What is informal mining?A diverse range of informal, artisanal and small-scale modes of mineral extraction practices exist in the less developed countries of the world, and countries in the Asia-Pacific region is no exception. Globally, over 20 million people in developing countries depend on informal mining for their livelihoods, producing large amounts of mineral commodities. Estimates vary depending on the precise meaning and definition of what might comprise informal/unorganised mining and quarrying. Just by virtue of the numbers involved, such mining and quarrying is significant, but the enormous amounts of mineral resources they produce are also significant. The term Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (or ASM) is commonly used to describe the diverse mining practices; however, the activities belong to the informal sector of these countries economy, hence we use the term, informal mining. By informal, we imply those mining-related activities that are taken up by non-corporatised public and private sector establishments or individuals, use low levels of capital and technology, and are generally non-industrialised in nature. They include a wide spectrum of mining activities; for example, if licensed and mechanised small-scale mining and quarrying comprise one end of the spectrum, purely artisanal and unmechanised subsistence panning, digging and mining (for example, panning for gold) comprise the other end of the spectrum. Within the two extremes, innumerable patterns of production and labour systems and technology use exist. Located at the margins of the mainstream mining economy, these mines and quarries present a different set of issues than corporatized or industrialised mining.
Why Informal mining?Commonly, informal mining is equated with illegal mining; however, that is incorrect. Scholars (such as Barbara Harriss-White, 2003) have used the term informal economy to include both legal and licensed, small economic activities (including most part of the agricultural sector) that gets poorly recorded, poorly taxed and was, until recently, seen as a drag on economic growth. The current thinking on the informal sector has changed; scholars, (for example, Keith Hart, 2007) see it as a means towards a more equitable income distribution, as a source of incomes and livelihoods particularly for the burgeoning urban populations of developing countries. Some authors, however, still associate the sector with the hidden, underground and black economy arising out of poor governance, and that needs to be regulated more tightly by the state. One must, however, admit that the sector is the reservoir of the poorest and the most exploited. The people digging up the earth comprise the precariat labourers. They also illuminate the political economy of agrarian transition, mineral-based livelihoods, informality and meanings of destitution and poverty. For many less developed countries that are caught in the vortex of rapid economic growth, the informal/unorganised mining and quarrying sector is significant because of the sheer size and complexity of governance, labour and environmental issues.