The riches of Africa

The commodity riches of Africa are a matter of legend. Gold, diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds have long come from Africa to be joined in more recent years by copper, platinum, uranium, titanium and coltan, among others. The wealth of ancient kings and Pharaohs came from the ‘dark continent’ and seeded myths such as King Solomon’s Mines. African minerals also formed the basis of business empires founded by individuals such as Cecil Rhodes (DeBeers) and Ernest Oppenheimer (Anglo American). The mineral resources have appeared inexhaustible and their extraction indefinitely sustainable. For most of history, the prevailing pattern has been for the wealth of Africa to leave the continent, enriching a few and leaving the majority living in poverty in sadly underdeveloped countries.

The resources boom that began at the start of the 21st century has seen unprecedented levels of investment in mine expansions and re-openings, plus exploration and development of new mines. The experience has not been straightforward. Africa is a large, diverse continent from the Arab north, across the Sahara desert, through the tropical centre to the rainbow nation of South Africa. A babel of languages exist, dominated by the lingua-francas (and their dialects) of English, French, Swahili and Arabic. Add to this the complexity of multiple religions, diverse legal and political systems, national and tribal rivalries, pervasive poverty and endemic corruption, and it is obvious that there is no single recipe for operating in Africa.

Within this complexity, one of the most difficult challenges is the presence of artisanal and small-scale mining enterprises (SMEs), which, contrary to the name, can involve thousands of people at a single site. Exact numbers are difficult to obtain, but the International Labour Organization and World Bank estimate that some six to eight million people are involved in SMEs across Africa, mostly in gold mining, while some 30 to 40 million are dependent on the activity in some way.

Artisanal and small-scale mining is poverty driven, labour intensive, low tech and often inefficient. For those involved, there is no better economic option than the small sums of money that can be gained from the earth each day. It is also notorious for the frequent use of child labour, low standards of health and safety, poor environmental controls (if any), lack of personal security or rights to the resources they work, and, locally, the high number of women directly involved (20% in the DRC, 30% in Ghana and Burkina Faso and 45% in Mali, according to USAID).

In marked contrast, large-scale mining, typically in the hands of transnational or multinational firms, is capital intensive and highly mechanised. It is also characterised by labour, health, safety and environmental procedures that prohibit child labour, minimise risk to individuals and limit harm to the environment.

It would seem obvious that large-scale mining should be the preferred option and take over from the poorly equipped, inefficient, unsafe and environmentally damaging SMEs wherever possible. Reality is somewhat different, particularly when viewed through the lens of sustainability. Here are two perspectives.

First, what offers the greater sustainability? A modern mine that employs relatively few local people and exhausts an ore body within a generation, or a SME operation that provides a living for hundreds of families for an indefinite time because the resource is removed less rapidly? Less economically efficient, maybe; but more socially closer to sustainability. 

Second, what happens to the small miners and their families displaced when a modern mine is developed on the ore body they have been working, perhaps for generations? How do you create livelihoods for small miners and their families that have no land and no particular skills, and are situated in a remote area of an underdeveloped country in Africa? The scale of displacement can be highly significant. Some estimates suggest that as many as 400,000 artisanal miners and their families were moved out of the Bulyanhulu area to make way for the mine now operated by Barrick Africa. Given the circumstances, it should be no surprise that unemployed people scavenge rock piles at the mine in the hope of finding fragments of ore misplaced into waste dumps.

AngloGold Ashanti is one of the few miners to be open about the challenge of exploring and opening mines in Africa where there are SMEs. The company has published its policies and practices on engagement with SMEs on its mineral properties on the internet, together with case histories. AngloGold Ashanti’s objective is co-existence with a viable SME sector in collaboration with local communities and government. The intention is to raise standards among the SMEs, address poverty and contribute to community sustainability and wellbeing by allowing the miners to be occupied and productive into the future.

Africa is rich in natural resources. Africans, all of them, have to experience a material benefit from the extraction of those riches or there will be more conflict with mining companies of the form seen in several countries over the last two years. Today’s mining industry has to emulate the example of AngloGold Ashanti by demonstrating that the commitments to corporate social responsibility and sustainable development produce real results in Africa. 

By Ian Thomson

Ian Thomson is a principal and co-founder of On Common Ground Consultants Inc., an international consultancy specialising in enhancing social performance and socially sustainable outcomes for the global resource sector.
[email protected]

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