Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) provides livelihoods for rural communities and facilitates local development, and importantly ASGM can offer opportunities for women. However, in order to generate and capture these opportunities, it must be recognized that women often face limited income opportunities and have limited access to government planning and services and so there is a risk that without thoroughly considering women's needs and roles, a project can further exacerbate gender inequities.
The GEF funded planetGOLD Philippines project, executed by the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) and implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, conducted a site assessment across 5 regions in 6 potential project sites, namely: Benguet, Camarines Norte, Quezon Province, Agusan del Sur, and Mountain Province. In these initial field visits, the project team gathered data on ASGM communities to assess whether they were viable for project implementation including the installation of mercury-free gold processing facilities. This also included collecting information on gender roles in ASGM, women's working conditions and other gender-related data.
When looking at official data provided by local government units and by the Bureau of Mines and Geosciences, obtaining complete data on women’s roles in ASGM is a challenge. There has been no conscious government effort to collect sex-disaggregated data in the sector. The project team had to gather information directly from mining association leaders and other local stakeholders. According to their estimates, the percentage of women working at ASGM sites ranges from 10% to 30% of the workforce.
The site assessments also showed that women’s participation in ASGM varies across regions. In Paracale, Camarines Norte, where mining operations are highly informal, a significant number of women rely on small-scale mining as their primary source of income. In Itogon Benguet, women are also visible amongst the workforce at small-scale mining operations, however, they are not official members of mining associations. In Agusan del Sur, where there are two mining communities — one within the government's designated mining zone and the other outside the designated mining zone — women’s participation is primarily visible in the informal mining zone. In Sagada, Mountain Province, only a few women reportedly work at ASGM sites. In Quezon Province, women are not directly employed in small-scale mining operations at all.
The participation of women is also influenced by other economic drivers in the area. The communities that solely rely on mining as their main economic activity tend to attract more women to participate in small-scale mining operations, while communities that have other livelihood opportunities in agriculture tend to have less women workers in small-scale mining operations. For instance, only a few women participate in the ASGM community in Sagada, compared to the ASGM community in Paracale, Camarines Norte. Both communities have informal mining operations, however the difference between the two communities is that Sagada has more farming opportunities in comparison to Paracale.
Women primarily enter small-scale mining to support the daily needs of their families. Shirley, a leader of a small-scale gold mining association in Camarines Norte, explained:
“Most of the women here who want to earn more would go to big cities and apply as housemaids. Mining allows us to have income without leaving this community and our families.”
Shirley shared her view on the need to formalize and legalize small-scale mining activities. “What we see as a solution is for miners to have access to Minahang Bayan, wherein a processing facility can be set-up to put an end to mercury use.”
Minahang Bayan (People’s Mining Area) refers to mineralized areas where small-scale mining activities are allowed and monitored by the government. While access to Minahang Bayan establishes a relationship between ASGM communities and the government, it does not necessarily lead to improved access to government services for women in ASGM communities. In areas where mining operations are fully regulated and formalized, women have tended to be marginalized.
Small-scale mining contracts (SSMCs) and permits are often granted to formalized groups such as mining associations and cooperatives where men out number women. For women in ASGM communities who want to avail themselves of government services and be a part of government planning through the SSMC, they will need to be organized into a legal entity.
Women’s Role in Small-Scale Gold Mining
The recent site assessment shows that women are involved in a variety of tasks at mining sites that are highly informal. These areas that are not declared Minahang Bayan by the government and/or their mining operations may not have all the necessary permits and contracts but are in the process of securing permits and contracts. Women at informal sites perform mineral processing which often includes crushing, grinding of ore using a ball mill, gold sluicing, panning, and hand-sorting ore from the mining operation's wastes. They also provide support services for small-scale mining operations such as performing administrative functions of associations and preparing meals for miners.
In formal mining operations, however, only a few women perform mineral processing tasks. Given the limited roles available for women in formal mining operations, women have limited opportunities to earn more through their employment in ASGM. Though some women hold leadership roles in small-scale mining as financiers, tunnel owners, and association officers across the regions, the majority of women in this industry are informal workers without contracts and licenses. This makes them vulnerable in a variety of ways including job security and including abuse given their limited access to social protection.
In most mining associations, only a few women are official members and leaders. The low number of women in mining associations has largely to do with the gender division of labour in small-scale mining operations and in the community. Mining associations tend to be organized for financiers, plant owners, tunnel owners, and underground miners who are usually men. Though, it should be taken into account that mining associations with informal miners as members tend to have more women members and leaders. This again, though, points to the lower status of women in ASGM where they are more numerous in informal settings.
Based on the planetGOLD Philippines team’s interviews with women who are part of mining associations, organized women do have a voice in decision-making. Cecelia, a local leader in the community and an officer of the mining association in Agusan del Sur, mentioned that women actively participate in the affairs of the mining association:
“Women have a voice in mining associations. Women are the ones who regularly attend meetings in mining associations, on behalf of their miner husbands.”
Limited income opportunities
The main challenge for women across all mining communities is the lack of income opportunities. Though women in Benguet, Camarines Norte, and Agusan del Sur can derive income from small-scale mining, it is not enough to meet their family’s needs.
Shirley shared,“What I’m earning from small-scale mining is not enough. Sometimes, I have to borrow money. We do not have a fixed income. Sometimes we’re lucky, but sometimes we don’t take home any income after working in the mining site. I have three kids who are now in high school. Fare for tricycle rides [an indigenous form of auto rickshaw] also increased during the pandemic. My house was also damaged because of typhoon Ulysses.”
Since elementary school, Shirley has been working full-time in the mines except for when it is the rainy season. Now at 43 years old, she is a widow supporting her children all by herself. Like other women in her community, she helps in compressor mining, although not participating in the diving, and occasionally sells food to miners.
Compressor mining is an illegal and highly risky underwater form of gold mining. In this mining activity, a group of men miners work together to open a narrow one-person sized hole in low-lying wet terrain like a rice paddy which is filled with groundwater. The water pressure keeps the hole open and prevents it from collapsing — but still sometimes holes can collapse making this very dangerous. Then, they assign one miner to dig and dive to a depth of 30 to 50 feet, and sometimes even further. Typically, the miner will spend two hours or more underwater and breathe through a tube connected to a makeshift air compressor. The practice itself takes its name from the use of the air compressor. The miner brings sacs and a rope. He fills the sacks with ore and tugs on the rope and the others topside haul out the sack for processing. Finally, after spending hours in the hole, the miner will emerge after filling a number of sacks with ore.
Women tend to be involved in the processing portion of the activity, and remove the collected ore from the sack, crush and grind it, and mix it with water, effectively turning it into slurry. During this process, women use their hands to manually break down agglomerated or clumps of mud to produce uniformly-sized fine particles. The women involved, then place the slurry in a wooden miner’s pan called pabirik and perform panning producing fine black sands containing gold. These fine black sands are combined with mercury directly in the pan. To ensure maximum contact between the gold and mercury, women manipulate the mercury directly with their palms.
While income from ASGM is often insufficient for women due to the gender division of labour, the majority of the women within the ASGM community in Quezon Province have no other source of income. Most of them stay at home and rely on their husband's income to support their family's daily needs.
Within the ASGM communities of Agusan del Sur and Camarines Norte, women may have direct exposure to mercury due to tasks in processing. There are a few women who own processing plants which make use of mercury during the amalgamation process. Some women are in charge of mixing mercury inside the rod mill to extract gold from crushed ore. Exposure to toxic elemental mercury vapours puts these women at risk of mercury intoxication, which mainly affects the central nervous system and the kidneys. In pregnant women, it can also have severe impacts on the developing fetus, depending on the exposure ranging from development delays of the child to movement coordination problems and intellectual disability. Because mercury accumulates in the body, being exposed to it before the beginning of a pregnancy can negatively impact the developing fetus.
Shirley mentioned a decline in mercury use in her community after receiving training from non-government organizations on its harmful effects. However, she informed the planetGOLD Philippines team that there were still miners who used mercury because there was no practical alternative for gold recovery that they could use.
“When I was not yet aware of the harmful effects of mercury, it did not bother me. But after my husband died because of a respiratory ailment, I don’t feel safe anymore with mercury. Though many miners are aware of the harmful effects of mercury, mercury use is unavoidable because there is no effective alternative.”
Cecelia, a local leader in the community and an officer of the mining association in Agusan del Sur, shared how her knowledge of mercury changed her participation in small-scale mining. She mentioned that she used to trade in gold for ten years but stopped when she became pregnant.
“I quit gold-buying when I became pregnant. I read from a brochure about the harmful effects of mercury on pregnant women and children. I took extra caution.”
Though she quit, she managed to provide for their family's needs as she and her husband had a business on the side. Cecelia remains active in the mining association as Treasurer. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most women in small-scale mining communities. They bear the brunt of having limited options for livelihood and supplementary sources of income.
Women’s earnings vary across the small-scale mining communities. Often, they earn their income through a profit-sharing scheme wherein the financier and workers agree on the percentage of profit share. Shirley mentioned that sometimes, women receive ore in exchange for their work or in exchange for the food they use for bartering with the other workers. Some women prefer to receive an ore share, especially if they can tell that the ore extracted is high grade. It gives them a chance to earn more compared to having a fixed salary for their work.
Gender-Responsive Interventions in ASGM
While there are programs for women set by various government agencies — both at the local and national level — there are no programs that strategically address women's needs in ASGM communities.
Local government units usually conduct livelihood training for women, but from the personal accounts of women in ASGM communities, none have resulted in alternative livelihoods.
In some communities like those in Paracale, Camarines Norte, small-scale mining is often one of the major viable income options. Hence, small-scale mining programs and support services should support women’s role in ASGM.
To improve the conditions that women in small-scale mining communities experience, the government should enact policies that support ASGM in general and recognize the role of women and ensure that women are included in government planning. Government and civil society can further collaborate in ensuring women are given equal opportunities to access capacity-building activities. Besides building skills for women to gain expanded income opportunities, raising awareness on gender issues in the sector is needed to facilitate women's meaningful participation in small-scale mining.
The Philippines has adopted several international instruments and a national policy on gender equality which signifies commitment to promote women empowerment in all sectors. However, there seems to be a lack of institutional capacity and resources to apply gender responsive measures in the ASGM sector.
Capacitating women will help them to realize their full potential in the sector and the community. Shirley shared, “We, women, dream of having a business of our own. I don’t want my children to be like us. We, mothers, want to have an alternative income like having a restaurant. So that our children in the future will not have to work in a small-scale mining site where we face multiple risks.”
Even though Shirley acknowledges that small-scale mining is unsafe and unstable due to its seasonal nature, she still sees it as a viable income source. Suppose the sector undergoes formalization, uses cleaner mercury-free technologies, adapts safer ore extraction methods and ensures that mining sites comply with the occupational health and safety operating procedures — in that case, ASM can genuinely be an equitable and safer sector for her children and future generations to engage in.
Project Initiatives to Promote Gender Equality in Small-Scale Mining
The planetGOLD programme provides opportunities to promote gender equality in small-scale mining. The project activities are based on sound gender analysis; understanding gender roles and dynamics in ASGM and how project interventions can improve gender equality in the sector.
In terms of next steps, the project will carry out a gender mapping study to address gender data gaps for project planning. The gender mapping will inform upcoming project activities to facilitate adequate gender mainstreaming, including training on gender equality for men and women in the ASGM community. It will carry out capacity building activities for women to improve their access to resources. In addition to this, the planetGOLD Philippines project, executed by the Artisanal Gold Council, will also ensure that it consults women involved in small-scale mining on the installation of new mercury-free technologies. Furthermore, the project aims to bridge the gap between women in small-scale mining communities and the government, along with other relevant stakeholders who can provide long-term solutions for gender issues.
The planetGOLD Philippines project complies with the GEF gender policy “Guidance to advance gender equality in GEF projects and programs” and UNIDO ‘s “Policy on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.”
This article was written prior to the issuance of SSMCs to three ASGM associations in the Minahang Bayan in Paracale, Camarines Norte. SSMCs were issued in February 2021.