By Alec Crawford and Clémence Naré
The IGF Secretariat sent a team to member state Mauritania to carry out an assessment of the country’s mining laws and policies in late January 2017. The assessment—done at the request of the government—was the latest assessment carried out by the IGF using the Mining Policy Framework (MPF). With a parallel assessment carried out the same week in Rwanda, 2017 is off to a very busy start.
With support from the Ministry of Petroleum, Energy and Mining (MPEM), the team was to spend the week evaluating how Mauritania’s current laws and policies for its mining sector compare to the standards laid out in the MPF. Mauritania is currently planning to revise these laws and adopt strategic policies in the sector. It is hoped that the assessment—along with subsequent capacity building and technical support activities—can contribute to this process, to help ensure that the country’s mineral wealth supports its continued sustainable development.
Prior to our arrival in Nouakchott, we asked our focal points for a shortlist of their priorities for the sector, and at the top of that list was artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Unable to find much in the way of literature on the subject prior to our field visit, we were a bit confused; how could ASM be an issue if—by all accounts—it hardly existed in the country?
These questions were quickly answered during our first meetings with ministry staff. Mauritania does not have a history of ASM, and as such has little in the way of legal and institutional mechanisms for dealing with it. Traditionally, this was not a problem; the country’s vast territory, low population density, harsh climate and low levels of surface water seemed to ensure that ASM would continue to be limited.
Gold rush in the desert
This changed in March 2016. Seemingly overnight, a gold rush sent an estimated 20,000 ASM miners to the Inchiri region northeast of Nouakchott in search of riches. With little training and no environmental or health safeguards, the miners began digging on lands adjacent to and overlapping with existing mining titles, generating tensions with those operating legally in the area.
We were able to visit the gold rush region during the assessment, and found a landscape pockmarked with deserted small mines and the remnants of camps abandoned as quickly as they were established. The scale of the operation was immense and completely unplanned—we drove past miles and miles of these holes in the ground over the course of a couple of hours.
As a result of the gold rush, the government—specifically the MPEM— implemented an emergency response and is now working to come up with a more comprehensive strategy and legal framework for formalizing ASM in Mauritania, to ensure that livelihoods are supported and the environment protected while existing concessions are also respected. To date, this has included the establishment of an authorized rock-crushing site in the town of Chami, close to the ASM sites; the development of temporary authorizations for miners; and the establishment of a few small ASM zones. Discussions are underway on the merits and feasibility of mechanisms like larger ASM zones and re-establishing purchasing counters.
How to formalize ASM
As the MPF assessment team now turns to the task of drafting their report and developing recommendations for technical support and capacity building, we will work with the MPEM to see how we might support domestic efforts to formalize ASM. The recent publication of Guidance for Governments: Managing artisanal and small-scale mining could help with this. Moving ahead, we look forward to further working with MPEM to help them optimize the contribution that mining—whether big or small—can make to Mauritania’s sustainable development.