Tanzania: Small-scale mining map reveals vast potential and pitfalls
Small-scale mining supports hundreds of thousands of relatively well-paid jobs, but with serious health and safety hazards.
In Tanzania, mining is often the subject of headline news. There are frequent reports in the papers regarding fresh multimillion deals, new tax plans for the sector, or allegations of malpractice. These stories tend to focus on large-scale mining, which is central to the country’s economy. But much less-talked about is artisanal and small-scale mining, even though it is just as critical to millions of Tanzanians.
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people are directly engaged in extracting or processing minerals through methods that require low investment, technology or mechanisation. This ranges from farmers who operate pits on their land informally for a few months each year, to mining rushes that put thousands of people to work at a time. Most miners in Tanzania are searching for gold, but there is also gemstones, base metals and industrial minerals.
Artisanal and small-scale mining (or “ASM”) provides a livelihood for huge numbers of people in Tanzania and several developing countries. Yet due to its nature, data on the sector has rarely been structurally gathered and analysed. In Tanzania, statements about the sector’s nature, size and impact are often little more than back-of-the-envelope estimations. This lack of evidence has made any efforts to support or regulate the sector very difficult.
In light of these concerns, IPIS conducted a mobile data collection campaign in northwest Tanzania. The project surveyed 450 small-scale mining and processing sites on the nature and scope of operations; working conditions; distribution of wealth; and their health, safety and environmental impacts. By making the data publicly available – through an interactive webmap, open database and analytical report – IPIS hopes to contribute to a better understanding of both the harms and potential of small-scale mining in Tanzania.
Documenting the well-known harms
Many of the dangers of artisanal and small-scale mining are well-known, but surveying hundreds of sites revealed their extent.
The campaign found, for example, that over 75% of workers operate informally on unlicensed sites. It also discovered that nearly 1 in 5 sites had been struck by at least one accident in the preceding year, leading to at least 175 injuries and 90 deaths. Safety awareness in general is worryingly low; personal protective equipment is rarely used and miners often use risky digging techniques.
Health emerged as another major concern. One third of workers has no access to sanitary facilities on site, while for those that do, the amenities are often in a poor condition or insufficient in number. Combined with inadequate waste management systems, this poses serious health risks for workers and neighbouring communities.
Another key threat is the widespread use of mercury. Of those surveyed, 98% of gold processing sites use this highly toxic chemical to help extract the precious metal from its ore. The gold-mercury amalgamate is usually burned in the open air and in the proximity of residential areas. Children are especially vulnerable to mercury poisoning as it causes severe neurological and developmental problems. This makes it particularly worrisome that 18% of gold processing sites employ children below the age of 15.
Finally, the campaign revealed ASM to be a particularly patriarchal sector. Women make up just 20% of the total workforce and generally remain in lower-level positions with little job security. In three-quarters of the sites that engage women, their work is limited to crushing and panning, which earns one third of what an average miner gets.
The undervalued potential of the sector
The new research shows the extent of the harms of artisanal and small-scale mining, but it also reveals its important – and often overshadowed – contributions.
In just 4 of Tanzania’s 26 regions, IPIS estimates that up to 121,000 people are directly engaged in mining and processing. When auxiliary services in transport, restaurants, guesthouses, bars, commerce and construction are added, the number of jobs supported rises to over 485,000.
Mining jobs are relatively rewarding in the context of poor rural areas where ASM generally takes place. The average monthly income of gold miners and processors, for instance, lies between $82 and $110. This is more than double the common wage for agricultural labour in Tanzania.
As well as through employment and spill-overs, over half of all surveyed sites also directly contribute money to neighbouring communities. Like more prominent large-scale companies, most small-scale operations make “corporate social responsibility” contributions to support health, education, road-building and village infrastructure. This also explains why despite evident nuisances and occasional frictions, relations between mining sites and surrounding communities tend to be good. While community clashes with large-scale mining companies are common in Tanzania, only 3% of ASM sites are involved in an outspoken conflict with neighbouring villages.
Furthermore, contrary to the reputation of small-scale mining as a disorganised patchwork of rent-seekers, its governance is in fact highly sophisticated. Multi-tiered structures with extensive chains of command help spread investments, divide labour, and share production.
These systems are, among other things, enabling the gradual mechanisation of the sector. The stereotypical image of poor workers carving out and crushing rocks with nothing more than shovels, pickaxes and hammers now applies to less than 55% of mining and 20% of processing sites. Generators, compressors, water pumps, metal detectors, jackhammers, electric winches and ball mills are a common sight today.
The management of the sector does not work for everyone, however. As many miners are unable to access bank loans, they turn to powerful gold trader networks to informally finance operations in return for a monopoly on buying their production. This makes miners vulnerable to debt bondage and risks implicating them in iniquitous practices such as money laundering, smuggling and corruption.
ASM’s informality also complicates state oversight and regulation. At least ten different government institutions are tasked with visiting mining and processing sites to improve inspection, revenue collection, assistance, data collection, law enforcement and conflict mediation. While over 90% of workers receive state visits, most government oversight remains partial or occasional; coordination, information exchange, and task division are conducted in an ad hoc manner.
The collection and organisation of data on artisanal and small-scale mining can allow this oversight to be fine-tuned and help unveil where the best and worst practices lie. Through better knowledge, it is hoped that the dynamic sector’s harms can be minimised and its extensive contributions to Tanzanian employment and socio-economic advancement maximised.
IPIS mapping of ASM in northwest Tanzania is financed by the Belgian Development Cooperation.