Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Agriculture: Creating Fortune Out of The Soil

When three pairs of eyes see, in one object, three different things, and three people perceive a singular situation in different lights; it must be a different world, a strange world.

This situation bodes well where money becomes the object and people- the men and women who eke a living the hard way- become the subject. Money renders it a strange world in diverse ways- starting with what people believe is money, and the way non-hard-cash materials are turned into ‘money’.

Subsidized farm input can, for instance, be ‘money’ to ordinary people; unlike shares, treasury bills and bonds- the ‘money’ of business magnets.

It is all ‘money’.

For Sam Moyo, however, a resident of Soche Hill in Blantyre, all these are not money.

“To me, money means resources found in the soil. Things such as rocks and stone pebbles. The soil is my source of bread,” Moyo says.

For the past three years, he has known nothing but the soil as ‘money’, with which he feeds his family of five members.

“I have been selling non-precious and semi-precious rocks since March 2008. Sometimes I sell terrazzo, sand and simple rocks,” Moyo says.

But challenges are many because almost every situation- the sun, the cold, the winds, and the rains- serve as a ground for complaint.

“It is not easy, but I make it through. Though we have no formal schools for our trade, and I struggle to source capital for buying tools such as hummers, wheelbarrows, picks, levers, and metal bars, I manage to earn K18, 000 or more a month,” Moyo says.

Moyo said, contrary to perceptions that smashing rocks does not require financial investment, the business demands substantial capital. He said, for instance, that apprenticeship payments, and the purchase of such materials as hummers, wheelbarrows, picks, levers, and metal bars requires funds, in his case over K60, 000.

Matilda James and Violet Makwiza, who operate from Chemussa in Blantyre, said their lives have improved a lot since they ventured into the trade some two and eight years ago, respectively.

“Though my earnings do not exceed K18, 000 a month, I am able to supplement my husband’s income,” James says.

However, both James and Makwiza lamented the lack of capital in the trade, saying commercial banks are stingy with their cash.

There have been efforts by local assemblies, including city councils such as Blantyre, Lilongwe, Zomba, and Mzuzu to regulate small-scale sand mining activities, as well as rock smashing as one way of safeguarding the environment.

Despite all these challenges, artisanal mining remains the foundation of their survival edifice, the methodiser of their family stability, and mainspring of their daily hopes.

For a country short on minerals, small-scale mining has become a contributor to economic development. Malawi has no well-developed minerals industry, though there are potential heavy mineral sand, bauxite, phosphate, uranium and rare earth element deposits.

Mines and Minerals Act of 1981 stipulates that all minerals are vested in the President on behalf of the people of Malawi. The Commissioner for Mines and Minerals in the Ministry of Energy and Mining is empowered to administer the Act.

According to Malawi Government’s official website, www.malawi.gov.mw, the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Environment is currently “implementing Priority Number Five, which include (sic) Climate Change, Natural Resources and Environmental Management, and Priority Number Nine, which tackles Energy and Mining”.

However, the Ministry- which is mandated to provide policy guidance and direction on all matters concerning the country’s natural resources, energy and environmental management- does not elaborate the exact activities being undertaken, leaving people wishing to appreciate government’s efforts in the dark.

Small-scale mining has been part of human activity since time immemorial. As the book ‘That’s Life: Hilarious Collection of Quotable Quotes, Incredible Incidents, Comical Facts, and Amazing Blunders’ indicates, tradesmen and women in this industry have been subjected to jokes along the centuries.

The book features a 17th century epitaph written by an unknown individual, which reads:

A zealous locksmith died of late,

And did arrive at Heaven’s gate.

He stood without, and would not knock,

Because he meant to pick the lock.

An artisanal miner is, effectively, a subsistence miner. The industry, as manifested by Moyo and Banda, is made up of people who are not on the salary books of any company. Instead, the small-scale miner leads a lonely life, working independently panning and mining precious or semiprecious stones using their meager resources.

The tools used are mostly hand-tools, exactly what Banda and Moyo use. Because , world over, artisanal miners often work seasonally, Banda has a maize field that gives him between 10 to 12 50 kg bags of maize a year.

Exactly what ICMM says: “For example, crops are planted in the rainy season, and mining is pursued in the dry season. However, they also frequently travel to mining areas and work year round”.

ILO statistics put the figure of artisanal minors at between 13 and 20 million- men, women, and children- which explains the organisation’s concern with child labour issues. But these are estimates based on a count of players in 50 developing countries, and do not include artisanal miners in developed countries.

Activities range from precious stones’ panning in rivers to the development of small-scale working plants, activities that affect a wide range of issues, including environmental degradation, safety precautions, land tenure, and labour standards.

Globally, 12 percent (or 330 tonnes) of annual gold production is generated through artisanal mining. In Malawi, though, it is not gold that is mined: terrazzo, bauxite, among others, is the common fish. It is not clear whether the number of miners in increasing in Malawi but steady, and rising, gold prices (from US$274.45 at the start of 2002, to US$1229.88 in May 2010) has shifted their global numbers upwards.

While Malawian miners lack collaborative mechanisms, the Collaborative Group on Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining (Casm), a global networking facility that aims at reducing poverty through improved environmental, social and economic performance of artisanal and small-scale mining in developing countries such as Malawi has been advocating for formalization of the sector.

Casm, which is headquartered at the World Bank premises in Washington and is currently chaired by the British Department for International Development, compiled a report in 2008 which, among others, suggested that the use of certificates of origin and ethical quality could raise the sector’s profile and stimulate sustainable development in artisanal mining communities.

So important is the issue that the International Labour Organisation (ILO), through its International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, incorporates mining and quarrying activities. ILO notes that artisanal mining is important not only for the right reasons.

The sector has been cited as one of the breeding grounds for child labour. ILO says child labour “can still be seen in small-scale mines of Asia, Africa, Latin America, and even parts of Europe”.

Artisanal mining can also be a ground for conflict that pits small-scale, largely informal, miners against large larger mining companies, according to the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM).

“The fact that much of artisanal and small-scale mining activity occurs outside regulatory frameworks- whether illegal or not- can also present significant challenges for companies and regulators. There can be significant tension between artisanal and small-scale miners and their own governments- with companies caught in the middle,” reads part of ICMM’s guidance document.

The document, produced in collaboration with Communities and Small-Scale Mining, the International Finance Corporation’s Oil, Gas, and Mining Sustainable Community Development Fund, has helped ease simmering tension in over 20 countries, including Ghana.

In most cases, tensions arise when larger mining companies gain rights to develop deposits that are currently worked by artisanal miners, according to the ICMM report.

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