“Poverty is a global reason for small-scale mining. Poverty is also a major cause and effect of global environmental problems,” Engr. Adrian Daniel quoted the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development Brundtland Report in his keynote address to paint the exact picture of the global face of Artisanal Mining. Engr. Adrian Daniel, MEng, is an artisanal and small-scale mining consultant from Canada.
In his keynote address in the Conference on Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM) in Mindanao held on November 15, 2012, at the Finster Auditorium of Ateneo de Davao University, he stressed that mining is largely a cultural response to economic and social conditions.
“There are other reasons why people resort to mining: disorganized and transient populations, lack of technical assistance, low social support and education for mining, inadequate regulation and financial barriers. But when it all comes down to it, the biggest reason for mining is poverty. People see mining as a quick way to get rich.”
In his presentation, Engr. Daniel gave an overview of the sources of ASM conflicts. Poor perception in the mainstream society, lack of formal recognition and education about mining methods and environmental destruction, and resistance to development were pointed as factors that contribute to conflicts in Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining.
The results of artisanal mining encompass social, environmental, and economic aspects. ASM results to pressing environmental issues such as deforestation, destruction of farming potential, problems with land reclamation and water contamination. It has an effect on the people surrounding the mining areas because informal mining causes increased prostitution, violence against women, cultural clashes, and substance abuse. ASM also results in money laundering, localized prize inflation and even loss of formal national and local tax revenue.
Current ASM Practice
The process of artisanal mining that is rampantly used in the Philippines in gold extraction is mercury amalgamation.
Even though overall gold recovery using mercury amalgamation is typically below 50%, this process is still used by ASM miners because of its convenience in recovering coarse gold. The results of mercury amalgamation are more visual, and its use and management requires no formal education. However, the use of mercury amalgamation poses big environment and health risks. Mercury amalgamation is very bio-available. It also exposes the people in the mining area to major long term health risks.
The speaker elaborated that with proper test work, artisanal miners can save on expenses, unlock more gold, prevent wastes and earn more money. However, most ASM have no access or financial means to conduct proper test works, and many have the perception that they already recover more than 80% of the gold mined with their process.
Engr. Daniel proposed two technical alternatives to the current process of artisanal mining in the Philippines: Gravity Concentration followed by Cyanide Leaching.
“Gravity concentration is a process that concentrates minerals without any chemicals, whatsoever. This process only uses the minerals’ specific gravity,” said Engr. Daniel. The speaker also elaborated that the use of gravity concentration reduces the mass of ore to 1-15% of its total, where up to 85% of total gold could be captured, without the use of any chemical.
Even though cyanide use has a negative connotation in society, Engr. Daniel explained that its use in small-scale mining is exponentially less harmful than mercury because cyanide tailings can be efficiently and effectively managed and treated. “Cyanide does not persist in the environment because it can be treated and it naturally degrades. It is the formal mining standard. If you use it with gravity concentration, it can recover more than 95% of overall gold.”
However, Engr. Daniel also warned about the dangers of cyanide:
“Let’s not kid ourselves, cyanide is dangerous, but it is the lesser chemical evil when compared to mercury. It requires technical knowledge in order for people to manage it well. It can be fatal if it’s misused, and it needs strict process control. You can lose 20-40%, or more, of gold recovery in your process if cyanide leaching isn’t handled properly. You also have to have strict tailings management. You can’t just dump it into a body of water – you need to treat it before release.”
Engr. Daniel recommended the use of gravity concentration first, followed by cyanide leaching. As explained by the speaker, with proper gravity concentration, cyanide can be used in its minimum during leaching.
Case Study: Guyana
As an example of how these technical alternatives could work, Engr. Daniel compared the economic and mining situations in the Philippines and Guyana. He pointed out that, even though Guyana is a much smaller country than the Philippines, the economic situations of the Philippines and Guyana are very similar. The average GDP per person of both countries are relatively the same. But with Guyana, the ASM gold exports make up for 35% of their exports. The Philippines’ ASM gold export only makes up for 0.22%, even though the Philippines’ artisanal and small-scale mining is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Guyana’s vibrant gold exports spring from both its government and the Guyanese people.
“Theirs is the mining industry,” the speaker commented. “Large-scale gold mining is currently not occurring in Guyana. It is an entirely ASM-producing sector, using only mercury.”
The technical assistance development came from the Guyanese’s realizations that they wanted to do more, earn more, and make the industry better. Because of this realization, Guyana aimed to provide alternatives as a reaction to the global mercury bans. It also overhauled legislations and policies as part of their national low carbon development strategies. The government also made a training facility for artisanal miners in order to educate them about modern processing methods.
“They are taught the principle of ‘Concentration first, Cyanide second’. With correct concentration, chemicals can be put to a minimum. It can even be possible to remove all chemicals,” Engr. Daniel said.
The Guyanese Cyanide Technology Lab is a global first for the ASM industry in the world.
In his concluding statement, Engr. Daniel points out that to improve the country’s mining industry, large or small, the Philippines needs to find a balance between recognition, alternatives and engagements.
“The Philippines should continue conferences and discussions like this to gather thoughts and opinions on the national direction of mining. There is a clear need for technical assistance and alternatives to replace mercury, and to provide education to the people for the development of the mining industry.”
Referring to the balance of recognition, alternatives and engagements, the speaker said: “One can’t have 100% of one or the other, or the other. It requires a balance of all three in order to achieve responsible mining in any form. That balance can only be determined by everyone here and within the larger Filipino society. I encourage Ateneo de Davao to continue these discussions and to look both nationally and globally to help find what works.”
By Gracielle Deanne B. Tubera, BSN-4A