Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining Gold Production

What is Artisanal and Small Scale Mining Gold Production

Artisanal and small scale mining gold production (ASM) is mining which takes place usually on an informal basis, generally using manual methods of extraction. A key distinction is between production being either large scale mining (LSM) and artisanal and small scale mining (ASM). There is no single universal definition of artisanal and small scale mining, as it differs in nature from region to region. Broadly speaking, gold ASM is usually manual and small scale mining is usually employs some mechanisation. Small scale miners that organise into cooperatives and other community based enterprises are categorised within ASM.

ASM gold production typically estimated to be around 15% of total global production.

Production is assumed not to change much from year to year, unless there is a major event like a gold rush or some form of natural or man-made disaster.

Gold Production figures

Large scale mining is typically presented through the lens of production within countries by recognised legal entities (companies). Artisanal and small scale mining (ASM), on the other hand, can be better understood in the context of geographic zones. This is because ASM very often takes place in regions with porous borders and low levels of formal governance. In particular, formal or regulated ASM activity cannot easily be identified separately from informal or illegal ASM activity. This is especially true in ASM “hot spots” like the Amazon, the Andes and West Africa.

The table below shows total estimated global ASM gold production by ASM Zone.

The most significant ASM Zones in each continent are:

  • Mexico and Central America within North America
  • In South America: the Andes and Amazon are the major ASM Zones
  • West Africa is by far the largest ASM Zone in Africa, but Central and North East Africa are also significant
  • ASM Zones in Russia, Mongolia and China are small scale mines which can be found where there is LSM activity
  • Indonesia and the Philippines are material ASM Zones in Asia
  • Papua New Guinea is the largest producing ASM Zone in Oceania

ASM Gold Ranking by Country

The table below shows estimated ASM production ranked by country. In Africa, Ghana and Sudan are the top ASM producers of gold. There are three countries in South America, Colombia, Peru and Brazil, which are in the top six ASM producing countries. In Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines are in the top 25 countries producing gold via artisanal and small scale mining.

Illegal Gold Production

ASM gold mining is not the same as illegal gold production. ASM is legal and promoted in many countries. However, ASM is given a bad name by association with the illegal gold trade, as they can be hard to tell apart.

To better understand the financial flows linked to artisanal and small scale mining refer to the document here in the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime website. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has a similar page here.

The major global locations associated with ASM gold production are in the Tropics. This breaks down across three distinct equatorial regions, namely South America, Western and Central Africa and South-east Asia.

Tropical Regions around the World

In the Americas, the majority of ASM production is in South America, specifically an arc in the north west of that continent, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Within this arc, there are two key producing areas:

  • the Andes (the outer part of an arc from Bolivia, through Peru and Ecuador to Colombia) and,
  • the Amazon (the inner part of an arc including Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil and the Guianas).

While ASM gold is primarily mined in these regions, very often, to avoid sanctions and other forms of scrutiny, the gold is shifted to neighbouring countries, including Central America, in to be exported into the United States, Europe and the Middle East.

In Africa, the major ASM zones are:

  • North East Africa – just south of Egypt between Sudan (Darfur/Kordofan), Chad and Libya
  • West Africa, from Senegal to Mali, centred on Ghana for production and Mali for export
  • Central and East Africa, focused in eastern DR Congo, the Central African Republic stretching into East Africa: Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania, and
  • Madagascar

The ASM gold production from Africa usually ends up at refineries in Europe, the Middle East (UAE), India and increasingly Russia (especially from West Africa, the Central African Republic and Sudan, where private military companies have a presence).

In Asia, the largest ASM producing areas are island states, relatively self-contained and can be looked at individually. These are:

  • the Philippines and,
  • Indonesia

The ASM gold production from Asia usually ends up being refined in China, India and the Middle East.

Outside of South-east Asia, there is also significant ASM activity in China, Mongolia and Papua New Guinea.

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. Looking at small scale mining (semi-mechanical), another key factor is the ability to access finance and machinery. Criminals are drawn to gold mining as it provides an efficient way to to launder money.

Artisanal Silver Production

From a global perspective ASM Silver mining is relatively minor. Small scale mining does take place in places like Potosi in Bolivia. However, most of the production is a by-product of ASM gold production.

For further information on ASM gold mining, refer to the NGOs covering ASM section in the About This Site page of this site.