USGS helps international organizations in fight against illegal mining

June 29, 2022

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has collaborated with several international organizations working to track and monitor illegal mining and armed groups funded by natural resources around the world.

The concept of conflict diamonds or “blood diamonds” emerged in the late 1990s when it became evident that several violent civil wars in Africa were connected to mining and trading of rough diamonds. In 2006, the U.S. Geological Survey was asked by the U.S. Department of State to help address illegal diamond mining in Africa.

Since then, the USGS has collaborated with several international organizations working to track and monitor illegal mining and armed groups funded by natural resources around the world. USGS scientists help detect where illegal mining is likely taking place and develop realistic production numbers to determine a country’s true capacity for mining and exporting various resources. This knowledge helps identify differences between what can be produced versus what is being exported, and whether miners are crossing borders to illegally mine and sell resources.
Many armed conflicts are financed and sustained by illegally selling or trading natural resources, including gold, tin, tantalum, tungsten, gemstones such as diamonds, rubies and jade and construction materials such as sand and gravel.

Minerals are frequently mined by artisanal and small-scale miners, who commonly operate in the informal sector, meaning they are not licensed and don't own the land on which they mine. They often transport and sell resources outside of the legal flow chain in violation of local or national law.

Artisanal and small-scale mining involves individuals or groups of miners using simple tools such as picks and shovels and sometimes larger equipment to dig in river floodplains and sedimentary deposits across large stretches of terrain. Industrial-scale mining occurs at permitted and regulated sites and typically requires heavy infrastructure to extract resources.

The informality and large geographic extent of artisanal and small-scale mining can lead to commodities being mined, sold and purchased through unofficial channels, and potentially financing criminal or terrorist organizations. This can increase the risk of conflict, violence and terrorism within a country and with other nations, including the U.S.

“USGS science helps determine the extent and value of mineral production in conflict-prone regions,” said Peter Chirico, associate director of the USGS Florence Bascom Geoscience Center and special advisor to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Threat Finance Countermeasures. The USGS conducts field investigations, uses satellite imagery, creates geologic maps and publishes reports to pinpoint resource deposits, estimate mineral quantities and determine production capacity.”

“The ability to use satellite imagery to acquire detailed information on artisanal mining activities is invaluable for researchers and policy makers, as it allows us to evaluate challenging and often difficult-to-access regions that also have associated conflict and safety concerns,” continued Chirico.

USGS scientists also do on-the-ground fieldwork to study the deposits and small-scale mining pits to investigate artisanal and small-scale mining processes and determine the extent and quality of the resources. The researchers also work to understand the viewpoint of the miners themselves and their methods, tools, habits and organization. Scientists conduct interviews with artisanal miners to understand how much is or can be mined over a certain period of time, how they are organized and how frequently they move from site to site.

USGS has collaborated with the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, United Nations and other governmental and nongovernmental organizations working to address conflict mining. More information including areas in which the USGS has participated can be found at the USGS website


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