All posts by Anthony Persaud

Anthony is a researcher/writer and development practitioner with extensive experience in human rights, community organization, and natural resource development. Currently, he is a Communications and Policy Officer at the Artisanal Gold Council, an organization dedicated to improving the opportunities, health and environment of artisanal gold miners in the developing world. He also works as a freelance Spanish/English translator. He also blogs at www.findtheglobalbalance.blogspot.com.

When dreams become reality

It has been a long couple of weeks of travel throughout Africa. On my way to Cameroon I was stranded over night in Cotonou, Benin, my connecting airline suddenly deciding to have a day of maintenance for their planes. In Cameroon I had to venture back and forth through the catacombs of the airport in order to secure a visa. To arrive in Gabon from Yaounde I had to fly through Lagos, Nigeria TWICE on the day after 150 people perished in a flight at that same airport. The frustrations and inefficiencies of the developing world can eat away at a foreigner if a high degree of patience and understanding is not exercised. Nevertheless, seeing different parts of Africa and the vast differences in culture and behavior has been eye opening. I now have a greater appreciation for the words of Ryszard Kapuscinki:

“The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

Being back in Ouagadougou I feel relieved and I have a much greater appreciation for the distinct characteristics of this place and its people. Somehow this hot, dusty, impoverished country in the heart of West Africa is starting to feel like a home.

I thought I would take this opportunity to share some important thoughts that I have been having lately about international development – philosophizing about the field is often the only thing that keeps us going.

Those working in international development often love what they do, I certainly do. But my most recent spell of stress, exhaustion, and mysterious West African stomach sickness has really got me thinking about the work that we do and the expectations that surround it as a profession. Just a few months ago I never expected to find myself in Africa, but now here I am, in the thick of things, deep in the heat of the sub-Saharan sun.  I can’t even really trace the pattern of events that led me to arrive here. Regardless, it has been within the last few weeks that I have come to the realization that I am now a full-fledged development worker, and I am grappling with how that actually feels.

A lot of others have written about why we work in aid & development, or on becoming an aid worker. These are all really great discussions that stimulate important thinking about the nature of aid and development and the people that are involved. A great article was written not long ago about living out our dreams, and about being cognizant of the moment when we finally achieve that dream, and how that moment feels. But even though working in aid and development is a dream for many, for others it is simply just a reality. And often, that reality is a harsh one.

Ultimately, foreign aid and development workers are living for long periods of their lives in foreign places that they have to become accustomed to – an incredibly difficult and often “uncomfortable” task in itself. Working in the field of international development can be incredibly tolling, both physically and mentally. The sicknesses and the daily malaria pills, the never ending travel and the inevitable culture shocks. Often, it is difficult to find peace of mind and an escape from ones work. The brainstorming and formulation of ideas never seem to end – how can I stop my mind from thinking about my work when my entire life revolves around it? Speaking generally, I am here to support the development of an impoverished African region, and I am reminded of this every day that I head out into the city streets.

I have realized that I am finally where I planned to be about four years ago when I took off traveling to gain experience in the developing world. Now I have a paid job, with a niche and a growing specialization that will keep me doing this work throughout my career.  I have realized that the glamour of my dream was only partially real, that the transient life – life in an impoverished country – is no easy experience. I have come to realize that my closest of friends will be those who I meet wherever I go, or those who somehow take the time to maintain email communications with me once in a while. As I move on to the next project or next country, I move on in life and leave behind all the things that I have grown to cherish, the only consolation being the excitement of the next experience.

The point here is not to complain about the perils of life as an aid and development worker, but rather to explore the disconnect between the image of development work – the one that drives people’s dreams – and the reality of it. I often question my choices in life, we all do, but more often than not I think about what I am doing and I realize that I wouldn’t want it any other way.

This is a cross-post with Anthony’s own blog, Finding The Balance

Mining and development: how to get the balance right?

One of the common themes in recent development discourse has been the dichotomy between natural resource extraction and human and environmental rights. Mining is ubiquitous in the developing world, boosting foreign direct investment and creating jobs, but bringing with it a series of social and environmental problems that have often torn communities apart and fermented social unrest. The connection between mining and international development is an important one, but the antagonism between the two sides of the debate has allowed for certain sectors to be neglected. One such sector is that of artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM).

Artisanal and small-scale mining, particularly gold mining (ASGM), has always represented an important development opportunity. Today, with the price of gold hovering around US$1600 per ounce, ASGM has seen a huge resurgence. Current estimates place the amount of direct artisanal gold miners at up to 15 million people globally. The secondary economy that stems from this sector represents employment for up to 50 million people. ASGM is unique in that miners on the ground receive near “spot” or market price for the gold that they produce, creating thriving local economies and making the trade one of the most economically fair and equitable for the rural poor. However, the sector is plagued with problems, and the typical policy response has only served to worsen things.

The Peruvian government’s recent incorporation of informal mining into the criminal code, which created sentencing guidelines of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for those involved in the activity, caused massive protests in the Madre de Dios region of the country. These uprisings consisted of some 10,000 artisanal gold miners, caused three deaths and 30 injuries, and brought the importance of ASGM into the public spotlight, both in Peru and abroad. The protests represent another example of why the formalisation of ASGM is a complicated process that is unlikely to succeed without innovative measures that do more than simply criminalise activities.

Peru is one of the largest gold producing countries in the world, with the informal sector representing at least 50,000 ASGM miners, thousands more indirect jobs, and an estimated production of 30 metric tonnes of gold annually. The problem, the government rightly claims, is that a large number of these miners are using methods that wreak havoc on the environment and the health of local populations – mercury use being a major issue. The miners also illegally occupy land, evade taxes, and in some cases employ children. Although such problems pose great challenges, criminalising informal gold mining without taking the needs of such a substantial sector into consideration is not the solution. Not only does this create social unrest, criminalisation and marginalisation, but also provokes an employment crisis while deepening poverty.

Artisanal and small-scale gold mining is largely unheard of outside of the developing world, despite the fact that such mining represents unique histories in the expansion and modernisation of many countries. More than a century ago artisanal gold miners were involved in their own struggles with the authorities in Canada, the United States and Australia during the gold rush era. The ability of governments at the time to carefully navigate the complex situation resulted in a give and take process where the informal social contracts and extralegal arrangements already established by the miners themselves were eventually incorporated into law.* Legal impositions would only have served to stifle the sector and to create burgeoning black markets. Instead, governments were able to incorporate artisanal gold mining into the formal economy, enabling it to become a vital part of the growth of modern societies and a foundation for many of our existing land rights and laws today.

What happened a century ago is happening now in many countries like Peru. A new gold rush is underway and it is largely driven by poverty, with millions of people relying on it for a living. It is now the task of Peru and other countries to take the measured steps necessary to engage artisanal gold miners and to work with them to develop regulations that are achievable and context-driven. Prohibitive laws need to be accompanied by reasonable time-frames and support to avoid pushing artisanal gold miners further towards the informal market. Educational activities and technical interventions addressing better and safer mining practices must be utilised alongside market-based incentives. Sustainable artisanal gold mining could become a reality with the political will and resources to make it happen.

The first step towards achieving formalisation of the sector, however, is for governments to recognise the importance that ASGM plays in people’s economic and social well-being. A representative of the protesters in Peru said that the government was prioritising and favouring large-scale mining companies over artisanal gold miners. This favouritism is commonplace and it presents a unique challenge to which there is no precedent – large-scale mining was non-existent during the gold rushes of a century ago. Although large-scale mining today remains an important source of foreign direct investment, it is essential that governments recognise that, particularly in regards to gold, artisanal mining represents a much larger employment sector with real economic opportunities.

The social unrest in Peru illustrates the dangers of sweeping regulations that criminalise large sectors of the informal economy without taking specific needs and complexities into consideration. The problems that ASGM present are not insurmountable and solutions can be achieved with focused activities and a willingness to engage miners. With high prices of gold and millions of artisanal gold miners, an incredible economic and social opportunity has presented itself. Governments can choose to either reject it and likely worsen the problem, or they can embrace it and allow for artisanal and small-scale gold mining to fulfill its development potential.

*For further reading on the impact of gold mining on North American and Australian society see Hernando de Soto’s “The Mystery of Capital” and Douglas Featherling’s “The Gold Crusades: A Social History of Gold Rushes, 1849-1929”

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