What is Artisanal Mining? - Interview with Estelle Levin-Nally

(Photo credit: Estelle Levin-Nally/Levin Sources©, Sierra Leone, 2008)

We recently had the pleasure of welcoming responsible mining expert Estelle Levin-Nally of Levin Sources to our offices to discuss the somewhat murky supply chain of the mineral industry. We wanted a deeper understanding of the mineral industry as a whole and the ethics behind our jewellery, as well as simply answering- what is Ethical Jewellery?

You can watch the full video above and read what she had to say below:

I know you’re an extremely passionate and driven individual. Where did the passion for the mineral sector come from?

I had never thought of minerals as being interesting. I was interested in energy actually, renewable power, and climate change. I was doing a masters at UBC in Canada. On a course on environmental sustainability I had to [write]… a paper and I met a guy from Rwanda on a different course [who] began to tell me about Coltan…blood minerals in your mobile phones and how the conflict for Coltan was leading to the devastation of gorilla communities in the Congo…all kinds of human rights violations, and millions of dead in the Congo war. So I wrote a paper on the business of war, and the case for engagement or disengagement of war economies with minerals and then took a sustainability lens to that. I kind of interrogated ‘what is sustainability, what does it mean for minerals production, what does it mean for trade, what should businesses do?’ I concluded that in some cases it’s appropriate to engage in a manner that is constructive, in other cases [engagement] is destructive. So, I made the case for constructive engagement. I was really thrilled that years later… the OECD and other organisations are now advocating… constructive engagement in challenging contexts.

I know one of the things you are particularly advocating is artisanal mining. What exactly is artisanal mining and how does it differ from… the conventional commercial mining that we might know?

Artisanal mining is mining that happens on a really small scale. If you think of the mining sector, it can go right down to an individual, all the way up to massive corporate entities such as BHP. In the world of artisanal and small-scale mining, it’s individuals or family groups, gangs, co-operatives, mining associations, federations of mining associations, small companies. But typically, what it means is there are many, many more people involved in getting every gram of mineral out of the ground. So, it creates an awful lot more jobs, and as a value, it produces about 18 Billion dollars of gold a year. There are 40 million artisanal miners in over 80 countries, half of them mining gold.

They do it for a variety of reasons. They do it sometimes because they really don’t have other options. There aren’t decent jobs in rural economies in many of these countries. They do it because they need to get cash quickly. Either because they are in an emergency situation brought on by family health issues or the need to pay school fees, or perhaps because there’s an economic crisis or a crop has failed, and they need to get some money to live on.

Other people do it too because it’s way, way better. They make five times as much as they would from farming. It’s a logical choice. And many young people do it because - I call it the ‘University of Africa’ (although this is not only happening in Africa). When you’re 16 or 17 you don’t want to do what your parents expect of you. You want to go and try something different. Be independent, take drugs and meet other people. That’s what a lot of artisanal mining cultures can be like. Not all, but certainly in rough situations it can have that kind of vibe. So, it’s very unique. It’s often frowned upon because it’s very hard for these miners to mine in ways that are environmentally responsible, that provides positive social outcomes for everybody and that is always economically beneficial. It’s really hard for gem miners, for example, to guarantee that they will find gems. They can be involved in gem mining for months and months, sometimes years, and get very little in return.

What do you see as the core positives of switching towards this type of mining?

From a fundamental human level, one of the reasons I advocate for the inclusion of artisanal and small-scale miners is because I just fundamentally have tremendous respect for the courage that they demonstrate to do the jobs that they do. Which are very, very hard, very physically hard, and sometimes very emotionally hard, and sometimes in quite frightening circumstances. That in itself at the human level compels me to want to advocate for people to engage.

But actually, it’s just a question of human rights. They have a right to a livelihood. They have the right to have their rights protected. Very often they’re working and living in communities and governments and states where those rights are not protected and indeed are systematically violated in some cases. So, they are marginalised and exploited, and they need people outside of their community and in their community to be helping get them opportunities for having those rights fulfilled and we see that as something that we can do.

On this note of human exploitation and the right to a fair wage and employment. We’ve seen growing consumer awareness in the fashion industry as people become more aware that these issues exist here. [They are] demanding greater amounts of accountability and transparency and in supply chains to ensure people and the environment are treated fairly. Do you see a similar consumer awareness growing in the mining and jewellery industry, and who do you see as the biggest driver of positive change?

I’ve been involved in the responsible sourcing of precious minerals and other conflict minerals since 2004 and when I was at the World Bank in 2005, in their Communities and Small-scale Mining (CASM) secretariat, we convened a meeting with a number of pioneers. Some of the very first responsible minerals initiatives. Individuals and organisations who really believed that minerals could be used to drive good and were indeed already driving good in some cases. We should be trying to profile these minerals and get them to market.

So whether it was Oro Verde’s Green Gold, which then evolved into Fairmined or whether it was Peace Diamonds from Sierra Leone, there were the beginnings then. We managed to create enough of a movement from 2005 onwards including because the Alliance for Responsible Mining was founded at that time. To then gather a whole community of stakeholders at a conversation in Washington in 2007 (That was called the Madison Dialogue). At that time people were beginning to talk about how could we do some kind of actual Fair Trade gold? How could we take an existing certification system and apply it to minerals? I had the privilege of doing the feasibility study for that under the leadership of Cristina Echavvarría, and working with the Dutch consulting firm called CREM. Fairtrade went on and decided that …working with the Alliance for Responsible Mining…they would give it a go as a product category. I think Fairtrade and Fairmined therefore really showed some incredible leadership for Gold and continued to do so right the way through to today.

What we’ve learned is that Fairtrade and Fairmined, because you’re taking every single Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) it’s really aspirational, and only the minority… of artisanal miners can access and possibly hope to do this in a realistic time frame. The investment to get others towards that is just too high. It doesn’t merit it from a business point of view. In some cases, there are so many mines operating in fragile zones they don’t have the stability to make a…fair trade concept work. So then the whole…minerals community got together to think about this issue of sourcing from conflict-affected and high-risk areas. That’s when we said, well actually what’s the basement, what’s the minimum we’ll accept as terms of trade? It’s got nothing to do with trying to achieve sustainability, it’s just saying we don’t want our reputation sullied by being found out to do business with dirty, dirty actors doing dirty, dirty things. Whether it’s torture…, or forced labour, or widespread sexual violence, or tax evasion, smuggling, money laundering, or whatever. So, then the OECD convened all of these stakeholder governments and massive businesses, small businesses, NGO’s, and created another standard that was the basement. Now we say how do we get people from here to here. Now [As a result] there’s the CRAFT Code that the Alliance for Responsible Mining has [created]. It’s a really exciting time. Because previously so many miners were excluded from being able to participate in either system, and now the world is waking up and going “we need to include these people because sometimes they find dignity through this.” In some cases it’s that fundamental and they can protect their families through it. If we exclude them from our supply chains then that’s just not ethical…

So, if you put all your eggs into this circular economy basket and you just recycle, of course, there are positives with that, but you’re not bringing the positive development impact that trade brings, and that really matters… in countries that are natural resource-dependent.

…The OECD and the Alliance for Responsible Mining, have all been really key in setting the terms. Then, of course, there have been individual companies who have really shown leadership and I’d like to think that Levin Sources is amongst them. Not as a supply chain participant but as one of the facilitators that say where’s the next opportunity to shift the system just that little bit further and that’s really what we do, we forecast those next gaps to fill.

Well, the story of the legislation and those organisations from a top-level is fascinating. It’s really interesting how you bring in the bottom so we can raise people up to the top. What’s the consumer role in this? What kind of tips can you give for people that want to go out and buy a new piece of jewellery but want to do it more thoughtfully and informed?

10 years ago, when I was caring about this and I was trying to shop ethically, there were really limited choices of where to go… Fortunately for consumers today the infrastructure has been developed. There are businesses all along the supply chain figuring out how they can build complete mine to market supply chains that are transparent where ethical performance or sustainability can be partially or entirely assured, and that’s brilliant because that means that consumers know that they can get these things. So, they need to ask. They need to go into the jeweller they like and whose designs they like and say, “Tell me about the provenance of your minerals. Tell me what you as a company do to push the responsible business agenda. Are you a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council? And if you’re not, are there other things that you’re doing? Are you intentionally trying to educate your consumers on these issues and showing them the steps you’re taking to gradually improve towards being as sustainable as possible?” That’s what jewellers need to do. And when consumers ask then jewellers know to try. Because until consumers ask, they’re saying, “well, there’s no demand”.

They read these big marketing reports about the millennials and the ‘aspirationals’ caring about authenticity. Unfortunately, what I’m seeing in some cases is this kind of hollow marketing that makes claims around responsibility or sustainability, but when you really look at what’s happening, they can’t really back them up. That’s empty, that’s vacuous, it’s insincere and it’s wrong, and it doesn’t help anyone, it just sells shit! That’s not the point, the point is to do something that makes little changes (or big changes) and there are companies that are doing that. So, consumers must ask. They can come to MAMOQ and they can look at the jewellery site and know those brands are living up to those values as well. That’s obviously the other way!

That leads us into our final question what are brands that you see that are [already] great examples of people doing it the right way?

It’s one thing to look at the jewellers and then there [are] brands for particular minerals… You could go yourself and buy your own gemstones from Nineteen48 or Capricorn Gems or Fairtrade Gemstones or you could go to the Fairtrade and Fairmined websites and see which jewellers they have. If you want to just go to the jeweller and have them do the work for you. I mean I love Arabel [Lebrusan], I wear her, she makes things for me. I sourced these opals [for my earrings] from Ethiopia, the beryl from Madagascar years ago, and she used Fairmined Gold and designed these for my 40th Birthday present that I got myself. Then also Harriet Kelsall, who has been a tremendous leader in the UK industry by being really pragmatic about how she goes about these things and really focusing on the messaging. Through her leadership of the National Association of Jewellers now as chairman, [she has] founded the better business committee that’s helping all NAJ members understand what sustainability can mean for their business, which is really exciting! And… I love Raw Copenhagen, I love how Anna really interrogates the issues. She’s always on LinkedIn asking questions reading things (as is Arabel…) and I like that in a Jeweller, I like when a jeweller is not just amazing at design and manufacture, but they really do care and they’re using their brand to drive this. They’re not just riding the wave, they’re truly part of the movement. And those are the brands that I go to because then I can wear them with so much pride and I love telling their stories!