. This is why Levin Sources built a programme with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime (GITOC) in 2017 to map illicit financial flows in ASM gold value chains. We are thrilled to see GITOC advance this work in the years since into a compelling body of evidence.

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7/ Respect ASM as a legitimate contributor to the national economy, and to building elasticity into supply when markets are tight.

ASM is more agile and able to grow supply quickly than LSM in response to increasing. They deliver an important service to the global economy by helping to build resilient supply. At Levin Sources, we are of course not naïve to the environmental, social and governance risks that are associated with ASM, and how buyers with responsible sourcing commitments and low risk appetite / limited capacity would struggle to capitalise upon the ASM opportunity. Fortunately, we are seeing more and more initiatives to partner and steward ASM onto a pathway of continuous improvement, in order to enfranchise ASM to shift into responsible markets. For example, we welcome the LBMA’s new strategy to grow ASM sourcing by their members. And we are proud of our groundbreaking consortium with The Blended Capital Group, the Alliance for Responsible Mining, BanQu and Napier Meridien to match innovative finance with ambitious ASM operators, who are committed to responsible mining and trading but need support to achieve it.

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