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COVID-19 and the Colombian ASM sector: diversity of operators and of impacts

By Nicolas Eslava, Afai Consulting (Pact Data Collection Consultant)

Note that all information in this note refers specifically to the Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM) communities on which data was collected as part of Delve’s monitoring of impacts of COVID-19 on ASM communities, in collaboration with Pact. In Colombia, the focus was on artisanal miners (AM) in the departments of Chocó (municipalities of Condoto and Istmina) as well as employees of small-scale mining (SSM) operators in Antioquia (municipalities of Barbosa, Remedios, Segovia) and Santander (municipality of Vetas), all mining gold. This data, alongside narrative summaries, can be found on Delve’s website.

AM miners in Chocó (top left) and SSM operations (bottom left) in Antioquia.
Pictures courtesy of BSD Consulting. Map by Afai Consulting.

Colombia’s ASM sector clearly illustrates that the national ASM sectors can be composed of radically different actors ranging from individual gold panners to SSM operators using machinery and explosives. Similarly, their operational practices and organisational characteristics, modes of financing, as well as access to markets are radically different, leading to them being impacted differently by both COVID-19 and the government-mandated measures implemented to mitigate it.

By the end of July 2020, the spread of COVID-19 amongst the focus ASM communities was limited, a blessing as available the public health capacity to deal with serious cases is severely limited. This state of affairs has justified the deployment of various measures enacted by the national, departmental, and municipal authorities, which have included complete lockdowns, mobility limitations (both selective lockdowns, curfews, and geographic limitations) as well as shorter opening hours for businesses.

AM miners extract gold through traditional gold panning methods and then transport it without further processing to gold buying shops. Due to the simplicity of the process there are neither specialised nor gender-assigned roles and women make approximately half of the AM workforce.

AM miners are implementing few COVID-19 mitigation measures in their activities as they believe that the characteristics of gold panning sites (located outdoors, capacity to stay a certain distance away from others, permanent contact with the water) mitigate risks. Furthermore, they note that any additional measures would limit their capacity to make a living or are too uncomfortable to be viable. For example, all AM miners make use of face masks in their commute to the gold panning sites but will then work without it.

Current government-mandated measures have impacted AM miners’ incomes through multiple channels. Due to these limitations, AM miners now:

  • Spend less time on sites as working hours are reduced.
  • Tend to work closer to their homes as transport is more difficult to organise and special temporary permits are required to commute to the usual gold panning areas located further out of town, and obtaining them can be problematic. In addition to the traditional gold miners being concentrated in sites closer-by, these sites are also now visited by people that have taken up AM mining as other economic activities are no longer available. Further crowding the sites.
  • Can sell their gold less often, sometimes only once a week, due to overlapping restrictions. This constrains their daily purchasing power.
  • Are no longer able to travel to neighbouring villages and municipalities to obtain better gold prices.

As a result of these more limited incomes, all respondents and their families have had to skip meals since the beginning of the outbreak, and the majority of them still did so by the end of July. The lone exception to that trend being an AM family living far from town and cultivating numerous crops on their plot.

And while the AM sector is not characterised by a gendered division of roles, female respondents are nevertheless more impacted by the mitigation measures as their household roles limit their mobility to sites close to their abode, in particular now that schools are closed due to the pandemic.

SSM operators equally did not report any case of COVID-19 in their social circle, but in contrast to AM miners, their livelihoods have been less impacted. Mostly due to the fact that SSM miners are employees of the SSM operators and thus receive a salary. In our sample SSM miners continued to receive their salary despite the pandemic, likely due to the support they received from the Better Gold Initiative. COVID-19 mitigation measures have impacted SSM operators through supply chain interruptions as availability of parts and supply, in particular explosives (a State monopoly), and the shorter opening hours of suppliers have slowed down operations.

While these employees have continued to receive their salary, the majority of them has nevertheless seen a decline in their revenues as shifts have been shortened and workforce presence on site has been limited as a COVID-19 mitigation measure. Interestingly, while women are a minority of workers in SSM operations (somewhere around 10%), the roles they occupy typically require a certain degree of specialisation and their job security is thus typically higher. Typically, roles related to OHS implementation and monitoring are staffed by women, and the implementation of COVID19 mitigation measures is now part of the responsibilities of these roles.

SSM operators play a key role in the mitigation of COVID-19 in our sample as not only the payment of salaries allowed miners to stay and comply with government-mandated lockdowns without having to skip meals or essential purchases, but also they are the key actor in the diffusion of mitigation practices and information for miners and by extension their communities when these bring back practices from the workplace into their homes and neighbourhoods. As SSM operators are currently implementing comprehensive measures in order to comply with demands from Colombian authorities, these practices are sound and extensive, making SSM operators significant agents for COVID-19 mitigation and awareness raising in local communities.

Responses from authorities have been described as being both very limited and quite delayed. And while only a minority of SSM miners have received any kind of assistance from outside of their workplace, all AM miners have been receiving support in the form of foodstuffs from the gold buying shops they sell to – according to AM miners, without any strings attached. This number has decreased during the survey as government agencies and local civil society organisations have had more time to organise. This delay in government response was exacerbated by the lack of bank accounts amongst AM miners, making direct transfers impossible.

Lack of government presence on the ground has both affected ASM miners’ capacity to operate, and has turned other gold supply chain actors, such as gold traders and CSOs, into key mitigation agents in both the SSM and AM sub-sectors.

Compliance with government-issued guidelines for safe operation during the COVID-19 pandemic is now required for formal operations. As part of this, SSM operators are required to submit a plan to authorities operationalising the said guidelines. However, support from government organisations in such operationalisation has been scant and by the end of July had only been provided by non-governmental actors.

AM miners’ registration is currently being transferred to a new platform. As part of this process, AM miners are now required to provide and make use of an email address, a requirement they very seldom meet and for which they would require assistance, which will be difficult to provide during the pandemic. Both AM miners and gold buying shops see the shops as key players in providing this support at the moment.

The fact that non-governmental actors are currently playing a key role in supporting the implementation of government policies highlights the necessity for government agencies capacity and local presence to grow so as to translate policies and regulations into practices in the field and monitor their uptake and efficiency.

Readers interested in complementary analyses of the impact of COVID-19 on the mining sector in Colombia, including the ASM sector, can also refer to analyses from the Natural Resource Governance Institute, Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), and the joint reporting from ARM and Solidaridad (in Spanish).

Article Colombia Gold Political, Formalization, Governance, Supply Chains, Economic, Finance, Social, Community, Employment, Gender, Health and Safety, Human Rights, Labor and Working Conditions, Livelihoods, Armed Conflict/Criminality, COVID-19

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