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Carbon Reduction and Poverty Alleviation through Technology for Small Scale and Artisanal Mines

Susan Wheeler
Founder of the Responsible Jewelry Transformative
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The nexus of climate change and labor rights meet dramatically in artisanal and small scale mining (ASM). ASM is a livelihood that is known for being poverty driven and sometimes contributing to environmental damage, such as deforestation. The intersection of poverty and climate change as it exists in ASM demands attention to become financially viable while transitioning to carbon free mechanization. 40.51 million people laboring in ASM need support to scale up their operations with clean mechanization and to have fair policies at the intersection of land rights, environment and mining to achieve carbon neutrality in 2030. 

The goal of a carbon neutral production by 2030 is reliant on mining the minerals that can support the growth of clean energy. ASM mining, although small in the carbon footprint per mine compared to large scale mining, is a sector that must be empowered with conscious distribution of equipment, cultural and environmental sensitive policies, and fair labor practices to sustainably develop with carbon neutral growth. The development of carbon neutral technology and mining equipment needs to be allocated equitably in small scale mining for the fight in climate change to progress.

There is a data gap in the knowledge of carbon outputs for ASM. Propper data gathering would be reliant on the definition of artisanal versus small scale mining.  Artisanal and small scale mines are often grouped together and the distinction between the two sectors is necessary for effective policies, strategies and interventions. For instance, the laws that differentiate artisanal mines from small scale mines in Kenya are based on equipment used in operation while the laws in Zambia are based on hectors of the mining concession. Artisanal and Small Scale mines often have separate goals in scaling operations, environmental impacts and financial growth factors.

Artisanal mines that use only hand tools for excavation and people power to carry mine waste, do not produce carbon. Artisanal mining often exists in rural traditional and indigenous communities in cyclical harmony with agriculture. Traditional communities living with the cycle of mining and agriculture according to season, may or may not desire to scale from artisanal to small-scale mines. Policies and regulations to address the rights of traditional communities which want to restrict mining are required to ensure their safety and preservation. Traditional communities that are empowered through policy and regulation to steward their land and mine their minerals artisanally create carbon neutral zones and forest preservation, while contributing to the mineral supply chain globally. 

The scaling up of artisanal to small scale miners that aspire to operational and production growth is a means of poverty elimination that is essential for mining communities to benefit and gain equity in their respective minerals supply chains. Equipping all ASM with clean energy mining tools changes the narrative of poverty mining while giving equal opportunity to participate in the movement towards net zero carbon mining. 

Kagem Emerald Mine, the largest emerald mine in the world owned by Gemfields

was compared to the Santas emerald mine, a husband and wife owned mine within the same emerald concession. This analysis shows financial inequities and vastly lower carbon use by a small-scale mining operation. The Kagem mine reported a profit totalling $87.5 million2 in the first half of 2022 while the Santas mine had zero profits in 2022. The carbon produced at the Kagem mine in 2022 totaled 74.19 tonnes of carbon per day2;3 the Santas mine had a daily carbon output of 1.19 tonnes3.  The difference between the two mines is due to the unattainable price of operations for the Santas mine including high fuel cost and expensive equipment acquisition. 

Interventions to achieve equity for small scale miners necessitates expensive electric mining equipment which would enable growth of operations while eliminating the hurdle of fuel cost. The transition to solar and clean energy  powered mines facilitates growth towards sustainable livelihoods without growth in carbon outputs. Fuel cost is an obstacle to operation at full capacity and achieving sustainable economic growth for small scale mines. There are over 250 small scale emerald mines in the same concession as Kagem, all of which are owned by Zambians who face the same hurdle of operational cost and struggle to feed their workers.

The Responsible Jewelry Transformative was awarded a grant through the World Bank EGPS, Scaling Up and Out: Innovating Gemstone Supply Chains from 2019-2022. The Virtu Gem project received the grant enabling it to address the OECD “COVID-19 – Call to Action for Responsible Mineral Supply Chains.” As a result of the work with eight ASM mines in Zambia, Kenya and Malawi the project gathered data on ASM operations, safety at the mine, labor conditions and environmental plans. The consultant leading the mine site standardization and data gathering had previous experience in the gold and cobalt sectors. The case studies in various ASM scenarios reveal the need for further data gathering to realize the global impact of ASM mining on carbon emissions, the policies that should be developed to ensure workers and communities rights in ASM land usage and the cost of ASM empowerment to achieve economic stability with the facilitation of clean energy mechanization.

The data gaps, recommendations and policies identified are prevalent in all minerals sectors and all global regions of ASM. Carbon emissions at small scale mines are not recorded or researched, methods to supply ASM miners with clean energy equipment are not being addressed and the policies and structural models to protect traditional communities interest are not broadly implemented. The findings and recommendations, by the Responsible Jewelry Transformative, in development are seeded in the gemstone trade but have potential to scale up and scale out to all ASM sectors.