In-Focus: Illegal Mining Around the Globe

Conservation crime takes many forms. So in this post, I introduce you to the serious and potentially growing problem of illegal mining, which has major impacts upon societies and the environment at global scales.

The Need to Consider Illegal Mining

This past July I attended the first annual Latin American and Caribbean Congress for Conservation Biology (LACCCB) held at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, in Trinidad and Tobago.

Beyond having the opportunity to present research and connect with other people working on conservation in Latin America, I also learned quite a lot about the serious and potentially growing problem of illegal mining in Latin America. There was an entire symposium dedicated to the illegal mining problem in the Orinoco delta, and the research findings were so powerful that the LACCCB put out a declaration for the global community to act swiftly to address this problem.

I find the issue of illegal mining quite interesting as it’s not something that I’ve previously focused on, and it seems to me that it receives less attention because of the relative “unsexiness” of mineral management. Where the illegal wildlife trade or illegal fishing are the subjects of international advocacy campaigns (see here and here), illegal mining has received relatively little attention from the big international conservation NGOs.

So to help spur greater awareness, I offer here a short primer on the problem of illegal mining. Also, as we hope to develop a regular series on different sorts of conservation crime problems,  this posts serves as an initial experiment for format. I will be using a descriptive framework consisting of eight problem dimensions and present these dimensions in a way that facilitates narrative description. These dimensions are: the 5ws (what, where, when, who, and why), scale, and impact.

What is Illegal Mining?

Mining can be defined as “the extraction of minerals and other geological materials from the earth.” Minerals and materials commonly targeted by mining include: base metals (e.g., copper, nickel), precious metals (e.g., gold, silver), iron, uranium, coal, diamonds, limestone, oil shale, rock salt, and potash. The activity is deeply entwined with human history, with the oldest known mine dating back to over 40,000 years ago.

Mining is widely recognized as carrying significant risks of ecosystem destruction, environmental pollution, and worker injury, so “illegal mining” can be defined statutorily as violations of both specialized laws and regulations for mining, and more general laws and regulations that protect the environment and human welfare.  From a more biocentric or ecocentric philosophical perspective, even statutorily legal mining might be considered a crime as minerals and other geological materials are nonrenewable, their mining can seriously impact the environment, and many minerals and materials are not recycled, even though they often can be. However, for the rest of this primer, I’ll just consider ‘illegal mining’ from a statutory, rather than philosophical, perspective.

What are the Impacts of Illegal Mining?

Illegal mining has serious impacts on ecosystems and societies. Environmentally, it can lead to the heavy-metal and chemical poisoning of environments and wildlife with heavy metals (Fashola et al. 2016) and the erosion of soils and siltification of rivers (Dissanayake and Rupasinghe 2007).

In terms of human impacts, illegal mining is particularly dangerous as it is often conducted without necessary safety precautions (e.g., Harding 2013). Furthermore, the same toxins that poison the environment can poison miners and people and agricultural operations unlucky enough to be in the vicinity, though the revenues from mining also must be seen as an important source of income in developing countries (Hilson 2002).

Illegal mining also appears to contribute to other types of crimes against the environment and humanity. This includes sex trafficking, organized crime, illegal deforestation, and political corruption.

What is the Scale of Illegal Mining?

By one estimate, illegal mining accounts for US$ 12-48 billion in annual revenues and 1-4% of global trade. However, as I have written previously, these figures are pretty rough. The truth of the matter is we really don’t know about scale of illegal versus legal mining. Even understanding of scale at national levels is quite unusual (except see: Andrews 2015), so quality research conducted at regional or global scales is non-existent.

Where Does Illegal Mining Occur?

Illegal mining appears to occur all over the world, wherever there are deposits of minerals and geological materials, but particular concentrations appear to occur in countries with low capacities for governance (i.e., low- and middle-income countries). For instance, a quick web search shows that illegal mining is a problem in countries as diverse as China, Indonesia, Peru, South Africa, and Ukraine.

When Does Illegal Mining Occur?

The dimension of time is typically considered an important aspect of any crime problem,  as most crimes are concentrated at certain times of day, week, month, and year. At this point, there really is just not enough information to identify a clear temporal pattern. However,  it may stand to reason that illegal mining is primarily a daytime activity, in order to take advantage of natural light.

Who Engages in Illegal Mining?

A common distinction in the illegal mining literature is that of “small-scale” and “large-scale” mining (e.g., Aubynn 2009), with the former relating to individuals and small groups seeking subsistence level incomes, and the latter relating to private companies, possibly with international ties, that seek higher rates of return on their investments.

Why Does Illegal Mining Occur?

Addressing causation in crime research is always a challenge, and this is especially the case when we consider a crime problem at the global scale and there is a rather appalling lack of available research. However, from my perspective, the available literature on illegal mining, and lack thereof, suggests four broad reasons that illegal mining is a serious problem.

First, poverty and social conflict are major drivers of illegal mining. Most illegal miners make very little money and work in horrible conditions, often amidst civil unrest and political instability (think Venezuela and the DRC), but they do so because they do not have opportunity to get better jobs, or to go to school, in the case of many children. On this, I highly recommend this short CBS News video on illegal cobalt mining with child labor in the DRC.

Second, the lack of traceability - or the ability to know where a product comes from - in the global market for minerals and earth materials means that end-product consumers are typically unaware of how their purchases support illegal mining operations. For instance, a good argument can be made that smartphones are at least partly built from illegally-mined materials (Merchant 2017).

Third, lack of interest among major conservation advocacy groups. Curiously, I cannot think of any of the BINGOs (“Big International NGOs) that run programs focused on illegal mining. This is a shame and my best guess for exactly why this is the case is that the BINGOs tend to focus on conservation topics with public marketing opportunities (think things that are living and charismatic), while the heavy concentration of mining operations into a few corporations give them great power in setting political agendas, which can be hard for even the BINGOs to triumph over.

Fourth, and finally, is perhaps the most obvious driver of illegal mining: strong demand. Global population continues to climb, and so do individual appetites for minerals, either as products in themselves (like diamonds) and processed into more complicated electronics and machinery (like cars and computers). A new form of “mining” in landfills may help sate some of this demand, but we continue to find ourselves, collectively as a species, demanding far more than can likely be sustained.

So What Can Be Done?

Certainly, declarations for action from smaller conservation groups, such as the LACCCB, are a great start, but what we really need are the BINGOs and other conservation organizations to take notice and start working across three primary lines of conservation work: consumer education, supply chain traceability, and political advocacy. In the future, I’d particularly like to see:

Selected References

  • Andrews, N. (2015). Digging for survival and/or justice? The drivers of illegal mining activities in Western Ghana. Africa Today62(2), 3-24. Open-Access Link.
  • Aubynn, A. (2009). Sustainable solution or a marriage of inconvenience? The coexistence of large-scale mining and artisanal and small-scale mining on the Abosso Goldfields concession in Western Ghana. Resources Policy34(1-2), 64-70. Closed-Access Link.
  • Dissanayake, C. B., & Rupasinghe, M. S. (1996). Environmental impact of mining, erosion and sedimentation in Sri Lanka. International journal of environmental studies51(1), 35-50. Open-Access Link.
  • Fashola, M. O., Ngole-Jeme, V. M., & Babalola, O. O. (2016). Heavy metal pollution from gold mines: environmental effects and bacterial strategies for resistance. International journal of environmental research and public health13(11), 1047. Open-Access Link.
  • Hilson, G. (2002, February). Small‐scale mining and its socio‐economic impact in developing countries. In Natural Resources Forum (Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 3-13). Oxford, UK and Boston, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Closed-Access Link.

Header Photo Credit: Planet Labs, Inc., Wikimedia Commons. Link