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News & Events Mining, land rights and the environment: Political economies of conflict, displacement and resource capture in Southern Africa
Mining, land rights and the environment: Political economies of conflict, displacement and resource capture in Southern Africa
Mining, land rights and the environment: Political economies of conflict, displacement and resource capture in Southern Africa

This blog post is part of the series What to Read

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As a researcher compiling African country portfolios for the Land Portal, I have been struck by the widening inequalities, both within countries in the global South and between South and North. The links between mining, resource capture and conflict have emerged as a crosscutting theme. 

In this What to Read digest I profile recent research which has tried to quantify the value of northern extractivism, before reviewing recent reports examining the impacts of mining coltan, rubies, coal and gold in four countries in Southern and Central Africa. The reports reveal how informal mining is on the rise across the African subcontinent, while also highlighting the extensive environmental damage associated with mining at all scales. 

As a bonus I have included a linked What to Watch guide which lists useful documentary videos to help place the different reports in context.

While these reports and videos portray seemingly intractable conflict and dispossession, there are important initiatives which seek to counter these trends.

Articles reviewed in this issue:


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The value of northern extractivism

The starkly unequal economic exchange between the industrialised North and the global South spans both the colonial and post-colonial periods. A recent paper in the Open Access Journal of Global Environmental Change provides a costing for this appropriation. Jason Hickel and his co-authors found that worldwide in 2015: 

The North net appropriated from the South 12 billion tons of embodied raw material equivalents, 822 million hectares of embodied land, 21 exajoules of embodied energy, and 188 million person-years of embodied labour, worth $10.8 trillion in Northern prices – enough to end extreme poverty 70 times over. 

The value of these resources is equivalent to a quarter of Northern GDP. Overall, “the South’s losses due to unequal exchange outstrip their total aid receipts over the period (1990-2015) by a factor of 30”. 

Elsewhere Hickel has demonstrated how economic growth in the North continues to rely on patterns of colonization. He shows how the accelerating global ecological crisis continues to play out along colonial lines, both in terms of emissions and resource use.
Mining is at the centre of this resource appropriation. While the bulk of mining operations are carried out by well capitalised multinational corporations, a large artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) sector has grown up in the shadow of commercial operations. This takes different forms depending on the mineral and its location. ASM occurs across the global South and from Colombia to Zimbabwe, there are an estimated 25-million artisanal miners. 

Case studies from across the African continent reveal how mining impacts on community land rights, livelihoods and the environment in many different ways. Mining is closely associated with land grabs and forced displacement. Mineral discoveries can trigger a large-scale influx of job seekers and the growth of the ASM sector. Mining has major environmental impacts and the frequent failure to rehabilitate mines litters the landscape with environmental hazards.

In several African countries including the DRC, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, mining in both the formal and ASM sectors is frequently associated with violent conflict, forced labour and displacement. Some 36 million people are currently displaced across the African continent. The nature of mining related conflict depends on the mineral and its location, as ASM miners intersect with local elites, armed militia, transnational criminal syndicates and multinational companies, in complex value chains which launder profits from resource extraction. 



Selected reports & initiatives


Mining and illicit trading of coltan in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Oluwole Ojewale, ENACT (2022)

Mining and illicit trading of coltan in the DRCMining and the illicit trade in minerals have long been the source of social and environmental upheaval in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Cobalt and coltan mining are closely linked. Cobalt is vital for the manufacture of lithium batteries used in electric cars, while coltan is one of the most valuable and sought-after conflict minerals in the world today. When refined, coltan becomes metallic tantalum. Tantalum capacitors are used in almost all cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. 

The struggle for control over coltan mining is central to the conflict in eastern DRC, which has claimed more than four million lives in the past decade and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Rival militia, the Congolese army and neighbouring Rwanda all have stakes in the lucrative coltan trade. State agents, warlords and foreign intervention make control of the mines and surrounding land violently competitive. This study reveals the network of organised crime involved in the production and supply chain of coltan, and its connections to legitimate businesses in advanced economies. 

The research report also demonstrates how the illegal exploitation and trafficking of coltan has had multiple impacts on land rights, natural resources and environmental biodiversity. This has disrupted the ecosystem around mining sites, leaving the land fragile as a result of deforestation, air and water pollution and dumping of toxic waste. Artisanal miners and foreign companies are also reported to violate sites of historical heritage and indigenous norms, causing large-scale destruction. 

The author has also published an accessible summary of this research report in the Conversation: What coltan mining in the DRC costs people and the environment

Read the full publication




Scratching the surface: Tracing coloured gemstone flows from Mozambique and Malawi to Asia

By the Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime (2021)


Report about tracing coloured gemstone flows from Mozambique and Malawi to Asia

The discovery of ruby deposits in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique in 2009 has been called the most significant find of this century and the country is now the world’s largest ruby producer. Mozambique is estimated to produce as much as 80% of the global ruby supply. 

This report examines how mining in northern Mozambique is driven by high levels of poverty and economic desperation.  A combination of poor governance and widespread corruption, ranging from petty profiteering by local law enforcement to allegations of land grabs by political figures, create the conditions in which illegal mining can flourish. The gemstones flow through transnational networks that trap vulnerable mining communities in poverty and undermine good governance and security.

The mix of poverty, state neglect and corruption has created a climate of instability that has led to the insurgency currently terrorizing communities in Cabo Delgado.
Mozambique and Malawi have developed publicly accessible mining cadastre portals, aimed at improving transparency around the ownership of mineral deposits. However, this has yet to translate into more clear and accessible mining rights for ASM operators. Globally, most artisanal miners do not have legally recognised land rights or permits to extract minerals. 


Read the full publication




The Forever Mines: Perpetual Rights Risks from Unrehabilitated Coal Mines in Mpumalanga, South Africa

By Human Rights Watch (2022)

This Human Right Watch report examines how South Africa is one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide worldwide. This is mainly due to the country's reliance on coal energy. According to South African government records, there are no fewer than 400 coal mines abandoned by commercial mining companies. However informal, artisanal miners known as zama continue to extract coal in dangerous and unregulated conditions. This is particularly the case in Mpumalanga province, which is the focus of this report.

The risks from unrehabilitated mines extend far beyond the people who access the sites – they risk polluting the water of millions of South Africans and their agricultural land. Coal across South Africa is found predominantly in ores with sulphur-bearing minerals. When these ores come into contact with water and air, sulfuric acid is created, which can lead to further leaching of heavy metals from ores.

Acid mine drainage (AMD), if left untreated, can have devastating impacts: it can render water unusable, soils unproductive, and even corrode municipal infrastructure for water delivery. Following a 2019 community-led campaign to address the legacy of the unrehabilitated coal mine that ceased operations in 2011, the Department of Minerals and Energy assessed the cost of remediation at R450 million (US$31 million). This was 750 times the amount that the Department had received 14 years earlier as security. The national government’s lack of action in tackling the unrehabilitated coal mines and other coal infrastructure across South Africa is severely impacting the land, water, livelihoods and public health of many communities.


Read the full publication




​Zimbabwe’s Disappearing Gold: The Case of Mazowe and Penhalonga

By The Centre for Natural Resource Governance (2022)


This report examines the impact of artisanal mining in Zimbabwe and the way it has been captured by politically connected elites. Illicit financial flows (IFFs) in the artisanal gold mining sector in Zimbabwe are responsible for leakages of an estimated 3 tonnes of gold, valued at approximately USD157 million every month. The artisanal gold sector has transformed from being a traditional livelihoods option for local families to an anchor of gold smuggling cartels that are robbing the country of the precious metal. Artisanal mining has also spread from alluvial gold deposits along rivers and dry riverbeds into large scale disused mines that are now captured by ruling party officials. 

Unregulated gold mining has created enormous environmental damage. Gold is recovered from ore through the cyanide process in which the ore is dissolved in a dilute solution of sodium cyanide, or potassium cyanide. Cyanide is a highly toxic environmental contaminant. In Penhalonga several farmers have lost entire herds of cattle after drinking water contaminated with cyanide.

We also recommend a 2020 report by the International Crisis Group entitled All that glisters is not gold: Turmoil in Zimbabwe’s gold mining sector which provides further insights into this conflicted industry


Read the full publication




The Just Transition Open Agenda

By the Life After Coal Campaign


Booklet Just transition call for action on mining in South AfricaThis booklet recently published in South Africa seeks to mobilise civil society to counter the current resource extraction and energy models which accelerate the climate emergency, and to identify alternatives.

More than 75% of South Africa’s greenhouse gas emissions stem from energy production, and more than 50% of the energy is consumed by industries and mining activities. 

The Life After Coal Campaign launched its Just Transition Open Agenda booklet in 2022. This was developed by the campaign’s founding partners Earthlife Africa, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights. The booklet sets out to articulate what a truly just and equitable transition could look like. It calls for a wide-ranging overhaul, not just of the energy sector, but of society as a whole, listing 12 core demands, from the rehabilitation of land and water ruined by coal mining and burning to the end of financing for coal and other fossil fuel investments, including gas.

The booklet makes detailed proposals on how such an agenda might be achieved.


Read the full publication




What to Watch

A number of powerful and informative video documentaries have been made covering different aspects of mining on the African subcontinent. We have compiled a shortlist of videos to further contextualise the reports from the four countries reviewed above.


We recommend The cost of cobalt made by filmmakers Robert Flummerfelt and Fiona Lloyd-Davies which was released in April 2021. The documentary was produced for the Al Jazeera People and Power investigations series.


A 2021 documentary titled The toxic cost of going green directed by Girish Juneja for the Unreported World series on Channel 4 News. This examines the harsh realities of ASN cobalt mining in the DRC.


In 2016 the Al Jazeera Africa Investigates documentary series produced Mozambique’s gem wars (not available in certain countries in the global North). Mozambican journalist Estacio Valoi worked with filmmaker Callum Macrae to assess the impacts of the ruby mining concession awarded to a local company, Mwriti, in partnership with a British company, Gemfields. 


South Africa
A documentary released in June 2022 by ARTE-TV entitled Mining coal to survive examines the lives of ASM miners who dig coal from abandoned mines in Mpumalanga province.



We also recommend We are Zama is a 51-minute BBC Africa Eye documentary based on a film produced by anthropologist Rosalind Morris. It provides a portrait of migrants seeking a living in the depths of South Africa’s abandoned gold mines. 


There are a number of short documentaries on artisanal mining in Zimbabwe. However, for more background on the ASM gold sector we recommend the Talking Africa podcast entitled Zimbabwe's illicit gold mines, costing lives and money in conversation with Piers Pigou, one of the authors of the 2020 report published by the International Crisis Group featured above.





Final thoughts


Some of the reports and video documentaries in this digest also provide important insights into how proposed solutions to climate change, which may appear to be “locally clean”, are often “globally filthy.” 

George Monbiot has drawn attention to “the narrowness of the focus on carbon” in strategies to counter climate change, noting how this masks “our other assaults on the living world.” For example, proposed solutions to the climate crisis, such as a transition to electric vehicles are projected as part of a “clean, green” transport revolution. However these are heavily dependent on the supply of “blood cobalt, blood lithium and blood copper”. 

The other reports discussed above which explore gemstone, coal and gold mining operations all expose fundamentally inequitable and unsustainable resource extraction systems which reach back to the colonial era.

When considered together, the resources compiled for this digest underline the urgent need for applied transdisciplinary systems thinking. This helps to understand and make connections between processes and relationships that are usually considered separately – a prerequisite if we are to organise successfully to bring about essential systemic change.  


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