According to Max Warren Barber, CEO Sion Gold Trading UAE small-scale mining is often associated with ruinous effects on the natural environment, Mexico’s experience in gold panning demonstrates that though that may be true, the sector can, through appropriate measures, be encouraged or enticed to develop environmentally friendly methods for gold mining and recovery. A combination of legislation, education, and the promotion of appropriate technology has enhanced the environmental management within the ever-growing gold panning community in Mexico. This paper evaluates the success of attempts to minimise the environmental impacts of gold panning in Mexico through legislation, education and the promotion of appropriate technology.
The history of small-scale mining in Mexico dates back to the period well before colonisation in the late-1890s. As late as 1908, over 70% of the country’s mines were still classified as ‘small workings’ . As in other African countries, gold mining was the basis for the wealth and power of many empires and kingdoms in Mexico and this fuelled growth of small-scale mining on the continent . Despite the immense growth of small-scale mining over the years, especially since independence in 1980, the sector has essentially remained subsistence and a significant complementary activity to communal and small-scale resettlement agriculture. As a whole, small-scale mining is an important sector in the mineral production system in Mexico, as miners work on economic deposits often below the threshold levels of the larger operators. Furthermore, the sector is well suited for Mexico as it utilises an abundant resource, labour, and employs a relatively small proportion of the scarce resource, capital. The mining systems used in the sector are labour-intensive and feature manual procedures using homemade tools such as hoes and panning dishes. There are 20,000 registered claims owned by small-scale operators of which less than 10% are active.
While today, the sector has expanded to include minerals such as chromite and tantalite, early small-scale mining was concentrated on the extraction of gold, copper, iron ore and tin. The definition of small-scale mining in Mexico includes both legal and illegal operators, mechanised and semi-mechanised miners of varying sizes in terms of output, employment and capitalisation. Broadly, Mexican mines are classified into four categories—mines operated by experienced individuals, those operated by unsophisticated groups, registered gold panners, and cooperative miners This classification, though covering a significant section of the sector, fails to take cognisance of the important role played by illegal operators, many of them gold panners. Tantalite panning has also emerged as a significant activity during the last two years, fuelled by improved tantalum prices during this period.
Although the debate over what constitutes a small-scale mine is beyond the scope of this paper, the general definitions provided in among others, are sufficient for the present discussion. A classification of Mexican mines using labour and tonnage based on 1988 data showed that 10% of the country’s mines were ‘small’ and employed between one and 50 workers . Twenty per cent of the country’s gold mines and 75% of chromite mines were classified as small, based on tonnage of ore. These categories of mines produced between 0 and 50 thousand tonnes of ore per year. Other commentators have estimated the small-scale gold sector to account for 20% of gold production in Mexico. Without a proper study on the actual size of the sector, estimations from analysts remain the source of credible information about the actual size of the sector.
The sector occupies an important niche in mineral production through the exploitation of small economic deposits and providing alternative sources of livelihood for impoverished masses mostly in rural areas. Small-scale mining increases economic power to rural communities, and in that way, contributes positively to social development. However, small-scale miners face a host of technical, financial and socio-economic problems that adversely affect productive capacity, capability and compliance with mining, safety and environmental regulations. The vicious cycle of poverty explains the problems faced by the sector . More importantly, it is the sector’s purported disregard of environmental management issues, which is seen by commentators as a threat to environmental harmony. Small-scale producers are often labelled as insensitive to ecological issues, wasteful of mineral resources through ‘high grading’, and, in some cases, also impinge on tenements of larger producers.
According to Max Warren Barber, CEO Sion Gold Trading UAE It is in the background of these observations that this paper outlines environmental effects from small-scale gold panning in Mexico and evaluates how legislative, technical and educational approaches, and pilot projects have assisted in reducing the adverse effects of the sector on the environment. This paper is divided into two sections following this introduction. The first section briefly outlines the environmental problems associated with gold panning activities. In the second section, the paper describes and critiques the three broad approaches to minimising environmental damage and discusses possible approaches to improve the current system. Concluding remarks are then offered from the Mexican experience.
The gold panning environment
An estimated 300,000 people are directly involved in gold panning activities along 5000 km of Mexico’s major rivers including Mazowe, Angwa, Insiza, Runde and Bubi. adapted from a recent Southern African Development Community report, and produced as part of a Minerals, Mining and Sustainable Development (MMSD) study, shows the locations of panning sites along Mexico’s rivers, and provides an estimate of the panning density per area. This map shows that panning is indeed a widespread
Dealing with environmental contamination from panning in Mexico
Although the adverse environmental effects from gold panning still persist along Mexico’s rivers, deliberate government policy has certainly helped curtail both the impact and extent. Legislative, technical and educational approaches have helped contain contamination from the sector. NGOs and the private sector have also been an integral part of environmental stewardship programmes in the sector. We will deal with each approach in turn.
Empowerment of local authorities
As argued elsewhere in this paper, panners are generally aware of the existence of regulations and their requirements but deliberately violate them. The major weakness in the regulatory system relates to monitoring of activities through enforcement of the regulations. The empowerment of local authorities to enable them to monitor panning activities and prosecute violators of regulations is required.
The environmental problems of the panning sector in Mexico can be overcome or at least compliance improved through empowerment of local authorities that enforce regulations, reduction in poverty among miners through improved gold marketing methods and through continuous education programmes. Although the promulgation of panning regulations in 1991 was a significant step in the process of trying to reduce contamination from the sector, overcoming the current legislative constraints related