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Living Room Session: Current ASGM Initiatives, pt. 1

artisanal mining asgm asm better without mercury congo consumer awareness drc ethical metalsmiths fairmined gold mining living room sessions mercury pollution projects rolberto alvarez usaid usaid zahabu safi (clean gold) project Nov 03, 2021

The October Living Room Session revolved around two initiatives currently taking place in the ever-evolving space of artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM). We were joined by Rachel Brass of Levin Sources who gave us a comprehensive overview of the USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project as the project's Director of Market Linkages and Investment. The second initiative presented was a project started by a group of jewelers within the Ethical Metalsmiths Action Coalition. The goal of the project is to increase consumer awareness of ASGM products. Before jumping into the details about each of these initiatives, we also took some time to review basic facts and information about artisanal and small-scale gold mining.

What is Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining and why should we engage with it? 

Artisanal mining is a labor intensive process generally done with hand tools, involving very little mechanization. At artisanal mine sites, mercury is commonly used to process the ore through a process called amalgamation. Small-scale mining refers to slightly larger operations (could be a cooperative, for example) involving more machinery, but not nearly as industrialized and vast as Large-Scale Mining (LSM) operations. At these sites, rather than mercury, the use of cyanide to process ore is more common. ASGM accounts for about 15% of all gold production, while comprising 80% of all people employed in gold mining. So in comparison to LSM, there are many more individual lives that are impacted. There is a great opportunity to create benefit for tens of millions of people, including those in communities where other economic development can also be spurred by the gold mining activity. 

Artisanal gold mining also holds a cultural significance in many places. One example of this is evident in the Chocó Department of Western Colombia. It is important to acknowledge that the current Afro-Colombian population living in this region are descendents of people enslaved by the Spanish and brought there to mine for gold and work on plantations and ranches. Yet from this brutal history, a beautiful philosophy and culture has grown. Alluvial gold mining remains the number one economic activity in the area and the philosophy of leaving gold behind for future generations is the precedent. This tradition intertwines with the culture of local artisan jewelers and goldsmiths who use the locally mined gold to craft intricate jewelry pieces, the designs of which are unique to Chocó. 

We also recognize that while there are many ways that ASGM can positively impact lives, there are still challenges that need to be addressed. Mercury pollution is a serious issue in this space, the effects of which urgently need to be mitigated. Other safety risks may also be present at some ASGM sites; many are not operating under ideal conditions. There is no simple or quick solution to these issues and this gold will enter the marketplace no matter what. So, rather than being deterred from engaging with ASGM because there is no immediate solution, we can seize this opportunity to take part in this process of improvement that takes shape over time. Our support and continued engagement is vital specifically because a long term solution and transition toward better mining practices is needed.

A great example of this process of improvement is a mine site that is supported by the Better Without Mercury Project. The Gualconda mine in Colombia was able to phase out the use of mercury in their process with the support of The Alliance for Responsible Mining, but there remained mercury contaminated soil to be dealt with and the regeneration of the land around the mine to address. With further support from Better Without Mercury, the cooperative was able to construct an area for safe tailings storage, conduct the removal of the mercury contaminated soil in a safe manner, and begin reforestation. Community development and turning the mine site into a teaching mine have also been made possible by the additional support. 

The USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project is another such opportunity for us to engage and to be a part of the solution. The project has three objectives: 

  • Creating a market and demand for gold from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rachel Brass, (Director, Market Linkages and Investment), as part of the consortium led by US NGO Global Communities, and in collaboration with Christina T. Miller Consulting, is focused on creating a viable marketplace for this gold. The project’s goal is to assist anyone who is interested in purchasing this responsible gold from project-supported supply chains in overcoming the obstacles that exist to buying from the DRC. 
  • Second, increasing the supply of responsible gold available. Along with local supply chain partners (including cooperatives, service providers banks and exporters) and two due diligence partners, Global Communities is helping increase the production capacity while working towards internationally accepted standards such as those set by the The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and The Initiative for Responsible Mining Assurance (IRMA). 
  • Third, making sure this is all done in a responsible manner which is commercially viable and that the progress made will out-last the project and be beneficial to the local communities. 

The current context that the project is working within is complex. The really remote location of many of the mine sites in Eastern DRC is just one of the challenges in the due diligence process. There is a strong mining code in place that is being enforced by some local authorities, as well as with the assistance of NGOs, but there are still ways that armed groups may be making a profit from the minerals through illegal taxes. The lack of schools and high levels of poverty lead to the presence of child labor at many sites. Mines where such red flags exist are monitored and given steps to take to mitigate the risks. The sites where the red flags are addressed to the point of meeting OECD standards will be the sites from which gold will be available for purchase to jewelers through the USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project. A cooperative at one such site in South-Kivu has been working to address the issue of children being present (hopefully soon in partnership with UNICEF), has put in place a traceability system in line with the Congolese government's own, and tackled other risks that were present at the start. This cooperative is now very close to being able to make an export of gold, which is very exciting progress to see!

How do we raise consumer awareness about ASGM and this process of improvement?

Consumer awareness remains relatively low when it comes to knowledge around sourcing options for gold. A recent study conducted by CMC and MVEye has shown, however, that when consumers are provided with information about how supporting ASGM products can benefit people and environment, the majority are even willing to pay a higher price for jewelry made with artisanally mined gold. A group of jewelers who are a part of the Ethical Metalsmiths Action Coalition have set out to bridge this gap between industry knowledge and the consumer. 

The main goal of this initiative (currently titled Beyond Recycled Gold as a placeholder) is to use cohesive language to promote awareness and increased selection of ASGM among consumers. The vision behind it is to rework existing industry knowledge about ASGM into open-source, consumer-friendly messaging. It would make educational content that is easy to share freely-available for any consumer, jeweler, or retailer to use. The campaign will launch with the production of a Consumer Guide to ASGM in PDF form. Content will also include case studies, stories from miners and mining cooperatives, terminology definitions, and more. The tone of the campaign is all about positivity and empowerment - the aim is for consumers to understand that they, too, can contribute to the benefits mining communities receive from a thriving, responsible ASGM operation. This project is currently in its beginning stages and feedback and collaboration is welcome. The team is especially seeking to connect with people skilled and experienced in copywriting, graphic design, marketing, and journalism. Please feel free to read the project outline and reach out with any questions or feedback.

We are so grateful to our wonderful community for engaging throughout the rest of the Living Room session with suggestions for the consumer awareness campaign, thoughtful questions about the USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project, and conversation about generally moving forward toward a jewelry industry that prioritizes supporting artisanal miners. We will continue the conversation about current initiatives within ASGM at our next Living Room session on November 19th, which will be the last session for 2021.

Please reach out to us if you are interested in joining USAID's Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Jewelry Community to source artisanally mined gold from Eastern DRC or participating in the Ethical Metalsmiths ASGM Consumer Awareness Campaign! You can send us a message via our contact form.  Join the movement toward a jewelry industry that is beneficial to all people involved in the trade!

 

Related links:
- Monthly newsletter from USAID's Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project

- USAID Zahabu Safi (Clean Gold) Project on Twitter

- USAID in the DRC on Facebook

- ASGM Consumer Awareness Campaign project outline

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