Artisanal Gold Mining:Impact and Evaluation
April 11, 2023
April 11, 2023
In recent years, artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) populations have seen exponential growth from 30 million people in 2014 to an estimated 40.5 million as recently as 2017 - a notable contrast to just 7 million employed overall within industrial mining.
Globally, many people migrate from urban areas in search of ASM jobs to escape poverty and with the hope of quickly making money. However, the majority fail to find success due to inadequate laws and policies neglecting the sector's diversity and geographical location.
The artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector, which provides a livelihood for millions of people worldwide, also carries a significant burden. Rudimentary techniques, manual labor, and sometimes 24-hour workdays take their toll on the health and safety of workers.
Miners first dig a tunnel underground or beneath streams to access the ore deposits on subsurface layers. Buckets, pans, and sieves separate the heavier pieces of gold from lighter material. Picks then break off larger pieces of rock before crushing the rocks with a hammer to extract bits of ore containing trace amounts of gold.
These ore fragments are then placed over a sluice box which uses a combination of water speed, gravity, and other materials, such as mercury or cyanide in some cases, to capture and filter out any remaining gold particles.
Lack of mechanization requires miners to rely heavily on arduous physical tasks, resulting in long hours with little rest.
Gold investors, industries utilizing gold, and mining companies are the beneficiaries of gold extraction, whereas miners, local communities, and taxpayers within the area bear the cost.
Roads, schools, and hospitals are often promised. And nearby mining towns may see slight economic growth, but eventually, when the mines are shuttered and vacated, the town's remaining legacy is environmental destruction and financial ruin.
Remote mining locations often lack potable water or sanitation infrastructure, leading to tragically poor living conditions further contributing to adverse health outcomes. Moreover, poor economic circumstances force many women and child laborers into the sector – absent of legal protections or benefits.
Poor working conditions create a variety of environmental hazards, including severe physical and emotional health issues. With a human cost so deep and complex, comprehensive policies and training programs aimed at protecting and improving the safety, rights, and quality of life of all ASGM workers become necessary.
Mercury Exposure and Cyanide Poisoning
Despite the grave risks of mercury poisoning, gold mining processes often involve manually mixing and working mercury into the material to dissolve and extract gold.
Cyanide is used in heap leaching and spreads crushed ore across large collection pads, which are then sprayed with an open cyanide solution. This solution dissolves the gold from the ore, stripping it into the solution as it trickles through the heap. The collection pad collects this metal-impregnated liquid, which is resprayed on the heap until the ore is depleted.
Vat or tank leaching involves mixing ore with cyanide solution in large tanks. Although this is a more controlled process than heap leaching, the resulting waste material, known as tailings, must be stored behind dams in tailings ponds—which have the potential to collapse suddenly and unexpectedly.
Due to its high fatality rate, the gold mining industry is one of the most dangerous in the world. Risks include exposure to hazardous substances, falls, and collapsing walls or roofs. Miners face tough and long hours. And many come from impoverished backgrounds with little to no education, adding to the additional job risks.
Heavy Metal Poisoning
Mining gold often leads to the release of hazardous heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, and lead. Sadly, ASGM operations are notorious for flouting health regulations, resulting in people getting poisoned by these dangerous heavy metals.
Deforestation is an unfortunate consequence of gold mining - a practice particularly harming the Amazon rainforest as trees are destroyed to make way for expanded mining. The damage to the region's flora and fauna is immeasurable.
Many gold mines, both operating and abandoned, are known to leak heavy metals and sulfuric acid into nearby freshwater resources. Mining the ore to extract the gold releases mercury into the air, resulting in toxicity mortally damaging to local wildlife.
Surprisingly, most laws do not hold mining companies accountable for restoring land or reducing environmental damage. Tragically, taxpayer money is commonly used to fund government programs that bear these responsibilities.
Mining is dirty and destructive. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that 40% of all western watershed headwaters are contaminated, leaving a taxpayer clean-up tab of at least $35 billion.
Artificial lakes and containment areas for toxic and contaminated wastewater from the gold mining business are called tailing ponds.
These ponds are lethal to wildlife and have been known to collapse or breach. So far, more than 200 main tailing pond failings have claimed hundreds of lives, forced out thousands, and poisoned freshwater drinking sources for millions.
ASGM mining accounts for a staggering 35% of global mercury pollution, releasing an estimated 2 ounces of mercury for every ounce of gold extracted.
Child Labor and Illegal Mine Operations
In many developing countries, ASGMs operate illegally. Consequently, workers in these mines – many of them children – are deprived of protective equipment, the bargaining power to obtain better salaries, and, most critically, lack legal protection against exploitative and cruel employment practices.
Human and Cultural Displacement
Indigenous peoples and villages are frequently displaced from their land without consideration. Holding no legal claim to an area believed to have been the home of their ancestors for thousands of years, they are forced into displacement when mining companies lease the land.
The gold industry is often touted for its invaluable contribution to the global economy, yet serious drawbacks are attached, taking a heavy toll on the environment and residents. Any benefits achieved are outweighed by environmental degradation and health risks.
What would happen if it was possible to get the financial advantage from the gold without having to undergo destructive extraction? Is there a strategy that could be used to tap the resources in these mines without ruining the environment? Can gold be so multifaceted that it can still generate monetary benefit while intentionally being left in the ground? Element United believes this is achievable, and they have an answer.
Element United is making positive changes in the mining industry with gold + crypto and gold + blockchain technologies and creating opportunities to improve many lives. We’re enabling mine operators to pursue sustainable and eco-friendly methods of monetizing their resources while keeping a clear purpose in mind. How are they achieving this?
Using blockchain and node technology, Element United, in conjunction with gold mines, can form new economies by developing services and products that amplify the value of these assets kept underground. When we partner with mines, they can digitize these assets instead of extracting them. Examples include NFT collections and an online game where players can earn Element rewards.Gold and crypto, combined with blockchain technology, can provide economic incentives for mining companies to help the environment and local population.
Element United is advocating for a future of sustainability and clean economies to drive growth. Join us to make this a reality - get started today!
Disclaimer: Element nodes and the Element blockchain are governed by a Distributed Governance Framework, which is distinct from and not solely controlled by Element United DAO LLC. Any value derived from Element nodes and Element Digital Rewards is likely to be uncorrelated with the success or failure of Element United