What is Artisanal & Small-Scale Mining (ASM)?

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A common definition for the Artisanal & Small-Scale Mining sector has not been adopted as its legal status, defining criteria, and local definitions vary from country to country1. Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) are formal or informal operations with predominantly simplified forms of exploration, extraction, processing and transportation. ASM is normally low capital intensive and uses high labor-intensive technology. ASM can include men and women working on an individual basis as well as those working in family groups, in partnership or as members of cooperatives or other types of legal associations and enterprises involving hundreds or thousands of miners2. An estimated 20 million people just in DRC (Congo) rely on this sector for income and over 100 million worldwide. The sector produces approximately 80 percent of all sapphires, 25 percent of all tin, 20 percent of all gold, and up to 20 percent of all diamonds 3. ASM mining is often a seasonal occupation, worked in conjunction with farming, with mine output volumes decreasing during harvesting times.

There are various factors that attract people in the ASM sector with the main factor being poverty. ASM being widely recognized as a poverty-driven activity, capable of alleviating economic hardship and promoting wealth creation in largely rural communities4. While ASM can provide a mean to generate income to get out of poverty, it can also be a way to trap miners and the families in poverty.

This poverty trap is a result of low levels of technology and technical expertise, as well as poor geo-prospecting which can lead to low productivity and recovery of mineral ores, as well as negative environmental and health impacts4. Poor health and bad working conditions combined with low returns often leads to a worsening of poverty. Unskilled and without the ability to invest in education or new technology, these people become trapped in poverty and remain in the sector for survival

Principle Features

Artisanal mining may be better characterized by

  • Use of rudimentary techniques for mineral extraction or technology and often operate under hazardous, labor-intensive, highly disorganized and illegal conditions4
  • Low productivity since ASM often takes place in very small or marginal plots, is limited to surface or alluvial mining, and uses inefficient techniques3
  • Lack of safety measures, health care or environmental protections
  • May be practiced seasonally (e.g., to supplement farm incomes) or temporarily in response to high commodity prices3
  • Lack of long-term mine planning and use of rudimentary techniques4

Social, Economic and Environmental Concerns

The artisanal mining sector can potentially adversely affect mining communities and may provide them with limited benefits both during and after mining1. ASM can lead to an influx of workers and create conflict with existing miners, communities, and indigenous populations1. Sanitation and basic health care are often lacking in ASM areas and substance abuse, alcoholism and communicable diseases (STDs) often increase1. Women and children are also frequently involved in ASM activities creating specific health, physical and psychological concerns1.

Occasionally, the lack of formality (legality) in the ASM sector also affects worker safety. Dangers in the workplace include lack of training, poor ventilation, lack of safety equipment, improper use of chemicals, and obsolete equipment1. In fact, ASM can be very dangerous with thousands dying each year from mine shaft collapse, methyl-mercury poisoning, and a variety of other causes1.

Poor and below market rates paid to ASM miners compared with international prices. Often this is attributed to ‘unscrupulous middlemen’ who take advantage of their position in the supply chain. However, there is evidence to suggest that in some instances buyers and dealers may have more complex pre-financing and lending agreements and other mutually beneficial working relationships4.

Environmental damage through erosion and deforestation of protected areas, biodiversity loss, and water pollution are often associated with ASM4. ASM gold mining is widely known to be one of the world’s biggest sources of mercury pollution4. Moreover, mining operations are often abandoned once the ore that is easily extracted is removed, and sites are rarely rehabilitated4.


ASM contributes dramatically to development by providing employment, increasing local purchasing power, stimulating local economic growth and slowing urban migration. However, this sector also creates social, environmental and financial challenges that can potentially undermine development1.  An estimated 90% of mineral production from DRC is attributed to ASM operations, unfortunately, most ore is smuggled to the surrounding region to avoid paying local taxes therefore limiting the sectors potential impact to the local economy. Increased governance, training and low cost modern equipment can lead to significant increases of impact. Just training and low cost modern equipment can lead to a doubling, possibly tripling, of ASM income. Combined with efficient governance and export controls, ASM can easily result in a significant share of a country’s GDP.

Finally, to date, it is the negative impact of ASM activities that have received the most attention from the media, governments, and international development community, as opposed to building on the positive contribution of the sector and its potential for development4. More should be done to create and provide sustainable solutions to ASM that will lead to add value to small scale miners, lift them out of poverty and boost the economy of the country.

  1. Mining facts, “What is Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining?”, 2012, available at http://www.miningfacts.org/communities/what-is-artisanal-and-small-scale-mining/
  2. OECD, “OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas”, 3rd Edition, 2016, Available at http://www.oecd.org/daf/inv/mne/OECD-Due-Diligence-Guidance-Minerals-Edition3.pdf
  3. BSR report, “How Can Business Contribute to the Ethical Mining of Conflict Minerals? Addressing Risks and Creating Benefits Locally in the Artisanal and Small-scale Mining Sector in the Democratic Republic of the Congo”, March 2014, available at http://www.bsr.org/reports/BSR_Ethical_Mining_Conflict_Minerals.pdf
  4. Extractive Hub, “Artisanal and Small scale mining”, 2017, Available at https://beta.extractiveshub.org/servefile/getFile/id/4197
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