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‘Agricultural Poverty’ and the Expansion of Artisanal Mining in Sub-Saharan Africa: Experiences from Southwest Mali and Southeast Ghana

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Why do people engage in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM)—labour-intensive mineral extraction and processing activity—across sub-Saharan Africa? This paper argues that ‘agricultural poverty’, or hardship induced by an over-dependency on farming for survival, has fuelled the recent rapid expansion of ASM operations throughout the region. The diminished viability of smallholder farming in an era of globalization and overreliance on rain-fed crop production restricted by seasonality has led hundreds of thousands of rural African families to ‘branch out’ into ASM, a move made to secure supplementary incomes. Experiences from Komana West in Southwest Mali and East Akim District in Southeast Ghana are drawn upon to illustrate how a movement into the ASM economy has impacted farm families, economically, in many rural stretches of sub-Saharan Africa.

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  1. Defined here as the most rudimentary branch of the mining sector. In this paper, ‘artisanal mining’ and ‘small-scale mining’ are used interchangeably. Estimates are wide-ranging but from the evidence, ASM employs at least 10 million people directly in sub-Saharan Africa.

  2. (Accessed 04/11/10).

  3. NEPAD is a major internal institutional organ established to inform development policy across sub-Saharan Africa.

  4. Documents required by the IMF and World Bank before a country can be considered for loans.

  5. The negative impacts of ASM can be significant. Whilst a detailed discussion of these problems is beyond the scope of this paper, they tend to surface because the priority for poverty-driven subsistence ASM operators is to identify economic ore deposits, sell the extracted mineral, and purchase provisions for their families. These individuals tend to be unlicensed, and therefore cannot access the government and donor-funded educational and technological support capable of keeping impacts at a minimum.

  6. The Bambara comprise one of the largest Mandé ethnic groups, and the dominant Mandé group in Mali.

  7. The Fulani are an ethnic group spread across West and Central Africa. They are mainly pastoralists, and migrate across borders freely.

  8., (Accessed 14/12/10).

  9. Interview, household head, Kenieba (05/07/10).

  10. Protected by subsidies, American cotton growers have offloaded their cotton on world markets at 20–55% of the cost of production, in the process, bankrupting West African and Central African cotton farmers (see Accessed 23 December 2010). It is estimated that because of these subsidies, West African economies lost in the range of US$400 million in the period 2001–2003 alone (Baden and Alpert 2007).

  11. There are roughly 480 CFA in US$1.

  12. Interview, household head, Fougatié (07/07/10).

  13. Though beyond the scope of this paper, it could be the case that in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, revenues from ASM are helping rural families become more food secure, as the evidence presented in this paper suggests. According to the most recent data (Government of Ghana 2010) however, compiled by its Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA), Ghana (a country which, because of its climatic conditions, has far more agricultural potential than Mali) is nowhere close to being food secure.

  14. In 2007, Ghana revaluated its currency. Today, US$1 = 1.55 cedis.

  15. Interview, miner/farmer, East Akim (18/12/09).

  16. Interview, miner/farmer, East Akim (17/12/09).

  17. The idea being that parties are entitled to a particular share of the gold or ore recovered.

  18. The Capitation Grant was launched in 2005/2006 after successful piloting. Every public kindergarten, primary school and junior secondary school receives a grant of approximately US$3.30 per pupil per year. Schools are therefore not permitted to charge any fees to parents (Osei et al. 2009).

  19. ‘Industrial sector’ at (Accessed 30/1/2011).

  20. ‘Economy’ at (Accessed 30/1/2011).

  21. Like most mineral-rich countries in sub-Saharan Africa, both Ghana and Mali have attempted to formalize ASM alongside efforts to facilitate the expansion of industrial-scale large-scale mining. To achieve the latter, tax codes have been overhauled and numerous financial incentives provided in order to encourage foreign investment. Whilst these moves have facilitated a rapid increase in large-scale goldmine production in both countries, they have also ‘crowded out’ ASM, an acute shortage of land preventing prospective operators from securing a license and operating legally. This is particularly evident in Ghana, the ‘trailblazer’ of mining sector reform in sub-Saharan Africa. In Mali, a more recent ‘reformer’, the concern is how much security of tenure the ‘gold washing card’, an informal permit issued by traditional authorities to gold miners, will provide as foreign-financed large-scale gold mining activity expands. The importance of having formalized licenses and titles in place for ASM cannot be overstated. They enable governments to regulate activities more effectively (environment, and health and safety), and put operators in an improved position to access educational and technical support provided by donors, who are more inclined to assist individuals who comply with laws.


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The authors would like to thank ‘Atta’ and Mrs. Massaran Bibi Traoré for their invaluable assistance with fieldwork in Ghana and Mali, respectively, and the editor and an anonymous reviewer for their constructive commentary on a previous draft. Financial support for this research was provided by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) under the project, ‘Livelihoods in Transition? De-Agrarianization and the Rise of Artisanal Mining in sub-Saharan Africa’ (RES-000-22-3325), and the British Academy, under the project, ‘Livelihood Diversification and Poverty Traps in West African Artisanal Mining Communities’ (SG090614).

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Hilson, G., Garforth, C. ‘Agricultural Poverty’ and the Expansion of Artisanal Mining in Sub-Saharan Africa: Experiences from Southwest Mali and Southeast Ghana. Popul Res Policy Rev 31, 435–464 (2012).

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