Big Ideas for Small-scale Mining

Uganda-based mining engineer Jennifer Hinton, BASc’99, MASc’02, PhD’11, wants recognition, respect and protection for the world’s 30 million artisanal miners.

Children stand in muddy rivers panning for gold. Adults hammer at cliff-faces and dig underground tunnels by hand to depths of 100 metres. Miners of all ages and genders use mercury, cyanide and other toxic chemicals to process their mineral outputs despite the negative effects they have on their health and environment. These scenes should belong in mining’s distant past but in fact continue to play out in many countries around the world.

Outside the heavily mechanized and modern mining industry where mine life-cycles, world metal prices and corporate profitability rule, there is a parallel mining world where every miner is an entrepreneur and the stakes are nothing less than survival. Although these artisanal miners work in the same sector as their larger industrial counterparts, there are significant differences in terms of processes, labour standards and scale. The critical difference, however, is usually in how governments and local communities view the miners.

“Generally, [artisanal mining] is informal and unlicensed subsistence mining, with people living day-to-day using hammers, picks and shovels…really basic technologies,” says Uganda-based mining engineer Jennifer Hinton. “But because they don’t necessarily have security of tenure when working without a license; feasibly they can easily be kicked off [the land].”

Small step-up improvements in methods, such as a simple sluice box, used can increase incomes significantly with little investment. The next step would be a water pump and improved sluice.

For more than a decade, Hinton has worked with artisanal and small-scale miners to improve their productivity, working conditions and livelihood security. Over the course of her career she has worked in nearly 15 countries, but for the past few years her work has allowed her to stay mainly in East Africa, near her home base of Entebbe, Uganda.

“The Ugandan government was supportive of looking at artisanal mining and social and development issues,” says Hinton, “and it was a country where next to nothing had been done on artisanal mining, unlike neighbouring Tanzania where there had been people working on these issues for 20 years.”

Throughout her career, Hinton’s goal has been to show national governments the value of artisanal miners to local economies. She strongly feels that their livelihoods ought to be recognized and afforded the same attention and support (in terms of protection, training and market access) as other occupations. “There are upwards of 30 million artisanal miners in the world and in a lot of countries they are the main producers of minerals,” she says.

Several years ago, Hinton put together an economic model for Uganda’s artisanal mining sector and discovered that it was the third largest source of foreign exchange, making up seven percent of the nation’s GDP and putting 330 million dollars a year into local economies. Yet despite figures such as these, artisanal miners rarely get the same respect as members of other professions. They’re marginalized people, undervalued by society. Hinton goes so far as to suggest that they often feel like peasants. But she sees them differently. As a result, she usually receives a warm welcome whenever she visits a mining community.

“Anything that increases attention and can potentially bring some sort of technical or social services support is well-received,” says Hinton. “Most artisanal miners that I work with are thrilled that someone recognizes their work as being a livelihood.”

Hinton doesn’t just recognize the potential of small-scale mining; her resolve is so great that she recently purchased her own gold-lead-silver mine in Western Uganda on the edge of the Rift Valley. Her purpose is to show the local community, government and private sector that small-scale mining can be profitable and relatively safe when done properly.

Because most artisanal miners live day-to-day on the proceeds of their manual labour, their short-term priority of earning enough to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families usually trumps any concern about the long-term consequences of their actions. Many of the health, safety and environmental issues associated with their activities are largely a result of miners not having the training, resources or support to mine safely or responsibly.

“You have major issues with accidents, injuries, fatalities because people don’t necessarily have the skills or resources to mine in a proper way,” Hinton says. “People dig in a haphazard way and have pit walls or mine tunnels collapse on them.”

This woman breaks rock in a stone quarry while tending to her children throughout the day. Chronic exposure to stone dust can have severe health impacts, including silicosis.

To make matters worse, in many of these countries, poverty and gender inequality leads children to work alongside their parents at the mines. It often starts with women coming to work with their infants on their backs. By the time they reach two or three years old, it seems natural for the children to pick up hammers and start working. It’s well accepted that many of these mines are dangerous and unhealthy to work in but the health and safety risks facing children are even more serious due to their size and level of development. “When there’s a strong culture of mining, there’s not much priority given for kids to go to school,” Hinton says. “This lack of priority for education has longer term repercussions for whole communities, not just the individuals.”

She also notes that because of the questionable legality of many mine sites, waste management is often a low priority, while alluvial mining – panning in rivers – often leads to significant siltation and erosion problems. If more governments would provide training on the correct way to carry out these tasks while also developing miner-friendly policies, they would help mitigate many of these risks.

Despite all of these challenges, Hinton still firmly believes artisanal and small-scale mining can be an environmentally and socially responsible alternative that can be an important supplement to other livelihoods, like farming.

“You see these major sites with maybe 1000 people, 5000 people, where you have extensive environmental degradation across an area. But a large proportion of [other] people are working at a very small scale,” she says. “So you’ll have a mother, father and children out digging small pits and panning. If we look at the capacity of the environment to respond to those environmental impacts, just as an issue of scale, it’s much smaller.”

Hinton’s mine is semi-mechanized and employs 25 people – 90 per cent of whom come from the local community – so it isn’t artisanal, though the scale is still very small. The workers mine 40 tons a day, which stands in stark comparison to the 100-200,000 tons or more of an average large-scale mine.

Jennifer Hinton at her Mine Camp with the Great Rift Valley and Rwenzori Mountains in the background.

“The mine camp is in a forest reserve so we have strong connections with the National Forest Authority, trying to establish things like community-based forest management and essentially establish a best practice operation to show that you can mine responsibly at a small scale and with the support of communities,” Hinton says. “We have procedures and guidelines for health and safety, for environment, for labour and for community engagement that we’re hoping can be used as a template for other companies that are working in Uganda and the region.”

According to Hinton, in some countries she has worked in – she gives Mongolia as an example – public awareness of environmental protection issues is already high and individual miners are very supportive of using more environmentally responsible processes. In fact, one of the great hopes in artisanal mining is in the work engineers and social scientists are carrying out in the area of intermediate appropriate technologies. These are simple, inexpensive and practical modifications – often made of basic materials such as wood or pieces of aluminium – of some of the technologies used in larger operations. These technologies help miners work more safely, responsibly and productively and allow them to recover more of their minerals, leading to higher incomes.

Women and men around the world are involved in artisanal mining, as in this underground Fluorspar mine in Mongolia.

“It’s usually one or two people that catch on to things and push things forward and show other people what’s possible,” says Hinton.

She tells a story about a former Ugandan child soldier who became an artisanal miner in the early 1990s at the age of 22. The Yoweri Museveni government came into power in 1986 and five years later they changed the country’s laws related to mining. He was only the second person to get a gold mine license and, starting with only 50 dollars, a basin and a shovel, he began investing in his mine. Ten or fifteen years later, he had the second largest gold mine in the country. Though it gradually became semi-mechanized, it remained relatively small-scale for a gold mine.

“He’s an excellent example of how you can progressively improve activities, sheerly on initiative and by reaching out to people,” she says.

These things alone are not always enough, however, as many miners remain at a disadvantage due to their lack of market access. Without access to the larger market, they are unable to get a fair price for their products. In order to change this, governments, the private sector and consumers need to come together and start putting more value on the contributions of these small-scale mineral producers.

To this end, Hinton is currently working on two pilot projects to set up a fair trade gold certification system for Uganda. As the country’s informal market works right now, miners are essentially at the mercy of intermediary buyers who cycle or drive around mine sites all day and negotiate prices with miners. A fair trade system would provide miners with a direct link to national or international markets, allowing them to sell for a higher price. Not only would miners benefit from such a regulatory system, but national governments would too. In Uganda’s current market, significant price variations between countries and porous borders mean minerals are smuggled out and government taxes and royalties are not paid. Support is growing for greater market access for producers in the hopes that this situation will change.

This woman hauls water daily from a river two kilometres away so she can eke out a meagre income panning for gold.

Since completing her PhD at UBC in 2011, Hinton has done a lot of work to increase recognition of gender issues in artisanal mining. (Recent projects have included developing guidelines for gender mainstreaming of artisanal mining projects for the World Bank and mining policies and legislation for the 11 member states of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region). Although the scope of her work is often challenging, she remains as passionate about it as the day she started. In fact, she still remembers the moment when her future became clear. It was near the end of her undergraduate studies at UBC.

“I took a course on mining and the environment and there was a crazy, enthusiastic Brazilian professor who is fairly renowned at UBC for his guitar playing,” she says. “His class had modules on artisanal mining and the work he had done, mostly in South America. I had this ‘aha’ moment thinking, ‘I would love to do this!’”

A year later, Hinton was presented with the opportunity to do a master’s degree in mining with that same professor, Marcello Veiga, and she had to make a decision: to continue down the environmental engineering path she was on or switch her focus to the social and environmental issues related to artisanal mining.  “Within three weeks I was on a plane to Brazil and starting my master’s research,” she says. “That was 1999. It just kind of took off from there.”

The Sustainability Working Group

The Sustainability Working Group at UBC examines environmental and social issues related to mining and is helping to create responsible mining techniques. As well as mining, geological and chemical engineers, the group includes geologists, lawyers, planners and anthropologists with experience in the mining industry, consulting and non-governmental organizations.


Hinton completed her PhD as part of UBC's BRIDGE program, which links engineering, public health and policy. Find out more about the program

Other artisanal mining research at UBC

Here is a recent story about UBC professor Marcello Veiga’s work (published by UBC Public Affairs):

Toxic Gold Rush