Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2021
While the predicament of coal miners in Pakistan is relatively well known, sadly due to frequent fatal underground mining disasters, little comes to light about the life and work conditions of those engaged in artisanal small-scale dimension stone (ie marble, granite, etc) quarrying on the surface, or gemstone mining up on the mountains.
Under-reporting does not mean surface mining and gem digging is less dangerous. Stone mine collapse, causing death and injuries to workers, is not uncommon. In 2020, two such accidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took lives of 29 workers. High-altitude gemstone mining poses great risk as digging is carried out along the veins in the mountain walls accessed by harnesses and ropes which requires climbing skills and agility. Accidents in dimension stone and gemstone mining operations in remote mountainous areas of KP and Gilgit Baltistan largely go unreported. Also, the implications of mining on the community is seldom documented.
According to an official estimate, 200,000 workers are employed in 1,400 marble and granite quarries in Pakistan, most of which are located in KP province. A cluster study on Mansehra and Abbottabad, brought out by the Planning Commission under the Cluster Development Based Mineral Transformation Plan in 2018, states that working conditions at quarries are exploitative: miners work on shifts of up to 14 hours and are not paid for overtime. Use of outdated blasting technique, instead of wire-saw precision cutting, often causes injuries and deaths and 50 per cent of the workers are not provided with insurance benefits and compensation. The study also noted that health and safety rules, labour laws and environmental regulations are not implemented in the sector.
In Pakistan, a resource-rich country, the mineral sector is dominated by small-scale informal mining operations. Historically, natural resources — pastures, grazing lands and mines — were under collective ownership of the people. Local people living in northern mountainous areas (GB and KP) explored and extracted minerals and gemstones on their own in small groups with the permission of village committees. According to a 2011 WB estimate, there are about 1,200 small-scale mining groups in GB. Artisanal high-altitude mining, organised around collective responsibility, is a source of livelihood for local people and the earnings from minerals supplement the incomes from farming. Community ownership and entitlement are governed under customary laws. This pattern of sustainable management of resources by local communities has continued in the GB region and in Kohistan district of KP province, a Shangla-based representative of Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, KP, tells this writer. Elsewhere in KP and other provinces, mines are owned and regulated by the federal and provincial governments, leased out to local or non-local investors who run the mines through contractors.
The dominant narrative views small-scale sustainable management of mineral resources by the communities as unlawful, disorganised and an impediment to growth. Since the last decade, pressure from international agencies (ie WB) has been increasing for private, corporate sector-led growth. Large-scale mining through foreign investment is considered to be a panacea for poverty. This line of thinking finds unquestioned approval by the political elite. Hence the dissonance between the state and the community. In 2009, the federal government issued an exploration licence to large-scale mining concern in the Karakoram Range. The locals successfully resisted this move and the authorities had to withdraw the licence.
The community, who is the main stakeholder in small-scale mining, is not taken on board for policy planning and legislation. The KP Mineral Sector Governance Act, 2016 and KP Mineral Titles Rules, 2017, were challenged by the Frontier Mines Owners Association as the government declared ownership of the mines in the newly merged districts and disregarded customary laws. The Peshawar High Court struck the laws down. Yet, in 2019, KP Minerals Sector Governance (Amendment) Act 2019 was passed without any debate and is still controversial.
The community of miners in Gilgit-Baltistan, represented by the GB Metals, Minerals and Gems Association, rejected the draft GB Mining Concession Rules 2014. According to the Association, the proposed regulatory regime was the same as “adopted by the rulers of the African and Latin American countries as a source of corruption to plunder the mineral resources by opening doors to MNCs resulting in the cleansing of the entire precious minerals just in a few years which was enough for centuries if locals extracted by themselves.” The rules enforced in 2016 and amended in 2019 are still disputed. The GB Metals, Minerals and Gems Association continues to demand rules to be in favour of local communities instead of foreign investors.
K. Lahiri-Dutt in her 2017 study of informal gemstone mining in Samaya Valley, GB, found that mining groups, comprising 12-13 members, are non-hierarchical in structure and well organised. Members of the group, a cook, a loader/supplier who all work on site for three months get one share each and one per cent of the earnings from extracted material goes to the village welfare fund. According to Lahiri-Dutt, miners’ groups represent “the essence of customary laws that govern the way natural resources have traditionally been managed in this remote and high-altitude area: recognition of community property rights and equitable sharing of benefits amongst all members of the community.”
The resolution to the conflict between the state and the artisanal and small-scale mining communities lies in respect of customary laws and integration of small-scale informal mining in to legal framework. Instead of inviting the corporate sector, which puts profit-making over dignity of human life and ecosystem, the state should encourage micro enterprises, strengthen organisational capacity of community groups and let the artisanal and small-scale mining serve as a catalyst for other productive activities.