The sad, unintended consequence of publications like these is that they will skew the debate on small-scale gold mining away from the real issue: legalisation.
On September 13, Janine Morna published an article on Think Africa Press to accompany the publication of a new report by Human Rights Watch. The 96 page report primarily documents child labour, and secondarily deals with issues relating to the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining in Tanzania. The report follows a similar 108 page publication by Human Rights Watch in 2011 on small-scale gold mining in Mali.
Of course, it is high time that fresh attention was paid to this type of mining and child labour issues in particular. In this sector you can find the worst forms of child labour.
It is both dangerous and exploitative, exposing children to mercury poisoning and affecting educational attainment. Typically this sector suffers from governmental neglect, so attempts to address the industry's problems are often palliative.
But the sad, unintended consequence of publications such as these by Human Rights Watch is that they will skew the course of the debate on small-scale gold mining.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of interest in the subject, there is just a trickle of research and a handful of publications on the practice. To the best of my knowledge, until now there has never been such a detailed report on small-scale gold mining in Tanzania. That gives publications like these by Human Rights Watch great power.
The legalisation agenda undermined
Small-scale gold mining is riddled with risks but is also full of economic potential. The risks involve any number of issues, not limited to but including environmental damage, exploitation, illegal trade, land-use, land rights, tax avoidance, conflict, corruption, migration, gender inequality, social change and income generation. Set in context, child labour in small-scale gold mining is an urgent issue among many urgent issues.
In 1995, the International Roundtable on Artisanal Mining found that "the relatively successful stories recounted at the roundtable were founded to different degrees on a flexible legal framework designed to regularize the activities of the informal sector".
A number of publications and theoretical pieces in the 1990s began to talk of formalisation as the key to success in small-scale gold mining.
If done, and done well, once miners are licensed and under the eye of government agencies, the arguments ran, public officials can regulate the techniques used: that is to say the environmental impacts and everything else, up to and including child labour.
Licensing is a laborious process including building government capacity on the ground and gradually raising the costs of remaining unlicensed.
The risk of a report on child labour by Human Rights Watch in the absence of reports on the other issues is that they will divert time and resources from what should be the first priority: legalisation.
When the governments of Mali and Tanzania come under pressure about small-scale mining, it will be about child labour rather than about redoubling their efforts to license miners. When donor officials allocate project money, the new report on their desks will be at the front of their minds.
The great shame about the work done by governments and donors alike on this issue in the last 20 years is that it has been swayed by fashions in policy.
Although a swathe of international actors attended and signed off on the findings of the 1995 Roundtable, that agenda has received little support.
Instead, momentum and energy gathered around mercury-reduction and the creation of agendas for conflict minerals. Heavy-weight institutions committed to those agendas published headline grabbing reports, just like these from Human Rights Watch, and public money followed the headlines.
Of course it is important that Human Rights Watch is bringing these issues to light, but unless other reports keep us focused on the bigger picture, it will leave the legalisation agenda high and dry, again.
Dan Paget is an independent analyst on politics of emerging democracies. He is currently conducting research on populist and opposition movements and the sources of substantive politics in Africa.
He is employed at a Research Analyst by Resource Consulting Services, where he undertakes political economy assessments, extractive sector analyses and is a researcher on China in Africa.