It is no secret that many nations have headed to Africa in search of economic opportunity. In fact, a significant portion of trading relationships with Africa centers on mineral deposits, many of which are needed to produce high-tech products such as tablets and smartphones. However despite the lucrative opportunities the mining trade presents to outsiders, a significant portion of mineral extraction is done by poor locals who have little access to proper equipment. These individuals are known as artisanal miners.
The practice dates back thousands of years when many African kingdoms used artisanal miners to extract minerals for building materials and wealth. Today, still without access to technology, these miners operate with hand-held tools, no safety equipment and within shafts lacking any type of ventilation system.
So why does one engage in these dangerous activities? Kevin D’Souza, a mining engineer, discusses in his piece, “Artisanal and Small Scale Mining in Africa: A Reality Check,” that many turn to mining in the dry season when farming is less prevalent. This allows individuals to supplement their income. Also, many turn to the practice as a last resort since they live in rural areas with few employment opportunities outside of the mining sector.
Amnesty International has recently conducted a study of the mining industry within the DRC, specifically, the Katanga region. What they found was a serious lack of oversight by the government in terms of enforcing mining laws on the books as well as UN accords ensuring the safety of workers.
One of the cases focused by the Amnesty International report is that of the Tilwezembe mine operated by Misa Mining. The interviews outlined in the report shed light on serious human rights violations at the mine and surrounding area. For instance, accidents resulting in serious injury or death occur frequently at the site. Many miners are injured by landslides, falling debris within the mine, and asphyxiation. Child labor has also been known to be used at the mining site.
Furthermore, many violations have been perpetrated by the private security companies that oversee the mining activities. Unlike in the past, miners are prevented from taking the minerals they extracted off the mining site once Misa Mining took over. If miners are caught taking minerals offsite they face serious punishment by the guards which include steep fines and the possibility of being banned from the site. The guards also have the right to imprison miners for no more than the legally stated 48 hours. However, violations frequently occur with many stating that individuals are held for several days within the onsite prisons.
The presence of artisanal mining as the only means for some to make money and a government unwilling to enforce international human rights laws leaves little hope for its practitioners. However, D’Souza outlines some actions that can possibly alleviate the suffering. For example, he recommends legalizing the practice due to the fact that over 75% of miners operate outside the law. This would help create formal standards for artisanal mining as well as open the doors to introducing health and safety regulations that could vastly improve the miners’ situation.
– Zack Lindberg
Sources: Amnesty International, UN