Advocates and researchers have drawn attention to the harms from ‘conflict minerals’ (tantalum, tin, tungsten, and gold) for more than two decades. As the European Union Trade Commission notes, “In politically unstable areas, armed groups often use forced labour to mine minerals. They then sell those minerals to fund their activities, for example to buy weapons.” 

But rebels are not the only source of violence near mining sites. Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) by individuals or small groups with little to no technology often occurs around the same deposits as industrial mining, and the competition between them can increase the risk of disruption and violence. As the world enters a new mining boom spurred by geopolitical competition to secure critical minerals, it would be a strategic mistake to ignore either the challenges posed by ASM or its importance to local livelihoods and economic development. 

Clean Energy Increases the Demand for Minerals

If the global economy is to successfully transition to greener technologies, it needs ever-larger quantities of minerals. The World Bank estimates that production of “minerals for climate action” will increase by nearly 500 percent by 2050. Cobalt, lithium, and graphite are needed for batteries for electric vehicles, tantalum capacitors are used in practically every electronic device, and new green technologies will require increasing amounts of copper for transmission and tin for solder. 

Amid rising geopolitical tensions, concerns about China’s consolidation of the supply chain for critical minerals have set off a scramble by Western countries to secure future access rights. For instance, the Minerals Security Partnership, launched in 2022 by 13 countries and the EU, seeks “to catalyze public and private investment in responsible critical minerals supply chains globally.”

In low-income countries, natural resource wealth is often associated with increased conflict. Early research on mining-related violence focused on ‘conflict diamonds’, but over time tin, tungsten, and tantalum (3T); gold; and most recently cobalt have been added to the list of potential conflict minerals. The most common interpretation of violence near industrial mineral sites is that non-state armed groups fight to control these sites so they can generate revenue by taxing production or directly selling the ore. 

There is, however, much more to the story. Research that we and others have conducted shows that industrial mining increases the risk of other forms of violence, much of it directed at artisanal miners working the same areas. This problem will only grow — with few alternative livelihoods and growing worldwide demand, an increasing number of artisanal miners are competing for the same deposits as industrial miners. And while ASM only produces a small share of the world’s minerals, 9 out of 10 miners are artisanal, totaling more than 44 million people worldwide. 

Non-State Armed Groups Aren’t the Only Source of Mining Violence

So far, conflict mitigation strategies have focused on non-state armed groups. Prominent policy efforts such as provisions of the 2010 U.S. Dodd-Frank Act (which required companies to disclose the use of key minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and the 2003 Kimberley Process (a voluntary treaty requiring participating States to check that any diamonds they import or export carry a certificate stating that revenue from these diamonds was not used to fund violent conflict against legitimate governments) were premised on disrupting the flow of resources to rebel groups that fight each other or the government for control of mining sites. Research suggests that these initiatives led to a small reduction in violence around mines, yet at the expense of depriving individuals of livelihoods, with severe consequences such as an increase in child mortality

But the ‘conflict minerals’ narrative does not tell the whole story. Our analysis of data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Dataset (ACLED) indicates that roughly half of the 4,721 violent events recorded near Africa’s industrial mines between 1997 and 2020 took place outside of rebel conflict zones. And many of the incidents that do occur around mines in conflict zones have little to do with fighting between rebels and governments: 44 percent are riots and 25 percent entail violence against civilians by State security forces or rebels.

To gain insight into other sources of violence, we partnered with the International Crisis Group, whose experts interviewed stakeholders at three copper-cobalt mines in southern DRC in 2019 and three gold mines in Zimbabwe in early 2020. In each country, analysts visited mining sites that shared a common geography and mineral type and experienced varying levels of conflict but where rebel groups were not active. The common thread across all six mines was how often competition between artisanal and industrial miners spiraled into violent conflict.

While industrial mining is a capital-intensive process with relatively little formal employment, millions of Africans work informally in artisanal and small-scale mining. High profile examples of ASM include cobalt mining in the DRC and gold mining in South Africa. Its practice is often characterized by low pay, limited regulation, and hazardous working conditions that can include child labor and exposure to toxic chemicals. And while non-state armed groups can overlap and interact with artisanal mining – for example, in Eastern DRC or the Central Sahel –  rebel movements and artisanal mining are distinctive issues with their own causes and responses. Few working in ASM have alternative livelihoods, and thus few other sources of income if they are pushed off mining sites, so as industrial mining expands the two sectors will increasingly come into conflict with each other.

In DRC, violence often revolved around physical access to deposits as artisanal miners attempted to enter industrial sites and industrial miners sought to keep them out. Tenke Fungurume Mine (TFM), in southern DRC’s Lualaba province and one of the largest copper and cobalt mines in the world, had been mined by artisanal miners for years as industrial mining was interrupted during the Congo War. After industrial mining resumed in 2006, industrial mining companies found thousands of artisanal miners on “their” site. Since then, spikes in world cobalt prices resulted in cycles of violence, for example in 2009 and 2019. Each time, the DRC military or mining police forcibly expelled artisanal miners from the site, triggering violent protests that culminated in further clashes with state forces. Expulsions were short-lived, as TFM’s size made the site near-impossible to protect and military personnel deployed to secure the location took bribes to allow artisanal miners continued access. Ironically, this rent-seeking behavior even led to violent clashes between the state mining police and the DRC military. 

In Zimbabwe, frequent shifts in political bargains facilitating extraction often led to violence, particularly during a rise in world gold prices between 2018 and 2021. For example, when the owners of Jumbo gold mine, near the capital Harare, fell out of political favor with the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Political Front (ZANU-PF) party in 2018 and halted production, thousands of artisanal miners started working on the site. These miners soon organized into armed gangs that were allegedly sponsored by different politicians, leading to recurrent fights. In 2021, the mine was sold to a prominent ZANU-PF supporter and all of the artisanal miners were violently expelled from Jumbo by police as part of a large operation in which 25,000 artisanal miners were arrested across the country. Variations of this pattern repeated at another gold site we studied in Zimbabwe, the Giant mine near Harare. There, artisanal miners who had negotiated a tribute agreement (a form of subcontract) with the industrial mine owners were violently expelled by state security forces after their patrons’ political fortunes shifted. 

So, clearly ASM can contribute to violence at industrial mining sites, but is it a major issue? That is a hard question to answer given limited data on where ASM occurs. We took a new approach and used machine-learning to predict the suitability of an area to artisanal mining based on geological characteristics – that is, where valuable minerals are most likely to occur close enough to the surface to be mined artisanally. Artisanal miners, who typically only have access to manual tools, can only mine minerals at or near the surface. Such deposits occur in different geologies than deep-buried mineral deposits that can occur up to 10 kilometers underground.      

Using this method, we find that when commodity prices rise (making it more attractive for artisanal miners to encroach on industrial mining sites, and more urgent for industrial mining companies to prevent them from doing so), violent conflict is three times more likely around industrial mines that are in ASM-suitable areas compared to industrial mines in non-ASM-suitable areas. There is no increase in conflict in ASM-suitable areas without industrial mines, underlining that conflict with industrial mining interests is a key factor. Our back-of-the-envelope math suggests artisanal-industrial mining conflict explains as much as half of the total observed effect of industrial mining on conflict.  

How to Prevent Violence and Protect Miners

Global investment in mineral extraction is surging, but African miners might be losing out. Africa’s share of mineral exploration has fallen since 2014, and the International Energy Agency warns that African governments need to strengthen environmental and social oversight at mines to satisfy investors conscious of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors in doing business. Companies such as Apple and Tesla are working to reduce their reliance on the continent. Tesla reports that half of its new vehicles now use a cobalt-free battery, whereas Apple pledged to only use recycled cobalt by 2025. While these kinds of moves may protect companies from potential reputational damage of being associated with mining on the continent, particularly artisanal mining, they could leave millions of artisanal miners without a livelihood.

So, how can governments and companies ensure that conflict between industrial and artisanal miners does not lead to sourcing shifts that reduce opportunities for artisanal mining and thereby undermine their commitment to sustainable development? The answer is to work with African governments and civil society to formalize ASM, giving artisanal miners legal rights to mine and protection against arbitrary expulsion, while better regulating its labor and environmental practices. While it is challenging to regulate individual miners, miners’ cooperatives, such as the ZUZA Mining Cooperative in Zimbabwe, have had some success regulating their miners, though these cooperatives are also subject to being taken over by powerful elites not acting in miners’ interests. 

Formalizing ASM needs to be accompanied by other efforts, as it will not keep industrial and artisanal miners neatly separated. In countries such as the DRC, virtually all land viable for mining is already covered by an industrial permit, and artisanal mining zones, though they exist, frequently contain no minerals and house less than 1 percent of artisanal miners. 

Therefore, it is crucial to promote ASM cooperation with industrial miners, making use of legal possibilities such as the tribute system in Zimbabwe, which allows industrial miners to subcontract to artisanal miners. The U.S. Agency for International Development recently launched a $20 million program in DRC to help U.S. mining companies integrate local companies and artisanal miners into their supply chain, an encouraging example to build on. But larger efforts will be needed — and quickly.

As the green energy transition drives demand for mining in unstable regions, managing potential conflict between artisanal and industrial miners will be critical for advancing economic development and minimizing conflict. With more than 44 million artisanal miners worldwide, the stakes in getting this right are clear.

IMAGE: Unidentified young boys work among about 4,000 artisanal miners digging copper on December 13, 2005 in Ruashi mine about 20 kilometers outside Lubumbashi, Congo, DRC. (Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images)