Throughout Africa artisanal and small-scale mining, whether legal or illegal, has been associated with social problems such as conflict, environmental damage, health risks and child labour. Although there are no exact numbers of how many people participate in such mining activities, it is evident that it is widespread.
Despite its negative aspects, the contribution of small-scale mining to the resource sector and social development cannot be disputed. About 15% to 20% of the world’s non-fuel mineral production comes from this sub-sector. An example of this can be seen in Ghana, where small-scale mining has contributed US$460 million since 1989 and is estimated to employ 300,000 to 500,000 individuals.
In South Africa, illegal mining as it currently stands covers all aspects of unpermitted mining. But this definition does not allow for differentiation between invasive illegal mining and informal community miners. Invasive mining occurs when miners illegally enter the old mine workings of decommissioned mines. Informal mining is community based mining that typically follows customary law.
The two are very different types of mining but have the same illegal status under the law. This gives rise to a fundamental question: is all informal mining illegal and is it all the same? The answer is no.
Both types of mining, because of their attributes, can be classified as artisanal and small-scale mining. In sub-Saharan Africa the artisanal and small-scale mining sector is the oldest form of mineral extraction and processing.
It continues to be widespread and active despite the advent of large-scale mechanised mining, which began in the late 19th century. But the sector is not homogeneous and to curb the scourge of illegal mining, a distinction between illegal mining and informal mining must be made.