Sierra Leone no2

The Sustainable Development Goals Through the Lens of Responsible Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining


  • Malgorzata Stylo
    Associate Programme Officer, Chemicals and Health Branch, United Nations Environment Programme
  • kjd headshot
    Progamme Officer, Chemicals and Health Branch, United Nations Environment Programme

We often say that responsible artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is a tool for sustainable development. What do we mean by that? First, the sector is large. An estimated 15-20 million people work in ASGM, compared to about one million in large-scale gold mining. Second, artisanal miners typically earn 70-80% of the global gold spot price , a rate higher than nearly any other commodity. This has the potential to inject money directly into communities, which comprise over 100 million people. Finally, ASGM often occurs in rural areas in developing countries where other economic opportunities are lacking.

ASGM potential to advance sustainable development

But what exactly is sustainable development? The global community has presented its vision of what sustainable development looks like through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  These goals speak to improving health, the environment, gender equality, and education, and reducing poverty, pollution and inequality in concrete ways by 2030.

Some groups have made efforts to “map” ASGM to the SDGs, to illustrate both the potential of ASGM to contribute to sustainable development and to call out the missed opportunities if ASGM is not practiced responsibly.

A recent report by Pact and the University of Delaware mapped the impacts of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) to all 17 SDGs, finding that the sector can have both positive and negative impacts on nearly all the goals, depending on the specific practices. Bringing ASM into the formal economy was found to increase positive contributions to the SDGs and minimize negative impacts.

The World Gold Council’s report “Gold mining’s contribution to the UN SDG’s” focuses on large-scale mining, but also notes the potential for positive contribution of ASGM to the SDGs and provides examples of co-existence of large scale and ASGM operators.

Although it also has a large-scale mining focus, the white paper Mapping Mining to the SDGs: An Atlas (from UNDP, World Economic Forum and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment) also notes the promise and challenges of ASM as a driver of sustainable development and presents a comprehensive mapping of SDGs to the global mining industry.

Finally, the planetGOLD programme has also mapped 12 of the 17 SDGs to the ASGM sector, demonstrating the real—and often unrecognized—prospect for the deployment of socially responsible investing and impact investment.

The ASGM-SDGs interface: key opportunities

Some specific examples of how a responsible ASGM sector can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs include:

Reducing mercury
chad mercury 2
Artisanal gold mining with mercury in Chad, source: AGRID

SDG 3 seeks to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.  Currently, this goal is threatened in some ASGM communities where miners are exposed to toxic mercury that is used in the gold extraction process, as well as overall unsafe working conditions at informal operations.  By reducing and eventually eliminating mercury use, and by professionalizing and formalizing operations, programs such as planetGOLD help create an improved ASGM sector that minimizes the risks to miners’ health, their communities, and the environment.

Promoting formalization
Zim miners
Artisanal gold miners in Zimbabwe, sources: UNEP

SDG 8 promotes sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Formalization of the ASGM sector, if undertaken in an inclusive and encompassing manner taking into consideration all SDGs, is a powerful vehicle towards advancing this goal. Comprehensive formalization efforts should be rooted in respect for human rights and take into account the interests of vulnerable groups. The planetGOLD programme, through its support for formalization, is assisting ASGM communities and governments to help miners enter the formal economy, reduce mercury use and foster sustainable development.  

Unlocking economic growth and partnerships
ASGM Philippines, source: UNEP

SDG 17 focuses on fostering partnerships that work to advance sustainable development. Partnerships between miners and financiers are critical in the transition to more efficient mercury-free methods, but ASGM has typically been seen as a risky investment. By capitalizing on improved ASGM practices, investors have an opportunity to  alleviate poverty and environmental degradation in rural economies, promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and decent work for all.   To unlock the capital needed for ASGM to become environmentally and socially responsible, the planetGOLD programme is providing more accurate information to financial service providers and investors about this opportunity, while also helping miners to develop and present information in a manner that appeals to investors.

Mainstreaming gender equality
women chad
Women miners in Chad, source: AGRID

SDG 5 highlights the importance of achieving gender equality. Women make up as much a third of the global ASGM workforce. Despite this, their work is largely undervalued. By consciously encouraging and supporting the participation of women in all aspects of ASGM through training, opportunities, and capacity building, the planetGOLD programme contributes to achieving this goal. For example, planetGOLD seeks to integrate a gender dimension so that women miners can be part of the collective task of achieving a mercury-free sector and strives for gender equality throughout its interventions, for instance by including women miners in the negotiations proceeding installation of the mercury free processing plant.

Safeguarding biodiversity
Guyana Biodiversity and ASGM
Alluvial mining in Guyana's forests, source: UNEP

SDGs 14 and 15 are designed to protect life below water and life on land. Poor ASGM practices, can lead to land degradation and deforestation, the contamination of soil and water bodies, and overuse of forest resources. To reduce impacts of ASGM on the biodiversity, the planetGOLD programme is proactively seeking to implement win-win solutions that benefit both miners, forests, and other land uses. The programme is committed to applying environmental safeguards that integrate a landscape approach into ASGM to minimize adverse impacts on ecosystems, biodiversity and human health, and at the same time stimulate rural development and human well-being.  



Integrating ASGM into national development plans

Linking ASGM national strategies with relevant SDGs provides an opportunity to mainstream the sector's contribution to the 2030 Agenda. Likewise, the sector specific priorities and achievements must be streamlined into broader national development plans, for example, through the Minamata Convention National Action Plans for ASGM or Voluntary National Reviews. Linking ASGM with other agendas of importance, such as poverty reduction, climate change, or biodiversity, is also an opportunity for enhancing cooperation among national stakeholders and pulling together and securing necessary resources to move the ASGM sustainable agenda forward.

The planetGOLD programme will continue to examine the ASGM-SDGs interface and how country project interventions contribute to the goals. Watch this space in the coming months for more information on how ASGM can advance the sustainable development agenda.

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