Little Mines – Big Conflicts
New Big Mines – Also Big Conflicts


Mining is a major source of problems in the Global South. Mining has its positive points. Mining produces dramatic increases in GDP. The value of most minerals dwarfs the value of most agricultural products. The value of most minerals dwarfs the value of most manufactures. Only very high value products such as petroleum or scientific equipment can compete with mining for revenue generation. Furthermore, since most mineral products are exported, mining has a very favorable impact on trade balances. If a poor country has a debt problem, few industries will get the debt paid off faster than mining.

Nevertheless, mining generates its own very substantial problems. The adverse ecological effects of mining are obvious. Mining also has surprisingly little effect on poverty. It creates fewer jobs than do most industries. Fewer jobs means a lesser effect on income levels. Spillovers to other industries are also low. Because mining equipment is generally imported, mining companies purchase relatively little from the local economy.

The biggest problem however, is violence. The standard interpretation of the mining-violence link is that warlords and bandits shake down mining operations in their territory. Sometimes the warlords just seize minerals and sell them themselves. Sometimes the mining companies pay off the warlords and bandits with protection money. Either way – the gangs gain an independent resource base, which pays for the weaponry and personnel to fight civil wars, expand their territory and use force against anyone who challenges their control. The standard interpretation is reasonably correct.

Another consideration is that the mining companies sometimes resort to violence to clear out land they need to commence operations. Usually this is done by proxies rather than the mining companies themselves. If the mining company has obtained title for its concession, government forces are used to clear out “squatters” – squatters being the original residents on the land. If there are legal ambiguities or no time for due process, informal paramilitaries can do the job without bothering with courts. This standard account is also correct.

However, there is new research showing that the relationship between mining and violence is far more complex than the previous simplistic picture would apply. Yes – mining increases violence, but there are many different pathways that produce this outcome, many of them non-intuitive. Nik Stomp, Marijke Verpoorten and Peter van der Windt have an article in World Development that discusses the effects of mining on social conflict in one of the most violent regions of the world – the Eastern Congo. The Eastern Congo has seen two major civil wars since 1995, has been involved indirectly with civil wars in Rwanda and Burundi, and sees substantial warlordism, violent protest and attacks on civilians during non-war years. Many, although not all, of the conflicts involve mining. The area is rich in cobalt, tin, titanium, copper, diamonds and gold. There has always been substantial mining in the Eastern Congo – and this increased after 2002 with a liberalization policy designed to bring in large international mining interests.

The Stoop team’s primary contribution – and it is an important one indeed – is to show the differential dynamics of large industrial mines – which have traditionally drawn the most scholarly attention – and the dynamics of smaller artisanal mines. The Eastern Congo is so rich in minerals that one does not always need deep mineshafts or gigantic excavations to find lucrative deposits of ore. Right on the surface there are easily accessible deposits that can be exploited with simple hand tools and lightweight portable equipment. Local villagers operate these mines. They are inexpensive to acquire, cheap to operate and easy pickings for bandits.

The Stoop team obtained remarkable data on the Eastern Congo on both mining and conflict. Activity at artisanal mines is often hard to measure since these activities can be clandestine and not registered with any government agency. An independent NGO went out and actually mapped out every mine, both industrial and artisanal, which such precision as to allow for measures of activity within 25 km by 25 km microsquares. Most census and GDP data for Sub-Saharan African nations misses vast amounts of economic activity and can only obtain counts for broad regions such as provinces. This is matched with a standard but highly reliable dataset on social conflict in sixty nations that both counts incidents, measures the size and violence of the conflict and provides microlocation data of where the incidents occurred. I found some of their findings surprising – but the authors provide compelling explanations of their non-intuitive results.

1. Conflict goes up when mineral prices go up. Makes sense. The more valuable minerals are to steal, the more people will fight over them.

2. The mineral price effect only applies to small scale artisanal mining. I had always associated conflict with the large industrial mines. The Stoop team argues that industrial mines have large enough private security forces that they can fend off wannabe mineral thieves. If need be, they can pay off larger warlords who could pose greater problems. But generally, their own coercive forces are sufficient to do the job. Small scale miners are much more vulnerable to raids. They bear the brunt of increased mineral prices.

3. Conflict goes up when large scale mining expands. But this only occurs when industrial mines move from initial surveying and exploration to actual production. I would have guessed that any expansion of industrial mining causes conflict. Industrial mines require large amounts of real estate. Their expansion displaces farmers and villagers. It also displaces artisanal miners. Local populations fight back by rioting, protesting and attacking industrial facilities and looting.

All of the previous statements are true – but they only apply when the mine actually starts going into physical production. There is a long period of pre-production preparation that does not threaten local villager interests. The mining company is surveying. The mining company is taking core samples. The mining company is making legal arrangements for obtaining the land. The mining company is designing the operation. These preliminaries only interfere in a minor way with the activities of local residents. Furthermore, some mines never leave the planning stage – making any threat to villager interests hypothetical. Reality hits when the mining company actually starts taking possession of property and begins to remove pre-existing homes, farms and artisanal mines. This is when the fighting starts.

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A few closing remarks.

Note what arguments do not show up in Stoop et. al. These are not errors of omission. They are well conceived and reasonable cuts.

1. Stoop et. al. make no reference whatsoever to ethnic hostilities. Non-social science readers think all African conflicts are about tribal rivalries. A parallel argument in the Middle East is that all conflict there is about Islam. Conflicts in the Global South are very frequently economic rather than cultural. The fights here are straightforward battles about who controls gold (or cobalt or titanium).

2. “Poverty causes conflict” can be surprisingly misleading. Note that conflicts over mines increased as the price of minerals went up. High mineral prices mean greater prosperity for miners. They also mean greater prosperity for thieves. Economic improvements can produce more violence than economic declines.

3. Economic improvements produce winners and losers. The losers sometimes fight back.

4. None of this would be going on if the Congolese government had greater military control over its territory. Why doesn’t the Congolese government have greater control over its territory? I leave that question to you the reader.

For More Information 

The full citation for the Stoop et. al. article is Stoop, Nik, Marijke Verpoorten and Peter van der Windt. 2019. “Artisanal or Industrial Conflict Minerals? Evidence From Eastern Congo.” World Development 122: 660-674.

For an excellent overviews of African conflict overall, the work of Paul Collier is outstanding. Try his Breaking the Conflict Trap or his edited two volume series on Understanding Civil War.

On mining companies and land seizures, see the edited collection by An Ansoms Losing Your Land, Dispossession in the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes refers to the region in East Central Africa, not the United States and Canada.