While there is no universal definition, the OECD Due Diligence Guidelines defines ASM as: “formal or informal mining operations with predominantly simplified forms of exploration, extraction, processing and transportation. ASM is normally low capital intensive and uses high labour-intensive technology.”
According to this definition, ASM can include men and women working on an individual basis as well as those working in family groups, in partnerships, or as members of cooperatives or other types of legal associations and enterprises involving hundreds or even thousands of miners.” In some countries, a distinction is made between artisanal and small-scale mining, whereby ‘artisanal’ typically refers to pure manual mining while ‘small-scale’ may have fixed installations or use mechanised equipment. However, the diversity of ASM operations is vast and generalisations are easily contradicted. ASM can be carried out by men, women, youth and children.
Obtaining detailed information about ASM scale, dynamics and economics can be challenging and, even in countries where ASM research has been undertaken, data is often not well stored and rarely used for policy and decision-making purposes. Most ASM activity is informal or illegal in nature. Production, therefore, may be clandestine and hidden from official view or registration. The ease of quantification of production is often linked to the level of informality/clandestine activity in the sector, the levels of illegal trade, and the nature of the materials extracted. The higher the value and portability of the material, the more likely it is to be traded illegally and the harder it is to quantify production. Miners may be migratory, work may be seasonal, and mines may be short lived, all of which lead to erratic production and challenges in quantifying the scale and value of the sector. At the same time, more professional small-scale miners may be leading rural entrepreneurs, employers and exporters.
Often, ASM is further subject to both official charges as well as an informal system of taxes and payments in which rents are sought by government agents, traditional authorities, security forces, and other actors in the ASM mineral supply chain. Thus, despite being a major source of mineral production and an engine of economic activity, especially in rural areas, the true value of ASM is rarely captured and the sector typically fails to generate official revenues for the state.