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