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date: 23 February 2024

The Harms and Crimes of Miningfree

The Harms and Crimes of Miningfree

  • Yuliya ZabyelinaYuliya ZabyelinaDepartment of Political Science, John Jay College of Criminal Justice


The world characterized by scarcity of natural resources and the growing demand for metals and minerals has provided strong incentives for illegal mining. Mining-related crimes have become a desirable illegal business for organized criminal groups, rebel forces, terrorist organizations, and private mining companies due to the low risks involved and the frequently limited ability or willingness of authorities to monitor mining areas and supply chains of metals and minerals. Illegal mining has devastated and displaced communities, contaminated clean water sources, and ravaged ecosystems and biodiversity. The problem commands both individual responses from the countries directly impacted by illegal mining as well as responses from the entire international community.


  • International Crime


Illegal mining creates serious problems that countries with mineral exploitation face, including armed violence, human rights abuses, environmental destruction, corruption, and money laundering, to name a few. The high profits associated with illegal mining make the industry attractive to offenders ranging from small-scale miners to organized criminal groups, rebel formations, and terrorist organizations to corporations (Zabyelina & van Uhm, 2020). Illegal mining endangers the environment and indigenous communities, stripping lands of their resources and people inhabiting those lands of forests, water, and soil quality, leaving behind barren landscapes and impoverished communities. Illegal mining feeds off abusive labor practices and facilitates sexual exploitation in the form of trafficking in persons. Unethical and outright criminal conduct of private companies exacerbates the problem and its negative consequences. This article provides an overview of illegal mining with a specific focus on the broad spectrum of crimes and harms associated with it.

The Basics of Mining

Resources that cannot be produced artificially in a lab or factory or grown through agricultural production are obtained through mining. Mining is the process of extracting economically valuable and nonrenewable geological matter from the Earth’s crust to benefit society (Bell & Donnelly, 2006). Coal, iron, bauxite, phosphate rock, and gypsum are some of the most widely mined minerals (Casey, 2018). Due to its long-term store of value and role as an inflation hedge, gold remains a popular precious metal in the mining industry. The global demand for gold soared in 2022, setting an 11-year record, due to unprecedented central bank purchases (World Gold Council, 2023). The variety of uses for gold outside the financial and investment sector, such as in technology industries and electronics manufacturing, has brought the global gold market to prominence and stimulated growing supply from around the world (McDonald, 2019). Despite sustainability-oriented advancements in gold mining techniques over the past decades and new laws adopted by many countries to mitigate the negative effects of illegal gold mining, the illegal extraction and trafficking in gold continues to devastate the environment and communities around the world.

The demand for minerals used in the transition to green energy has been forecasted to increase (Hund et al., 2020). According to the International Energy Agency, “[a] typical electric car requires six times the mineral inputs of a conventional car and an onshore wind plant requires nine times more mineral resources than a gas-fired plant” (International Energy Agency, 2022, p. 5). Depending on the technology, different mineral resources are used, but about half of the demand for green energy is for energy storage batteries for electric vehicles (EV) (Hund et al., 2020). The performance of EV batteries, along with their longevity and energy density, is contingent on lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite (Hund et al., 2020). Some estimates suggest the supply for these “green minerals” will ramp up by 500% by 2050 to meet the demand of the low-carbon energy future (Hunter & Ofosu-Peasah, 2022). To ensure that the clean energy transition is pursued in a fair and equitable manner, governments around the world will have to ensure these minerals are mined, processed, and traded without inflicting serious harm on humans, nonhumans, and the natural environment (Hund et al., 2020).

Deep-seated minerals are usually extracted using underground mining. To access such mineral deposits, miners drill tunnels and shafts into the rock. In surface mining, soil and rock overlying the mineral deposit are removed to obtain the mineral of interest. Surface mining requires less mechanization and financial investment than underground mining. Another type of mining is placer mining. It is used to remove valuable minerals from sediments found in river channels, beach sands, and other locations. A common technique in placer mining is panning, when prospectors recover minerals from alluvial placers formed in river or stream sediments by separating particles of the wanted mineral from soil or gravels by washing the alluvial mixture in a pan with water. Gold, cassiterite (tin), platinum, diamonds, magnetite, and a few gemstones are the principal minerals sourced from placer deposits. Due to the low cost and relative simplicity, panning is one of the easiest, least intrusive, and cheapest ways to extract minerals (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2015).

Different categories of mining can be identified based on the volume of extracted mineral output. Large-scale mining (LSM), which typically involves a company with many employees, is frequently distinguished from other types of mining because of the large volumes of output associated with it. LSM companies are frequently divided into three sub-groups: “majors,” “mid-tiers,” and “juniors” (Rodríguez-Novoa & Holley, 2023, p. 2). The structure of the global mining industry is heavily skewed toward a handful of “majors” that control most of the world’s active mining production sites (Rodríguez-Novoa & Holley, 2023). According to some sources, the top 150 mining companies make up less than 4% of the industry’s participants but produce 80% of the world’s metal output and handle the majority of global trade transactions (Sidorenko et al., 2020). Small-scale mining (SSM) is usually associated or even used synonymously with artisanal mining. The two terms are often merged in policy and specialized literature and used collectively as artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).

ASM refers to mining that is primarily motivated by poverty and is frequently observed in remote rural areas (Hunter & Ofosu-Peasah, 2022; World Health Organization [WHO], 2016). ASM provides a critical livelihood for millions of people across the world, but a sizable portion of the world’s minerals and gemstones are produced by artisanal and small-scale miners who work in hazardous and unsafe conditions (World Bank, 2017). Colombian law, for instance, categorizes ASM as a form of subsistence mining and defines it as follows:

mining activity carried out by natural persons or groups of individuals engaged in the open-pit extraction and collection, by manual means and using manual tools, of river sands and gravels for the construction industry, clays, precious metals and precious and semi-precious stones, without the use of any kind of mechanized equipment or machinery (Decree No. 1666 (2016), art.

Subsistence mining in Colombia is closely intertwined with the culture and identity of Colombians of African descent. Traditional mining for many of these miners involves activities relying on non-mechanized techniques like barequeo—a gold panning technique.1 For many barequeadors, gold panning is what “made them feel free and not dependent on others for their material needs; a job they learned from their parents and were hoping to pass on to their children and grand-children” (Espitia, 2019, n.p.).2 In Ghana, gold mining has also been carried out for hundreds of years and remains a popular livelihood activity in rural communities (Bansah et al., 2016, p. 9). Mining is widely operated in Ghana by both licensed operators and unlicensed miners popularly known as galamsey (Mantey et al., 2020). Galamseyers extract gold that large-scale mines are unable to access or uninterested in reaching and may operate under the protection of community chiefs. Customary leaders have a considerable level of authority and legitimacy among local inhabitants and have in some cases successfully “endorsed” and “protected” unlicensed miners (Banchirigah, 2008, p. 35). Some chiefs have reportedly been bribed by illegal gold miners to disregard the law and regulatory processes (Asori et al., 2023).

Illegal Mining

Although the term illegal mining has not been agreed upon universally, and the exact extent of this crime is difficult to estimate, it has attracted significant attention in recent years, including efforts to understand and counter the problem at the international level (Financial Action Task Force [FATF], 2015; International Criminal Police Organization [INTERPOL], 2022; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD], 2011; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime [UNODC], 2023). Most commonly, the term refers to mining activity that is carried out by an individual, group of people, or corporate entity without complying with the requirements of applicable laws. It can also apply to any prospecting and/or extractive activities in areas where the exercise of such activities is prohibited in general or only prohibited when certain equipment, methods, or chemicals (e.g., mercury) are used (UNODC, 2023).

Illegal mining is a broad term. It may be associated with subsistence mining, whereby artisanal and small-scale miners operate without a license or in contravention of the conditions of the license. It can also occur as a corporate crime. Private companies in the mining industry rarely operate without a license. Their criminal conduct is more commonly associated with bribery when entering a foreign market and during licensing (Brady, 2020), and when companies generate illicit profits by evading labor, safety, and environmental regulations (UNODC, 2023). Illegal mining can also be intertwined with the crimes of organized criminal groups, spearheaded by transnational criminal syndicates, and of rebel formations and terrorist organizations (Zabyelina & Uhm, 2020a).

Illegal Mining Versus Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining

Illegal mining should be conceptualized separately from artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM)—even though the two types of mining have been frequently confused and conflated (Hunter, 2020). Hunter notes that differentiating between illegal mining and ASM may ultimately depend on the domestic legislation in place. Where ASM is expressly forbidden by domestic law, only miners who have a title and/or any other authorization required by law extract minerals legally. If ASM is not prohibited in national legislation, but it is controlled through specific regulations and protocols, any mineral extraction without a title or in contravention of existing rules and requirements for this kind of activity is considered illegal (Hunter, 2020). Nonetheless, ASM—even if illegal from the statutory viewpoint—is a subsistence type of mining that typically supplements income and supports livelihood. It may have a high degree of legitimacy at the grassroots level and can be formalized under favorable conditions and with appropriate incentives (Wagner & Hunter, 2020).

One way of drawing a distinction between illegal mining and ASM is to conceptualize ASM as informal mining. According to the OECD (2017, p. 6), although mining without a title, with some exceptions, is criminalized in most countries and thus constitutes a criminal offense, the term illegal mining is distinguished from informal mining by the severity of the underlying offense. Illegal mining is closely linked to the operations controlled or directly perpetrated by organized criminal groups, and it is commonly intertwined with serious abuses, such as forced labor, including the worst forms of child labor, and gross human rights violations (OECD, 2011). Organized criminal groups engaged in illegal mining also tend to use firearms to commit the offense and operate with large quantities of illegally mined metals or minerals (UNODC, 2023).

The increasing global scarcity of natural resources and the persistently high prices for mined commodities have made illegal mining and trafficking in metals and minerals a lucrative criminal enterprise (Zabyelina & Uhm, 2020a). According to some sources, gold in particular has become so profitable that it has surpassed cocaine as the main source of revenue for criminal organizations and illegal armed groups (Berg et al., 2021). In some countries, like Colombia, the proceeds from illegal mining have been anticipated to come close to surpassing those from drug trafficking (OECD, 2017; Organization of American States [OAS], 2022b). In order for mining to be considered legal in Colombia, miners must formalize their operations in accordance with environmental and technical standards established by the government; however, due to the bureaucratic red tape and high costs associated with formalization, many miners choose to carry on with their operations without the necessary permits and environmental and technical standards (Berg et al., 2021). This often turns artisanal and small-scale miners into easy prey for extortion and exploitation by criminal organizations. Many Colombian subsistence miners find themselves caught between the government’s crackdown on illegal mining, on the one side, and criminal organizations and gangs (e.g., BACRIM—Bandas Criminales), on the other side (Ibarra Sanchez, 2017).

In South Africa, miners called zama zamas—a Zulu term that translates as “take a chance”—operate in active and closed mining shafts illegally (Nesvet, 2020). Not only do they face the precarious conditions of working in underground mine shafts, but they are also subjected to extortion by criminal gangs. In most cases they do not report their victimization to the police because many zama zamas came to South Africa from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Lesotho, among other countries, illegally and fear deportation (Martin, 2019, p. 2).

Although ASM is first and foremost a subsistence type of mining that usually supplements incomes, it may contribute to criminal enterprises, with artisanal and small-scale miners becoming an integral part of transnational criminal hierarchies and networks. Artisanal and small-scale miners—whether they mine legally or in contravention of ASM legislation—are often controlled by criminal organizations that use violence and intimidation to enforce discipline and ensure that even the most unrealistic production quotas are met. They defend the artisanal and small-scale miners who work for them from rival criminal syndicates. They may also buy off the police or other state agencies if they make attempts to disrupt illegal mining and trafficking in metals and minerals. “The higher up the syndicate pyramid, the more sophisticated the criminality” (Martin, 2019, p. 4).

Trafficking in Metals and Minerals

Illegal mining is intimately tied to the trafficking in precious minerals and metals. Mineral resources hardly represent a huge source of income and wealth if they cannot be traded. Due to this, illegal mining involves a complicated web of mineral transactions along the supply chain that includes miners, refiners and smelters, exporters and metal brokers, metal traders and dealers, manufacturers, and other parties (van der Valk et al., 2020).

Absent a universal legal term, trafficking in metals and minerals may be defined as

dealing or trading in a metal or mineral, in a natural, processed, or manufactured form (a) without lawful authority where such authority is required by law; (b) without a license, permit, or certificate, granted by competent authorities; (c) contravening the conditions of said license, permit, or certificate; or (d) in a manner that otherwise contravenes relevant national legislation.

(UNODC, 2023, p. 53)

Criminal organizations involved in trafficking in metals and minerals typically exploit loopholes in legal frameworks related to customs clearance, due diligence, and monitoring protocols, along with deficiencies and vulnerabilities of global supply chains (OECD, 2011).

Criminal organizations abuse legitimate minerals supply chains and infiltrate legitimate businesses to rip off revenues through the trade in illegally sourced minerals and metals (van der Valk et al., 2020). For instance, gold smelters and refiners have been reported to buy gold—intentionally or not—from dubious suppliers and without sufficient scrutiny about the source of the metal (Society of Threatened Peoples [STP], 2018). When criminally derived gold is melted down and combined with legally sourced gold, the signs of origin become easily obfuscated. This makes gold readily amenable to “laundering” (Berg et al., 2021; INTERPOL, 2022; OAS, 2022a; Zabyelina & Heins, 2020). Criminal intermediaries and brokers may even provide fraudulent purchase receipts or fake certificates of origin, stating the metal was extracted at legal mines.

In 2018, a United States–based gold refinery pled guilty for its failure to maintain an adequate anti–money laundering control over its suppliers. According to the stipulated facts filed with a U.S. court, the refinery purchased and refined billions of dollars of gold from suppliers around the world, mainly Latin America, without requesting or obtaining adequate, or in some instances any, identification, and information regarding the source of their gold. The refinery also accepted gold from countries and customers where the country-by-country and customer-by-customer sales volume records along with open-source and publicly available information indicated that gold had likely been smuggled across borders in response to law enforcement crackdowns and that front companies were used to hide the source and origin of gold (United States Department of Justice [DOJ], 2018). This is not an isolated case. There is mounting evidence to suspect that other refineries in the United States and elsewhere benefit from criminally derived gold, alongside legal gold (STP, 2018).

Some gold laundering schemes are particularly complex and involve multiple jurisdictions. For instance, in some schemes, illegally mined gold is smuggled from country A to country B. Fraudulent paperwork is then used to create the pretense that the illegal gold was extracted by artisanal and small-scale gold mines in country B. In reality, those mines are long-inactive and only on paper “produce” any gold output. The “laundered” gold is then processed and traded in country B and on international gold markets (OAS, 2022b). This scheme can be illustrated with an example of gold smuggling from Venezuela to Colombia. According to some sources, around a third of about 200 illegal mines documented in Colombia in 2020 are located along the Colombia-Venezuela border (Berg et al., 2021). Much of the gold mined illegally in Venezuela is smuggled across the border and then passed off as Colombia-mined gold. When the smuggled Venezuelan gold is melted down and any traces of its origins are removed, criminal intermediaries provide fraudulent purchase receipts and fake certificates of origin, claiming that the gold was mined legally in Colombia. Similar to the “laundering” pattern featuring Colombia, illegally sourced Venezuelan gold is smuggled to other countries, like Guyana and Brazil, where artisanal and small-scale gold mining is prominent, before being sold to companies in Canada, the European Union, the United States, and other international destinations (Taraciuk Broner & Rapido Ragozzino, 2022).

Typically, artisanal and small-scale miners, even those who work legally, sell their gold to middlemen. The latter mastermind trafficking schemes to get the gold to international markets for higher profits (Smith & Franklin, 2017). Gold may be smuggled in hand luggage by “mules” (Lewis et al., 2019). For other smuggling operations, gold is casted into common items, such as wrenches, nuts, bolts, and belt buckles, and covered with a layer of steel or silver to avoid airport security checks (INTERPOL, 2022). “Gold in these forms is easier to conceal from border authorities and its value can be considerably understated on the bills of lading” (FATF, 2015, p. 12). Smugglers also cast illegal gold into gold bars fraudulently stamped with the logos of major refineries. These gold bars are then injected into the legitimate supply chain, ending up in the gold reserves of banks, individual investment portfolios, jewelry stores, and as elements of electronic devices sold by multinational companies (Hobson, 2019).

In its resolution 2019/2023, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) emphasized the importance of developing comprehensive, multifaceted, and coherent strategies and measures to combat precious metal trafficking and invited member states to take appropriate measures to prevent and combat precious metal trafficking by criminal organizations (ECOSOC Resolution, 2019). In its resolution 75/196 in 2020, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) stressed the substantial increase in the volume and variety of criminal offenses associated with precious metals and minerals trafficking, acknowledging their potential use as a source of funding for organized crime and terrorism (UNGA Resolution, 2020). It also called for appropriate and effective measures to prevent and combat precious metals trafficking by organized criminal groups. These and other high-level discussions clearly highlight the importance of taking appropriate and effective measures to prevent and combat illegal mining and trafficking in metals and minerals and show that these crimes have made their way onto the international agenda as an issue that requires the international community’s immediate attention.

Other Serious Crimes Associated With Illegal Mining

Criminal organizations often control mining sites, effectively converting them into “hot spots” for other serious crimes characterized by widespread violence and violations of human rights committed against subsistence miners and indigenous communities (INTERPOL, 2022).

Trafficking in Persons

Concerns with trafficking in persons in global minerals supply chains, particularly those for gold, have become widespread on a global scale (Cortés-McPherson, 2020a, 2020b; Verité, 2016; Wagner & Hunter, 2020). Although mining, and the extractive industry in general, may be associated with economic development and growth, it may also facilitate sex trafficking and labor exploitation. In addition, because mining operations typically take place in remote areas with poor infrastructure and fragmented presence of state institutions and services, trafficking victims are not easily detected and immediately rescued (United States Department of State, 2015; Wagner & Hunter, 2020).

Sex trafficking has been documented in the gold mining industry in Peru, particularly in Madre de Dios—the country’s main source of illegally mined gold (United States Department of State, 2015). Under the guise of a job, such as cleaning or waitressing, trafficked women and girls are frequently taken to Madre de Dios and end up in a prostibar—a Peruvian term for brothel (Cortés-McPherson, 2020a, p. 375). Due to the isolation of the mining camps in remote areas and the local miners’ demand for commercial sex, women and girls are often unable to leave. Adults and children have also been victimized in forced labor in gold mines and service jobs in nearby makeshift camps by traffickers who abused them through deceptive recruitment, debt-bondage, withholding or failing to pay wages, threats, and use of brutal physical force (United States Department of State, 2022).

It is also known that Colombian bandas criminales force locals to work as sex workers or miners in the illegal gold mining industry (van Uhm, 2020). The use of child labor in the mining industry in this region is closely intertwined with extreme poverty that prevails in the outlying mining districts where it is difficult to find other employment opportunities. In the mining towns of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru, some parents or guardians believe that boys over the age of 14 are physically and mentally capable of working alongside adults. This thinking makes them assign mining tasks to children and view child labor as part of the household chores (International Labor Organization, 2005).

Artisanal and small-scale cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been linked to labor abusive practices at least since 2015 (United States Department of State, 2022). The demand for green energy batteries mentioned earlier attracted miners to the DRC’s cobalt belt. Cobalt is a vital component of the majority of rechargeable lithium batteries used in electric vehicles like Tesla. Currently, the DRC accounts for the mining of roughly 70% of the world’s cobalt, with artisanal and small-scale miners producing 10%–30% of it in very hazardous conditions (Lawson, 2021). Child labor triggered by poverty is widely used in the artisanal mining industry in the DRC (Lawson, 2021; United States Department of State, 2022).

Burkina Faso is another country where child labor in artisanal mines has been documented. Here, traffickers deceitfully enlist Burkinabe children under the guise of educational opportunities, only to use them as farmworkers, gold panners, and washers in artisanal and small-scale mines. Children from Burkina Faso are transported by traffickers to Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Senegal, and Niger to work as forced laborers in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM; United States Department of State, 2022).

Financing of Illegal Armed Groups and Terrorist Organizations

Criminal organizations involved in the mining industry often do not directly operate a mine or manage artisanal and small-scale miners. In most cases, they generate revenue through extortion of both legal and informal miners operating in the areas under their control. Extortion is associated with the financing of terrorism and illegal armed groups as it provides a stable source of easy revenue for these criminal organizations (Idrobo et al., 2014). Because small-scale miners who operate without a mining permit or license work illegally, they are unlikely to report to the police that they have been the victim of extortion. Under these conditions, they often have no choice but to bend to the demands for illegal rents from criminal organizations—to be paid as cash, physical labor at mining sites, or other services to the criminal organization.

In its resolution 2482 (2019) focusing on threats to international peace and security, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) expressed its concern with illegal exploitation and trafficking of natural resources, particularly precious metals, as a source of income for insurgents, rebel forces, and terrorist organizations (UNSC Resolution, 2019, para. 13). The UNSC reported that the mining of gold and other precious metals and minerals has become an increasingly significant source of terrorism financing for global affiliates of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Qaeda in Africa (United Nations Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate [CTED], 2022). ISIL affiliates in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger with a stronghold in Africa have taken advantage of the gold mining industry by extorting rents from the miners working in illegal gold mines, hiring smugglers to transport criminally derived gold to refiners and then on to global gold traders (CTED, 2022). The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen have also been reported to be in conflict in Mali’s Gourma region, partly over control of gold mining areas and the ability to collect zakat from artisanal and small-scale gold miners—a form a tax for Muslims (CTED, 2022).

Risk analyses of the gold mining in Latin America also highlight the industry’s susceptibility to be used to finance illegal armed groups (OAS, 2022a; OECD, 2017). Colombia is a striking example of extortion by criminal organizations against artisanal and small-scale miners and mid- and large-size mining companies, including transnational corporations (OAS, 2022a). Both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or ELN) are known to have financed their political activities with profits derived from illegal mining and trafficking in metals and minerals (OAS, 2022a). The increase in the price of gold and other minerals on the international market, the difficulties in maintaining a steady flow of money from drug production and trafficking, and the success of the Colombian government in weakening the military and financial structures of illegal armed groups have all given incentives to the dissident FARC and ELN groups to look for revenue elsewhere. They conveniently locate extortion businesses in remote areas where illegal and ASM operations are traditionally located (OECD, 2017). In fact, these illegal armed groups rely on access to and influence over small and artisanal miners who extract gold as one of the primary ways to raise funds and “launder” profits from other crimes (OECD, 2017). The peace process with the FARC has generally reduced the presence and influence of the rebel group, but some dissident segments continue to hold firm control over illegal miners in a number of strategic regions (OECD, 2017). Not only do the FARC and ELN rebel groups impose rents on artisanal and small-scale miners, but they also offer “protection” to mining companies (Bargent, 2016). The risks to illegal armed groups are low, because they receive revenue directly from the areas they control. This leaves the authorities with a very small window to intervene against extortion from criminal groups in the mining industry (OAS, 2022a).

Harmful Effects of Illegal Mining on Humans, Wild Animals, and the Environment

Illegal mining is not only dangerous from a safety standpoint for those who choose to engage, but it also harms the environment, habitats, human and animal life, and Indigenous communities and their livelihoods. Whereas it might be argued that all mining is environmentally destructive and causes harm to the lands and peoples in and around mining sites, the consequences of illicit mining are considerably worse. Some of these consequences may take years to remediate or may be irreversible.

The environmental risks of illegal mining are many. The environmental effects include chemical pollution of water bodies from the processing of mined minerals, including arsenic, mercury, cyanide, and cadmium; heavy metal contamination of soils, which results in the loss of cropland; a decrease in food productivity due to infertile land; and the extinction of wildlife due to the clearing of forests that serve as habitat for many animal species. For many years, illegal mining has been expanding in protected areas in the Amazon—one of the world’s richest and most diversified biomes. Millions of species inside the indigenous Yanomami territory in the Brazilian Amazon have lost their habitat due to illegal gold mining (Gongaza, 2023).

By its very nature, mining depletes, diverts, and potentially seriously pollutes water resources (Aryee et al., 2003). Water is used in the processing of minerals, the control of dust, and the heating and cooling of equipment, making mining a water-intensive industry. Water is also used by metal producers as a solvent for chemical reagents needed to separate target metals from other metals (Ochianu, 2019). Acid mine drainage, heavy metal contamination and leaching, erosion, and sedimentation critically affect water quality. Even at very low concentrations, some metals can produce compounds that are toxic and carcinogenic (Gilbert & Albert, 2016; Mantey et al., 2020).

Mercury contamination of water and soil, and its subsequent accumulation in food staples, such as fish—a major source of dietary protein in many regions—negatively affects the livelihood of local communities (Human Rights Council [HRC], 2013). To process gold from the ore, mercury is used to create gold amalgam. When the gold amalgam is heated, mercury vapors are released. These vapors are hazardous to human health and the environment (HRC, 2013; WHO, 2016). Mercury has been shown to increase the risk of fetal malformation, neurodevelopmental disorders, physical defects, and reduced IQ (HRC, 2013). It is a persistent pollutant that can contaminate areas for decades, having an impact on generations (Esdaile & Chalker, 2018; Vergara-Murillo et al., 2022). In 2013, to combat mercury poisoning, countries adopted the text of the Minamata Convention on Mercury, a global treaty named after a Japanese town where a chemical company caused widespread mercury poisoning decades ago. The convention imposes obligations on governments and businesses to protect citizens and communities from the harmful effects of mercury exposure, including by imposing controls on polluting industries. In terms of mining, the convention requires governments to promote mercury-free gold processing methods, take special precautions to protect vulnerable populations from exposure, and end harmful gold mining practices. The Minamata Convention entered into force in 2017 and currently has 140 states parties, including 39 countries in Africa and 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.3

In addition to land and water pollution with hazardous and toxic chemicals, illegal mining is almost always associated with the use of environmentally unsafe equipment. Illegal miners operate dredges, hydraulic excavators, and other kinds of machinery (de Aguiar, 2023). Private companies have been accused by environmentalists of complicity in illegal mining, such as when they sell equipment to miners without due diligence. Greenpeace International criticized a number of producers of mining equipment for failing to utilize remote geolocating technology to monitor the equipment they sell to miners. Remote monitoring by producers of mining equipment could be used to alert the authorities whenever the machines cross into protected areas and Indigenous lands (de Aguiar, 2023).

Other problems associated with illegal mining are deforestation and loss of agricultural land (Bansah et al., 2016; Boadi et al., 2016). The latter is an acute problem in rural areas where the agrarian economy serves as the prime source of livelihood (Ofosu et al., 2020). The expansion of mining sites reduces agricultural land and may result not only in lower agricultural production but also hunger. This has been a recorded problem in Ghana, where the alteration of farmlands into mine lands has created local food deficits and food price hikes (Gilbert & Albert, 2016). Loss of agricultural land has also been linked to illegal mining because the latter can alter water courses of streams and rivers, depriving downstream users of their source of water (Bansah et al., 2016). Communities that lose access to water due to a watercourse change are compelled to leave their homes. Illegal mining–induced displacement has been a recurrent problem affecting indigenous communities in different parts of the world (Ibarra Sanchez, 2017; Moloney, 2015; Taraciuk Broner & Rapido Ragozzino, 2022).


Illegal mining and trafficking in metals and minerals have emerged as crimes of concern for the international community because of the involvement of organized criminal groups, rebels, and terrorist organizations. Researchers looking into the issue have noted that in some areas, criminal organizations have switched from producing and trafficking drugs or committing other serious crimes to illegal mining, trafficking in metals and minerals, and other crimes associated with mining because these activities are financially lucrative and carry fewer risks.

The involvement of criminal organizations in the mining industry comes with dire costs for miners, towns and villages surrounding mining sites, and the environment. If criminal organizations are successful in gaining a foothold in mining regions and seize control over the extraction of minerals from mining sites, their presence typically ushers in sex trafficking, labor exploitation, forced child labor, and other crimes. Miners, including children, are often compelled to labor at illegal mines and are forced to work excruciating hours for little to no pay. Women and girls are subjected to sex trafficking in mining camps. Against this backdrop, toxic chemicals used in mining poison the environment and endanger the livelihood of local communities and wildlife. Illegal mining associated with criminal organizations also results in deforestation and loss of land for crops, forced displacement, and other devastating socioeconomic and environmental conditions.

The problem of illegal mining remains unsolved, partially due to the blurred line between illegal mining associated with criminal organizations and informal mining that is a source of livelihood for artisanal and small-scale miners. Any effective response to illegal mining should be planned to combat criminal organizations while safeguarding artisanal and small-scale miners. This can be done by developing capacity and implementing formalization programs that assist subsistence miners in legitimizing their work and earnings.

Governments also need to minimize opportunities for misconduct for private companies in the mining industry. Promoting transparency of mineral supply chains is needed and has been highly recommended by international organizations like the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Improving traceability in mineral supply chains and introducing comprehensive due diligence programs for the private sector are some other promising good practices toward eradication of illegal mining.

Further Reading



  • 1. “Subsistence mining” is an equivalent term to barequeo in Colombia (OECD, 2017, p. 7).

  • 2. In June 2012, a request was made to the Colombian Ministry of Culture for the inclusion of the traditional barequeo, a method of panning for gold with hand tools on the Cauca River’s riverbed and shores and its tributaries, in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. For details see Espitia (2019).

  • 3. Official website of Minamata Convention.