Gemstone Hunter and the Open Source Digger

Gem hunter Guy Clutterbuck was interviewed on Radio 4 yesterday morning. Other than having a great name, perfectly suited for the role of gem hunter, he has travelled around Zambia, Mozambique, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka searching for and trading in rough and cut gemstones.

One of the things he discussed during the interview was the manual labour carried out to extract gemstones from a particular region in Africa. I’m disappointed he didn’t clearly state which country in Africa (there are 58 of them — it’s a big place) but treating the continent of Africa as a homogeneous mass is not something I intend to tackle right now. The interesting part of the discussion was that he offered to arrange for a mechanical digger to be brought to the mining site by a haulage company from the capital city. The cost for this would be $2,000 per day. The community leader asked that those funds rather be paid directly to the community, so that they could benefit from the money rather than an outside contractor.

Guy Clutterbuck concluded that, although the manual labour was hard work, it’s what the community wanted and actually benefited them more than using earthmoving equipment. I think that’s actually a missed opportunity.

I’d certainly prefer to put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher than wash them by hand, but if you charged me an exorbitant daily rate to use the dishwasher I’d rather take the money and wash the dishes myself.  Since that income wouldn’t be guaranteed, what I really would want is a dishwasher to free up my time to do something else.

Using the logic of this, admittedly first-world problem analogy, I imagine that the artisanal mining community would like an excavator, but found the cost to be absurd. This is where open hardware could come in, enabling those communities to build their own mining equipment at a fraction of the cost of proprietary machines. The Global Village Construction Set is a modular system that works kind of like real-world Lego. According to the website, a backhoe would only cost $4500 to construct — a little over two days renting the equipment from the contractor.

There are already functional prototypes of some of the equipment out there. Unfortunately I can’t find any videos of equipment used in mining, but there are plenty showing agricultural and construction uses. I can’t think of a reason why such a modular system couldn’t be used in mining applications. Hurdles such as a lack of welding skills and limited Internet connectivity and access to tutorials may need to be overcome, but could this be the approach to take in financially liberating artisanal miners?

Image source: Garry Wilmore


Will Eco-warriors prevail against Eco-terrorists miners?

They dedicated their military careers to saving their countries.  Now, they’re dedicating their lives to saving the planet.  Meet The Operatives.

Sounds exciting. Commandos for social justice, swooping in on those eco-terrorists illegally mining and destroying protected Costa Rican rain-forests. I haven’t been able to watch the programme because of geographic digital restrictions silliness, but the trailers are available and I base my discussion on those. The show actually deals with a range of environmental crimes, but I’m most interested in the episodes dealing with illegal miners. In this particular video they present the miners as desperate criminals, guns primed to blow the heroic rangers to bits.

I suppose this kind of simplistic cops and robbers narrative makes engaging reality TV, but it ignores the nuances of the miner’s motivations. The artisanal miners (and no-one is trying to put a “Brooklyn-esque spin” on what they do — they are artisanal because they don’t use machinery) are not archetypal villains plotting their next devious scheme to pollute an unspoiled paradise. They don’t have a list of endangered animals they seek to bash, chop, shoot, and poison into extinction.

So why are the miners there? Watching the trailers, The Operatives doesn’t seem to explore that. From my experience with artisanal miners, the root cause of the environmental impacts they generate is less to do with the mining, and more to do with a lack of other sources of income.

Mining without any modern machinery doesn’t look like much fun. You have to do hard manual labour. You need to muck about with nasty chemicals. And you do that without the nice protective gloves, overalls, and dust filter equipment you need. The Health and Safety department puts up safety awareness signs that read “Hooray for Hazards!” Then you get screwed over by the dubious characters you have to sell your gold to. They certainly aren’t giving you market value for your goods while they wave their guns about in your face.

What drives people to engage in this small-scale illegal mining? Is there coercion from a powerful cartels? Are people just desperate for money? Perhaps the full episode of The Operatives answers these questions and I’m being unfair, but more likely it just shows the excitement of arresting people in a jungle. People who dwell at the bottom of the illegal gold supply chain. Then the Operatives can pat themselves on the back and say they are doing their bit to save the planet.

I intend to explore issues around illegal small-scale mining in future posts. What do you think drives this sort of mining, and what ways can we tackle it?

Image credit: Anna Wloch from TakePart “Behind the Scenes Photos”