Artisanal miners: A hidden but critical force in the global economy

January 25, 2023
Artisanal gemstone miners in Tanzania's Umba Valley. Credit: Cristina Villegas/Pact

What comes to mind when you hear the term artisanal miner? Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about artisanal and small-scale miners, including that their work results in largely negative impacts for society. While artisanal mining faces challenges related to the environment, human rights, health and safety and more, small-scale miners are in fact a vital force in their communities as well as in the global economy. With support, their sector can be formalized and improved for the benefit of all. 

What do artisanal miners do?
Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) is a primarily informal economic sector that includes workers around the globe who use their hands, basic tools and low-tech equipment to extract from the earth vital metals such as cobalt, tin, tungsten and tantalum, as well as gold, diamonds, gemstones, coal and more. Artisanal miners are also involved in mineral processing. ASM is often very arduous work.

Who are artisanal miners?
Often driven by poverty, workers tend to choose artisanal mining because of its low barriers to entry and because of limited alternatives to earn income. Of the estimated 45 million artisanal and small-scale miners around the world, about 30% are women. People of all ages engage in ASM, including children, an important human rights challenge that must be addressed. Artisanal miners are often rural entrepreneurs and have formal or informal financing for their work and machinery. Many people turn to ASM for seasonal labor, moving between ASM and agricultural pursuits; the ‘farming miner’ and ‘mining farmer’ is a common example of rural people mixing livelihoods at the base of global supply chains.

Without artisanal miners, global consumers would not have access to many vital materials, as ASM is at the start of many global production networks.

Where are artisanal miners?
Artisanal mining takes place in approximately 80 countries across the world, with the most artisanal miners living in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Why are artisanal miners important?
About 90% of the world’s mining workforce is artisanal miners. In addition to the 45 million workers who make their living engaging directly in artisanal mining, the ASM sector indirectly supports an estimated additional 270 million people. In mining communities across the world, artisanal miners are an important driver of development.

On a global scale, a significant portion of metals such as cobalt, copper, tin, tungsten, tantalum and iron are produced through ASM. These metals are critical to the world’s economies – necessary for computers, mobile phones, airplanes, medical devices, rechargeable batteries and much more. More than 80% of the world’s gemstones are dug by artisanal miners. Sands, clays, stone, salt and fertilizer all start with minerals produced through ASM. Without artisanal miners, global consumers would not have access to many vital materials, as ASM is at the start of many global production networks. And ASM is linked to all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

How can we work with ASM communities to improve the lives and work of artisanal miners?
Pact believes that local communities including artisanal miners have the right to safely benefit from the mineral resources around them. To achieve this, stakeholders throughout the sector must work together to improve and formalize ASM so that it is safer, more productive, environmentally responsible and free from abuses. These efforts should include governments, the private sector, NGOs and mining communities – all of which stand to benefit significantly from ASM formalization. Formalizing the artisanal mining sector is the key to making the most of ASM while mitigating its negative effects.

Working at all stages of the supply chain, Pact has been improving the ASM sector and the lives of artisanal miners for more than a decade. We partner with many stakeholders, and together our efforts are helping to reveal and make the most of ASM’s contributions to development. Specializing in areas including health and safety in mining, human rights, traceability and transparency, economic empowerment among miners, mercury abatement, child labor reduction, and responsible sourcing, Pact and our partners help communities to gain lasting benefit from mineral resources.

Learn more about our work with ASM communities and how you can join us.