Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (ASM)

The nature of artisanal and small scale mining differs from region to region around the world. Artisanal means traditional, long practised, manual mining. Small scale means that mechanical or semi-mechanical machinery is used in their mines. Both small scale or artisanal miners often organise into cooperatives or similar community based enterprises.

The table below shows estimated annual production ranked by zone within each continent:

Formal or regulated ASM activity cannot easily be separated from informal or illegal ASM activity. Additionally, illicit gold trading takes place between regions and countries, linked to artisanal and small scale mining. This is especially true in the Amazon, the Andes and West Africa.

ASM gold mining is not the same as illegal gold trading. ASM is legal and promoted in many countries, however, ASM mining is often given a bad name via association with illegal gold trading.

For a fuller understanding refer to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime website. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has a similar page here. Unfortunately, criminals are drawn to all levels of gold mining and trading as it provides an efficient way to to launder money and escape government scrutiny.

ASM Zones

The major zones associated with ASM production are primarily located in the tropics. The tropics consist of three distinct equatorial regions, namely: South America, Western and Central Africa and South-east Asia.

Artisanal and small scale mining (ASM) often takes place in regions with porous borders and low levels of formal governance.

Within each continent, the major ASM zones are:

  • Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America in North America,
  • South America: the Andes and Amazon
  • West Africa, Central Africa, East Africa and Madagascar in Africa
  • Indonesia and the Philippines in Asia (excl. China)
  • Papua New Guinea is the largest producing zone in Oceania

Outside of the tropics, Russia, Mongolia and China are have high levels of small scale mine activity.

Estimating ASM Production

ASM production numbers are based on identifying regions where ASM activity is taking place, and then estimating production numbers using the available research on that region. Key factors impacting artisanal (traditional/non mechanical) mining include (1) working age population, (2) price of gold and (3) access to the mining locations, (4) type of mining (alluvial/hard rock) and the grade of ore, (5) alternative employment options and (6) government regulation of ASM activity.

Small scale mining (semi-mechanical)adds in another key factor, which is the ability to access finance and machinery.