Small-scale miners in Africa dig deep

12 August 2002
MINING is not an occupation associated with women. In an industry dominated by men, particularly those who own the "Big Six" in South Africa (Anglo American/De Beers, Gencor/Billiton, Goldfields, JCI, Anglovaal and Rand Mines), women have only recently become miners in South Africa, mainly through small-and medium-scale operations.

In other areas of Africa small-scale mining has proliferated, pock-marking the land and forming holes that fill with water and silt, rendering it unsuitable for cultivation and unsafe for people and cattle.

It was an environmental company attached to mining projects in east, west and southern Africa that stimulated Damien Terlien's interest in small-scale mining. When she resumed her studies at UCT her Master's thesis concentrated on the sustainability of small-scale diamond mining. It is an unusual topic for an anthropologist. Her co-supervisors are Dr Neil Dewar from EGS, and Dr Duncan Miller, an archaeologist who runs the archaeology materials laboratory (one of only two in the world that handle African material). Miller is an expert in the prehistoric indigenous metals.

In many areas of Africa subsistence farmers have turned to small-scale mining in times of drought or during times when the land lies fallow. It is an important means of economic survival. Indeed, Terlien believes small scale mining is one way of creating job opportunities locally and providing a living to the unemployed, pensioners and those on income grants, especially those in rural areas.

"The mining sector provides an important source of income and the small to medium-scale sectors should be encouraged to mine on an environmentally sound basis," she says. Small-scale mining is also a means of sustaining mining activity in (areas consisting of small concentrated mineral pockets that are uneconomical for large-scale operations). However, while small-scale or subsistence mining can be a boon to economies like South Africa's there can be significant environmental costs. "In some areas of Africa, huge quantities of mercury are used to extract gold from ore, eventually infiltrating rivers, floodplains, lakes and dams," Terlien points out. "Sludge from washed ore silts up river systems, with dire consequences for subsistence fishermen and the environment."

South Africa has been more fortunate in this regard. Modern mining is only 150 years old. "Due to our political past artisanal or small-scale mining was not a great option," Terlien explains. Privately-owned mining conglomerates account for two-thirds of the country's mineral wealth (one third is vested in the State). This is changing. The Government is moving towards accommodating small mining companies to benefit previously excluded people. The long-awaited White Paper on Minerals and Mining Policy was released in 1998. Its main thrust was the proposed change in ownership of mineral rights. It also resulted in more stringent mining measures.

One of Terlien's reports, co-authored by Miller, resulted from a study of small-scale diamond mining near Barkly West near Kimberley, including the Gong Gong and Longlands. Her research cites an unemployment rate of 35%, with 26% of the households earning less than R500 a month. According to Terlien, the majority of small-scale diamond miners in the Northern Cape are pensioners who use their small pensions for start-up costs. It still takes a substantial sum to get going. "A small-scale miner needs around R24 000 and a medium-scale miner R10-million before mining can commence." And then there are the rehabilitation fees. Small-and medium-scale miners are required to put up R500 to R5 000 or R50 000 rehabilitation guarantees, respectively.

The problems Terlien discusses in her paper are common to other small-scale mining enterprises. "Limited communication between Government departments and these miners has led to a number of confusing misconceptions regarding mining regulations. There is a real need for field-based officers to enforce greater control of mining activities and the rehabilitation of sites."

In addition there is inadequate recording of claim applications and claim localities. "There is also an urgent need for financial institutions that provide loans. And if the Department of Minerals and Energy could obtain geological information on the mineral potential, currently mined areas could be assessed and future claims identified. This would increase the mineral recovery potential and upgrade the socio-economic situation of currently impoverished communities."

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