The outbreak of COVID-19 impacted the livelihoods of millions of people around the globe, including artisanal and small-scale gold miners. Earlier this year, projects within the planetGOLD programme shared information on how the pandemic affected ASGM in their respective countries. This post summarizes recent updates from the planetGOLD country project managers on the current state of the ASGM sector at this stage of the pandemic.
Status of Mining Operations
Staff for planetGOLD projects in Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Guyana and Kenya reported that governments have allowed small-scale miners to return to work, on the condition they observe COVID regulations and protocols. Colombian operations may also continue work, at the discretion of local authorities. In some areas, local governments have halted activity in order to control the number of COVID cases, while in other areas, especially where gold panning is a primary source of income, local government has allowed production with safety protocols.
Project field facilitators from planetGOLD Indonesia reported that as of November, all miners appear to be back at work, despite formal lockdown restrictions. In Peru, the government granted permission for miners to operate in the three planetGOLD programme operating regions of Arequipa, Piura, and Puno, but these operations were required to submit a “plan for surveillance, prevention, and control of COVID at work” to the regional authority for accreditation and are under strict biosecurity measures. In the Philippines, miners are generally allowed to work but recently some had to cease operations due to typhoons that flooded their tunnels.
There are also instances where processing plants had to stop operating, where travel restrictions made it difficult for the miners to procure supplies. The government is slowly easing quarantine rules, and more and more miners are getting access to supplies and able to resume operations. In Mongolia, due to new COVID cases, the government mandated a lockdown in effect until December 14th and thus the small-scale gold miners were not able to work.
Status of Gold Prices
Since the onset of the pandemic, gold prices on the international market have risen but the local gold prices (which miners are paid) have oscillated due to lockdowns and disruptions in the supply chains. For example, when Peru closed its borders in March 2020, the price of gold suffered a major decrease. There were reports of local purchases of gold for as little as S/90 (27 USD) per gram, which represented less than 50 percent of the international price. However, with the re-opening of borders and economic reactivation, prices have stabilized, with the local price fluctuating between S/150 (41 USD) per gram and S/200 (55 USD) per gram.
Similarly, planetGOLD Burkina Faso reported in April that gold prices were down 20 percent; however, the price has now stabilized. The Indonesia team reported that the situation for gold prices has not changed much since April, where local prices varied depending on type of gold product and market access for the small-scale miners. Similar price fluctuations occurred in the Philippines in the first months of the quarantine (March to April), and gold prices decreased to levels 16 percent lower than pre-COVID prices in some areas.
However, in areas where miners and gold traders had access to sell to the Central Bank, which follows international prices, the local gold price saw an upward trend as international prices rose. For example, in August 2020, gold prices peaked in Baguio City to 3,150 PhP/gram (64.19 USD/gram, close to the peak global gold price). In Ecuador, where the Central Bank also sets the legal price for gold, the price matches the international price but ASM miners have very high discounts (between 30 to 50%) from the international price, due to concerns that buyers have regarding purity of their gold products.
Similarly, in Guyana, where miners sell gold sold to the Guyana Gold Board, prices have tracked international prices. The gold price in Guyana before COVID ranged between 1,400 and 1,580 USD per ounce, while during COVID the price spiked to between 2,000 and 2,200 USD per ounce. Currently gold is priced at 1,800 USD per ounce, motivating miners to take advantage of this price and continue to work.
In Colombia, ASGM miners are still struggle with lower prices due to the lockdowns and limited access to the supply chain. In some regions, exploitation of miners has increased, with the illegal groups purchasing gold at unfair prices. Small-scale mining associations in Antioquia, Cauca and Nariño reported that while they are safely operating, there is low production and much concern about income. Applying to the government for subsidies has not proven successful.
Mongolia has also suffered difficult challenges recently. The recent detection of COVID cases led to new lockdowns on miners. And with those lockdowns, gold traders are no longer willing to buy more gold, as they cannot move the gold to Ulaanbaatar. This has caused the price of gold to decrease about ten percent.
An Unpredictable Virus
As is the case in the rest of the world, planetGOLD countries are experiencing a second wave of the virus, and in some locations future government measures (lockdowns, travel restrictions) are anticipated. Colombia has extended its sanitary emergency until February 28. There have been reports of COVID-19 increases in cities like Bogotá, Medellin and Cali, and due to the Christmas holiday, the government is expecting to renew lockdowns in January 2021. Some rural areas and open tourist areas are also experiencing increases and the government is reviewing those situations periodically to see if new lockdown or other measures are needed. Ecuador has also reported an increase in cases and is predicting a possible third wave of cases after December.
In Guyana, recent high COVID infections reported in one mining district resulted in restricted travel restrictions for that region. While the Indonesian project has reported no new cases from the six project sites, Jakarta has been impacted by a second wave. Kenya fortunately has reported low cases of COVID in the rural areas where mining takes place, but the urban areas have reported increases in the last month. Initially, Mongolia reported only imported cases of COVID-19. However, in November the first in-country outbreak was reported, and further outbreaks have been occurring in different regions of the country.
In Peru, cases have continued to increase in regions where the project operates, but a large fraction of people have also recovered. In the Philippines, the number of cases continues to increase. The number of weekly cases has been decreasing in the national capital region since September, but it is increasing in other regions.
Restrictions on planetGOLD activities
With cases fluctuating and the timing for the administration of a vaccination unknown, the safety and security for all involved in the planetGOLD programme is a priority. In some countries, this means that planetGOLD staff are not permitted to travel to mining areas:
- UNDP Colombia, which executes the project there, has travel restrictions in place for those working on missions within the country. However, the regional planetGOLD staff stationed in Cauca can travel within the Cauca region, while abiding by COVID safety protocols. To continue momentum, the project will procure regional technical experts in Antioquia and Bolivar as well.
- In Guyana, Conservation International Guyana has not approved any staff travel into the field.
- In Indonesia, planetGOLD project staff have been directed to work from home and not travel to the mining areas. The Indonesian field facilitators, stationed on the project sites, are allowed to attend local government meetings with the approval from the head of operations, as long as safety protocols are followed.
- The Mongolian planetGOLD project staff are unable to travel to mining operations. The Tunkhel project site, located in Mandal soum has confirmed COVID-19 cases, and remains in lockdown. In the case of Altai and Khovd, no cases have been reported but travel is still restricted within the province. All inter-city and provincial travel are highly restricted.
Other country project teams are slowly headed back to mine sites, albeit with strict requirements. In the Philippines, requirements include measures such as (1) COVID-19 rapid test or PCR test with a negative result, (2) medical certificate from a city health office, and (3) travel authority from city police. Security protocols are mandatory for the planetGOLD Peru team as well, who have had access to mining organizations since October. These visits require prior authorization from UNDP, which executes the Peru project, following security protocols in the region during transport and within the mining organization itself. Projects in Burkina Faso, Ecuador and Kenya have also reported they are back in the field following safety protocols.