Woman cleans a container in a river, Waija River , Accra Ghana

Technology can win the fight against illegal mining in Africa

In Ghana, “Galamsey” is currently a hot topic amongst media practitioners, policy makers and the general populace. “Galamsey” is a term used to describe small-scale illegal (gold) mining in Ghana whereas in South Africa its equivalent is known as “Zama Zama”.

The main determinant of small-scale illegal mining is the lack or absence of any of the following: land rights, mining license, exploration or mineral transportation permit, environmental clearance/permit or any other legislative mechanism that could guarantee legitimacy to the on-going operations.

Small-scale gold mining, illegal or not, can be operated on the surface or underground. It is a form of survival for about 10-20 million miners in 70 countries, including approximately 4 million women and children, most in Sub-Saharan Africa. The paradox is that, aside of being the world’s largest employer in gold mining and representing 90% of the gold mining workforce worldwide, small-scale gold mining produces 15% of the annual gold production. In Ghana¸ the total workforce in the industry is estimated to be more than 20,000, out of which 90% are Ghanaians.

This notwithstanding, the damages small-scale gold miners pose to the environment are innumerable – which make their operations a menace to both societal harmony and environmental sustainability. Further, small-scale (illegal) mining undermines investor confidence and seriously bothers on human rights issues such as child labor and worker safety.

According to Mercury Watch, small-scale gold mining is the single largest demand for mercury in the world. An estimated 1400 tons of mercury were used by Artisanal scale gold mining miners globally in 2011″. Meanwhile, mercury can contaminate the atmosphere and water at a very long distance. It is highly toxic, causing damage to the nervous system and mental stability of those exposed to it.

Regulations and other legislative instruments have failed to respond to the menace; but technology won’t. The gold mining chain is so sophisticated to the point it renders government regulations impotent.

The Gold Mining Chain

The sophisticated nature of the Gold Mining Chain will make it difficult to use policies and regulations alone as tools to fight the illegal destruction of the environment.
The sophisticated nature of the Gold Mining Chain will make it difficult to use policies and regulations alone as tools to fight the illegal destruction of the environment.

Technology won’t fail in the fight against the menace

In most cases, abandoned mine shafts are the easiest to access, making it difficult for law enforcement and mining companies to keep track of illegal gold mining operations.

  • Using Advanced Unmanned Aerial Vehicles For Policing

Advanced unmanned aerial vehicles or drone technology can help in offering a different way of policing by accurately gathering data from above that can be used as a guide in the monitoring and tracking of mining sites. By integrating advanced real-time mapping software (using Google maps for instance), digital cameras, audio recording devices and automated flight programs, drones can generate up-to-date maps that capture “what’s happening now”. This technology can also be configured and applied in a manner that is able to capture “what happened before” on any mining sites; where possible the drones can be deployed with other geo-based technologies to detect in advance explorable gold mining sites. The data gathered by the aerial vehicles will be transmitted in real time to a central remote database, which will be accessible to law enforcement agencies.

The data generated by these technologies can also give officials a broad view of how gold mining operations are impacting the environment – and all that are connected to it. For instance, these technologies can offer insight into all the processes involved in gold mining: how material is moved and redeposited as spoil and waste among others.

Mapping drone technologies offer a more effective way of policing the environment and clamping down on illegal operations thanks to their superior intelligence.

  • Advanced Data Tracking Technology for Trucks, Excavators and other Mining Equipment

In Ghana for instance, significant deployment of heavy earthmoving equipment, plants and machines in the mining industry is primarily by the large-scale mines. Small-scale gold mining operations tend to be relatively unsophisticated and rely primarily on inexpensive equipment from Chinese manufacturers. Nevertheless, there is evidence of a growing deployment of heavy equipment by small-scale mines in their operations as evidenced by a news item that appeared in the State-owned Daily Graphic (Ghana) on 16 May 2014. The opening lines of the news item read “The Nungua Police Divisional Command has mounted a search for two men alleged to have stolen an excavator valued at 250,000 Euros and using it for illegal mining”.

Whilst earthmoving equipment is in demand for use in road construction, mining operations and in commercial as well as residential property development, gold mining makes up most of the industry. It is therefore important to subject the use of equipment such as bulldozers, tractors, excavators and dump trucks to efficient regulatory procedures and tracking mechanisms right from the Port. This is possible thanks to advanced Data Tracking Technologies. Data Tracking Technologies such as (Global Positioning Satellite system) are made up of hardware and software, which when used together determine the exact location of the vehicle/equipment, person and also other assets to which this system is installed and also record the exact position of the assets at regular intervals.

By regulation, industry operators will be required to install data tracking technologies to their equipment before they are deployed on the field. Failure to adhere to this requirement will automatically (by configuration of the technology) disable the equipment from any movement.

The data gathered by these technologies will be transferred to a remote central database only accessible to law enforcement agencies, just as in the case of the drones. The data will aid these agencies (for example the Inspectorate Division of the Minerals Commission, Ghana) in conducting mine inspections and compliance enforcement of the laws and regulations governing mineral operations.

Aside from offering a cheaper, more practical way to keep tabs on gold mining operations as well as other industrial operations that deploy heavy equipment, data tracking technologies and the ever-increasing range of software packages (such as video surveillance cameras) that accompany them can provide unique insights for effective policymaking.

The sophisticated nature of the Gold Mining Chain will make it difficult to use policies and regulations alone as tools to fight the illegal destruction of the environment. And whilst technology cannot ultimately be the answer, it can provide a great deal of the solutions.

By Isidore Kpotufe, CEO of Westcape

This report was commissioned by the Technology Intelligence Division of Westcape, a global online bank that makes access to financial as well as professional services cheaper. Westcape also trades in other technology powered-sectors such as global e-commerce, e-power technologies, business technologies among others (http://westcapestrategy.com/).