2020 State of the ASM Sector Report Learn about artisanal and small-scale mining's contribution to Sustainable Development Goal 8 in our new report

Delve into ASM: Interview with Felix Hruschka, Founder & Director of tbb.hru, Austria

Delve into ASM is an interview series presenting voices of artisanal and small-scale mining professionals and experts as they reflect on data, trends, and the future of the sector.

In this inaugural interview we spoke with Felix Hruschka, Founder & Director of Technical Bureau for Mining, Austria.

Who is Felix Hruschka and what is the Technisches Büro für Bergwesen Hruschka?

I am an Austrian mining engineer and mineral economist. In 1991, after obtaining my PhD, I decided to end my academic career and become a consultant. In 1992 I started my consulting company Technisches Büro für Bergwesen, better known under the acronym tbb.hru. I never changed the company’s name: For me, success does not depend on a fancy company name, but on the work of the people behind it.

What attracted a mining engineer from Austria to artisanal and small-scale mining?

I first saw ASM in 1982 as a student while backpacking through South America. Ten years later, one of my first assignments brought me back to an ASM community in Colombia where I worked with marginalized but deeply honest people who were struggling to make a living. Because of this experience, I continued my work in ASM, initially for 15 years in Ecuador and Peru. When I returned to Austria in 2008 I knew my mission: Contribute to the development of the ASM sector.

What unique potential do you see in the ASM sector?

Sustainability! There is social, economic, and environmental potential in ASM.

Socially: The ASM sector employs many people living in poverty. With income from artisanal mining typically exceeding other economic activities, ASM represents a unique opportunity to escape poverty.

Economically: ASM has the ability to extract valuable mineral deposits which are not considered mineable by industrial mining. ASM often even begins where industrial mining – driven by profit maximization – declares a mine as depleted, abandoning valuable non-renewable resources.

Environmentally: While we cannot ignore the tremendous environmental damage being caused at some ASM sites, we must also recognize that ASM generally produces minerals with a lower environmental footprint than industrial mining. For example, the low carbon footprint of manual labor outperforms any alternative mechanical extraction of minerals.

If you had to describe the ASM sector in three numbers, what would those be?

For me as an engineer, data and numbers matter. This is why I started collecting ASM data many years ago and recently published an updated version of my database at http://artisanalmining.org/Inventory/.

According to my research, 49 million people work in ASM worldwide, and that number is based only on 81 countries that have published data. The average household size being four to five, ASM therefore provides the livelihood for approximately a quarter of a billion people. The numbers are probably higher considering that ASM likely exists in about 120 countries.

Approximately 1/4 to 1/3 of all ASM miners are women. These figures illustrate the global importance of ASM and its contribution to development.

If you had to describe the ASM sector in three words, what would those be?

Marginalization: Despite being a large employer and significantly contributing to mineral supply chains and foreign exchange earnings, the ASM sector is marginalized almost everywhere.

Exclusion: Most legal frameworks are quite restrictive for ASM miners. If miners are unable to formalize under such conditions, their work is being considered illegal and they are denied access to formal and legal supply chains.

Perseverance: ASM is here to stay. Almost every miner I know would rather earn a living and build their family's future with honest and hard work in the mine than join the urban poor.

A picture is worth a thousand words. What ASM graphic best conveys the sector’s potential/challenges?

During my time in Peru I worked on an ASM project that was funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC). Together with the ILO, we supported the ASM community Sta. Filomena through acquisition of a processing plant and formalization support with the main objective being the elimination of mercury use and child labor. Another project goal was the increase of miners' income.

Once the property of the mine was secured and the plant operational and economically successful, the community decided to invest in relocating from the former makeshift shelters at the top of the mine to a new, safer village in walking distance to the mine. This was an unexpected project outcome.

The photo on the left illustrates the precarious living conditions and serious public health issues prior to the intervention. The photo of the new village on the right illustrates the implemented aspirations of miners for a decent life in a healthy environment. It is clear evidence that ASM has the potential to further develop on its own, whenever the opportunity arises.

What are the top ASM knowledge sharing resources that we should know about?

There are many, and each knowledge sharing resource has a different thematic focus and approach to some degree. It is not possible to say which ones are the top, as this depends on the topic. On my website http://artisanalmining.org/ I list more than twenty; Delve is obviously one of them.

You have provided technical expertise for several ASM projects in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. What are some of the best practices and lessons learned that you found to have greatest impact on the sector?

In terms of lessons learned, I would mention: Listen to the miners and learn from the miners! As a supposed “expert” you may know something that they do not know, but there is always something they know that you don’t! Respectful and meaningful participation and cooperation at eye level is the most critical success factor. This involves a long-term commitment and a timing of project activities around the miner’s daily, weekly, or seasonal time schedule (e.g. dry and rainy season). Top-down approaches are almost never successful.

As a best practice, I would prioritize empowerment through a human rights based approach. It is equally important to empower rights holders to claim their rights and to empower duty bearers to fulfill their duties.

What are your hopes and expectations for ASM and what can Delve do to get us there?

My hopes and expectations for the ASM sector are best expressed in the vision statement of the Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM):

A legitimate, responsible and profitable artisanal and small-scale mining sector which promotes inclusive and sustainable development.

This is why I joined ARM more than 15 years ago and currently serve on its board.

As said before, what Delve can do as a global knowledge platform is to listen to miners and learn from miners with the aim of disseminating lessons learned, data and facts that can guide decision makers from government, civil society, and the private sector to accelerate the development of ASM towards a legitimate, responsible, and profitable sector.

What advice do you have for a future generation of professionals working in the ASM sector? Are there important skills, experiences, geographies, thematic areas that you would call out?

Over the past few decades, ASM has become a complex multidisciplinary topic for professionals from almost all academic backgrounds. This reflects the reality with its broad portfolio of challenges faced by ASM, but also requires advanced skills to work in interdisciplinary teams and to understand each other.

For more than ten years I have been teaching a course on artisanal mining at the Montanuniversität Leoben, Austria's university for raw material sciences. For many of the engineering students it is the first and only time that they learn how mining relates to issues such as gender, formalization, development policy, public health, etc. It would certainly be the same to teach the basics of mining and mineral processing to students of social, legal or political sciences. Since such interdisciplinary courses on ASM are not offered at many universities, prospective professionals are unfortunately mostly on their own to acquire the necessary skills. The main characteristic of successful junior staff is therefore the enthusiasm for lifelong learning.

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