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The Illegal Mining Epidemic is Worse Than You Think

For decades, the practice of illegal mining has plagued regions across the globe. As 2019 began, a tragedy in India reminded the world just how dangerous and troubling these makeshift operations are. Weeks earlier, 15 workers became trapped in an old shaft, searching for coal in the tiny community of East Jaintia Hills. An unexpected flood quickly filled the tunnels with icy water and by the time the new year rolled around, the region began losing hope of rescue.

Thousands of these small ventures exist in the region with 40 million people estimated to be employed in this capacity around the world. Illegal mines spring up in the shadow of once-thriving operations. After legitimate operations close or abandon their projects, local workers desperate for money swoop in to resume production. Without the safety equipment, technical knowledge and regulations of official companies, these crude businesses are little more than life-threatening work for miniscule pay.

While the industry could ignore this practice when it was isolated, the system is now so widespread that it’s threatening authorized large-scale operations. In 2017, unlawful excavation produced 80% of the world’s sapphire and more gold in Zimbabwe than legitimate businesses in the same region. Because they work outside the law, there’s massive environmental damage, inhumane treatment to employees and no benefit to the larger community, which normally comes in the form of taxes.

The demand for minerals and metals is growing, making it a lucrative opportunity for enterprising criminals. In several African countries, gold is easily smuggled to the United Arab Emirates, where trades in the material contribute to one fifth of their GDP. End buyers may end up clueless about the original source of their valuables.

The situation is even worse in South America, where illegal mining has displaced indigenous communities, caused rampant mercury poisoning and rapid deforestation. Industry watchers recently categorized the practice as the easiest way forward for organized crime groups and deemed smuggled gold the new cocaine in Peru. Compared to the criminal sentences associated with the drug trade, this method is significantly less risky. 

Can anything be done to stem the growth of this illicit practice? Already, decommissioned mines have taken steps to shut their operations before exiting the area, in an effort to eliminate easy access to mine shafts. The Peruvian government is attempting to convince miners to switch to legal operations and implement monitoring practices. However, one such worker lamented the impossibility of only seven inspectors tasked with overseeing 80,000 illegal miners. Industry advocates also call for increased scrutiny, public education and more documentation in order to trace the sources of metals and minerals.

Though no solution will be effective overnight, those in the industry can expect to hear more on the topic for years to come.