The first-ever small-scale gold mining cooperatives in Africa will take their final steps towards Fairtrade certification next week.
The move presents the prospect of a brighter future for unregulated gold miners in East Africa, working in one of the world’s most dangerous and exploitative industries.
Five million artisanal and small-scale (ASM) gold miners in the African continent live a hand-to-mouth, hazardous existence, earning less than $1 a day as they seek out fragments of gold to feed their families. The majority of this mining is carried out by informal, often illegal, operations and profits are made much further up the supply chain. Regular contact with toxic chemicals used to process gold such as mercury, cyanide, and nitric acid means miners face disease, serious injury, premature births and even death.
International companies have stopped sourcing gold from small-scale mines in Africa’s Great Lakes region – the countries neighbouring the Democratic Republic of the Congo – because of legislation and regulation which demands proof that supply chains are not involved with ‘conflict gold’ – the mineral’s equivalent to ‘blood diamonds’. Small-scale miners do not have the means to provide this proof, and it makes them even more vulnerable. They are often forced into exploitative underground markets where unscrupulous traders play on their “illegality”.
Fairtrade offers an answer. It gives both physical and documentary traceability from mine to market and miners earn 95% of the London Bullion Market Association’s fixing for gold. They also earn a Fairtrade Premium of $2000 per kilo to invest in economic, social and environmental projects. Safety at the mines is transformed.
Synanyonja Artisan Miners Alliance and Busia United Small Scale Mining Association in Uganda will both make history this week when they undergo the first independent Fairtrade audits for gold in the region, in the hope they can meet Fairtrade Standards for Gold and Precious Metals.
The first two mines are amongst nine mining cooperatives representing 1,100 artisanal miners who took part in a Comic Relief-funded Fairtrade pilot programme across Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The groups have been working hard for three years to formalize, legalise and produce gold legitimately and sell it through audited supply chains on fair terms, bucking the trend for the region. The miners in the Fairtrade programme are all now trading more profitably, and have benefited from training in business and entrepreneurship, as well safe use of mercury, internal control systems, labour rights and decent work conditions, health and safety and more.
BASSIMA plans to buy crushing equipment as ore is currently crushed by hand by women crouched over rocks in searing heat. They want to rent an excavator to dig the ground, and also purchase equipment which will remove the need for using mercury altogether.
“We would also like to support our community,” fellow miner Naomi adds. “We would like to pay for free education for children who can’t afford school. When injuries happen at the mine, resources to pay for healthcare are very limited so we would like to fund this too.”
The gold will be imported by Cred Jewellery and made into jewellery to be sold by UK jewellers Arctic Circle, Cred Jewellery and Mastercut this autumn. Prices for Fairtrade gold jewellery start from £300.
The first four African groups to apply for Fairtrade certification are able to jointly produce 25 kg gold per year, and if they pass their audit, the total supply of Fairtrade gold will increase to approximately 920 kg.
Fairtrade Gold manager Gonzaga Mungai says: “If we make Fairtrade work here – and there’s still a lot of work to do – we will have the only traceable, legal gold supply chain in Uganda. This is about more than Fairtrade. It is about changing peoples’ perceptions and attitudes and showing it’s possible to do small-scale gold mining with decency. It is about making history in Africa.”
Michael Gidney, chief executive officer of the Fairtrade Foundation adds: “Gold production is a vital source of income for many people in rural economies. By making mining Fairtrade it gives miners greater financial and job security as well as improved working conditions, bringing benefits for them, their families and the environment. If trade certification can work for cooperatives like this, then it can work for groups across the African continent.”
Gidney continues: “Sourcing African metals from small-scale miners in the Great Lakes Region is the responsible thing to do. For too long companies have avoided engaging with gold from these supply chains, devastating communities who already struggle to put food on the table. But not actively supporting them drives trade deeper underground, as unscrupulous buyers pay lower prices and launder illegal gold into legitimate supply chains.”
Fairtrade will continue to work with miners to establish Centres of Learning so that certified miners can extend their impact more systemically by providing training and demonstrations of good practices in mining and management systems to uncertified miners.