Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Is artisanal mining a real thing?

I was reading an article about how Tesla is protecting their supply chain for electric car battery components by signing a long-term deal for cobalt with Glencore PLC, when I came across the phrase "artisanal mining".
At first, I thought it may have been a typo or a subtle joke, but it turns out that artisanal mining is in fact a real thing. In fact, it turns out that about 90% of the world's mining workforce is engaged in it, over 40 million people, mainly in the global south.
All it means is small-scale, subsistence mining, with individuals and families working independently and not directly employed by mining companies that control the world markets. It usually involved hard, dangerous, manually-intensive work with hand tools, and it is often seasonal, with miners farming for their own food during the wet season and returning to mining during the dry season.
Artisanal mining is largely unregulated. Most of the allegations of child labour, squalid conditions and environmental degradation that constantly beset the mining industry come from this sector. I guess that someone thought that calling it "artisanal" - with the gentrified, middle-class, squeaky-clean image that it invokes - was a neat way of papering over and disracting from the more disreputable and immoral side of the business.
Anyway, it turns out that good proportion of gold, diamonds and other gemstones, tin, and apparently also cobalt from the Republic of the Congo, is mined in this way. I'm not saying that Tesla is investing in the cobalt equivalent of blood diamonds (although the phrase "blood batteries" has been used); their deal was with multi-national mining company Glencore (which has admittedly had its own PR problems over the years). I just thought it was interesting that such an apparently oxymoronic term had been developed.

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