Throughout the third world, millions of people make a livelihood by extracting minerals through diverse informal practices. Internationally these informal modes of mineral extraction are collectively known as ‘Artisanal and Small-scale Mining’ or ASM in brief. A large number of people’s livelihoods are based on mineral resource extraction: estimates can vary widely by millions; an ILO study in 1999 put the figure at 13 million, and observed that this number is increasing. The ILO report (1999: 25) also notes:
…the impact of structural adjustment programs, low commodity prices or drought on private and public sector employment, trading, farming and inflation has led many people, especially women who relied on subsistence agriculture to seek new, alternative or additional paid employment for better quality of life, more usually just to survive.
A more recent information puts the figure at 23 million.
ASM involves digging, cutting, shovelling, panning, washing, sorting, amalgamating, burning, carrying on headloads, transporting by other means, and such other processes to extract and obtain minerals or metals from the earth. In many parts of the Asia-Pacific region, these practices are often a continuation of traditional modes of life, but can also be a result of recent developments, as peasants leave the agricultural or forest sector in search of more secure or seasonal cash incomes, or as developmental projects displace traditional ways of lives and incomes. These innumerable small mines and quarries are part of the ‘unorganised’ sector, a part of the informal economies of these countries.
The strong anti-mining movements led by the pro-environment groups in South Asia have tended to overlook the question of livelihoods of the large numbers of people involved in ASM. However, there are also important instances of locally based Non-Governmental Organisations working with mine workers in various locations.