Aerial view of La Pampa gold mine's illegal expansion into Peru's Tambopata National Reserve.

Illegal mining is mining activity that is undertaken without state permission. Illegal mining is the extraction of precious metals without following the proper procedures to participate in legal mining activity. These procedures include permits and licenses for exploration of the land, mining and transportation.[1] 

Illegal mining can be a subsistence activity, as is the case with artisanal mining, or it can belong to large-scale organized crime,[2] spearheaded by illegal mining syndicates.[3][4] On an international level, approximately 80 percent of small-scale mining operations can be categorized as illegal.[5] Despite strategic developments towards "responsible mining," even big companies can be involved in illegal mineral digging and extraction, if only on the financing side.[6]

Large-scale mining operations are owned by large companies nationally and use advanced technology to extract metals; these operations use open-pit mining.[7] Artisanal small-scale mining operations are labour-intensive mining because miners do not use machinery to extract the metals.[7] Informal mining occurs when artisanal small-scale mining operations proceed in mining activity without the proper legal licenses.

These operations are still illegal but it is not an indictable offence such as illegal mining operations organized by criminal groups.[7] Organized crime groups lead and control illegal mining activity in extremely rural areas where the state does not have full jurisdiction over the land.[1] Criminally organized illegal mining controls large-scale operations that violate all the laws and environment while mining.[7] Corruption in privately owned large-scale mining and artisanal small-scale mining operations occurs because the operations delegate their power to local authorities.[1] The lack of coordination allows loopholes for corruption. The laws and procedures surrounding mining lessen the impact on the environment and are violated by large and artisanal small-scaling contributing to environmental damage.[1]

Environmental impacts

HTML Plain text "Surface illegal mining shaft" by Siphetha is licensed under CC BY-SA 4
Abandoned surface illegal mining shaft "Surface illegal mining shaft" by Siphetha is licensed under CC BY-SA 4

Illegal miners generally lack knowledge and simply do not care about the environment they are mining which causes the environment to be complete destroyed by the illegal activity. Certified mining causes less of a threat and destruction to the environment than illegal mining because of the guidelines they are required to follow to be perverse the environment while extracting resources. Illegal miners create large mining pits that are not back filled when they are finished, many people and animals die from these pits.[8] Due to run off from illegal mining activity contaminates surface water and underground water with mud, mercury and cyanide. This pollution creates a crisis because this was is used for drinking and farmland.[8] There are many different ways that illegal mining destructs ecosystems.[9]

Water pollution

Illegal gold mining operations used heavy metals such as mercury and cyanide to extract gold from waste material. The mercury and cyanide leach into the natural environment causing pollution.[10] Illegal miners often dump excess mercury into the nearby waterways for disposal.[8] Water pollution affects surrounding communities, aquatic ecosystems and land ecosystems due to the hydraulic cycle.[11] The polluted water is used for irrigation of farmland and community use, this further spreads pollution which leads to illness and death.[10]

"Illegal Gold mining Nigeria1" by Dame Yinka is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
Illegal gold artisanal small-scale mining in Nigeria "Illegal Gold mining Nigeria1" by Dame Yinka is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.


Deforestation occurs during illegal mining operations so mining operations have room to function. As forests are clear-cut and the ground is mined, ecosystems collapse due to habitat loss.[12] Carbon emissions increase drastically due to the clearcutting of forests in regions where illegal mining occurs.[12] Deforestation contributes to soil erosion since the roots of trees provide the soil with stability.[13] There have been many efforts to protect and rehabilitate forest ecosystems in recent years to prevent and limit the effects of deforestation.[14]

Soil erosion and degradation

Illegal mining causes soil erosion and degradation which leads to barren lands where nothing can survive. Soil erosion reduces soil fertility which affects agricultural lands.[15] Soil degradation occurs (1) when removing topsoil affects the fertility of the soil and decreases the chance of restoring vegetation.[12](2) When toxic chemicals pollute soil to an extent where plants cannot grow. The toxins deplete the soil's nutrients and inhibit vegetation.[12] (3) When large amounts of mining waste such as rock, sediment and soil that lacks nutrients are dumped onto the land it stops the growth of plants.[12] This waste engulfs topsoil taking away fertility.[12] Poorly contained mining tails are hazardous to the environment because there are no efforts to treat the soil to get rid of toxic chemicals. Soil erosion leads to natural hazards such as landslides due to loose soil and flooding.[12]

Social impacts


Latin America is the centre of the global drug trade since most drugs are produced. Organized crime groups such as drug cartels realized the profitability and began to illegally mine precious metals.[7] These groups were able to get control of large amounts of land away from government surveillance. This allowed the cartels to earn a larger profit than the drug trade with lower risk.[7] Illegal mining operations controlled by organized crime groups are hazardous to the miners but many are drawn to the work due to the effect it has on the surrounding environment.[7] Child labour is very common in the mines because children are trafficked and forced into work. Adults are also exploited, trafficked and forced into unsafe labour conditions.[7]


Illegal mining operations affect surrounding agriculture. Cocoa farming in Ghana is impacted by illegal mining activity because of land degradation and availability.[16] There is less available land for farming causing competition and higher costs for farmers. The illegal miners trespass through farmland to construct roads through farms destroying the cocoa trees in the process.[16] They also mine on the farmland which is where many farmers die because of falling into the pits.[11] Illegal mining operations cause flooding with polluted water that affects the maturation of the cocoa pods.[16] Flooding depletes soil fertility, increases erosion and affects the farmer's ability to grow cocoas trees. These factors contribute to farmers’ fear of losing their livelihood due to the losses that are caused by illegal mining.[16]


Abandoned open-pit mines cause an increase in the mosquito population which can increase the spread of malaria.[17] These pits fill up with stagnant or slow-moving bodies of water where mosquitoes can breed and their larvae can grow.[17] Due to the increase in population, mosquitoes have a greater risk of carrying malaria.[17] When illegal mining operations abandon their pits, there is no way for local authorities to track and prevent the open pits to decrease the spread.[17] Illegal miners also do not take proper precautions to protect themselves when mining and it increases the risk of transmission.[17]

Regional issues

Sub-Saharan Africa

Spurred by widespread poverty and a lack of alternative income-earning opportunities, illegal artisanal mining is a well-documented phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa. While legalization opportunities for artisanal and small scale mining are often available, inefficient government bureaucracy structures can make noncompliance more appealing for workers. In addition, in an effort to attract foreign investment, many governments in sub-Saharan Africa have loosened national mining investment codes. An expansion of the large-scale mining projects fuelled by foreign investment has displaced rural mining communities, many of which revert to illegal mining on concessions given to the formal mining sector.[18] As a response measure, Ghana for instance launched Operation Vanguard in 2017 to restrain illegal artisanal mining in Ghana.

Latin America

Latin America is home to the Amazon rainforest which has many ecosystems living within the rainforest.[19] Illegal mining causes the deforestation of a protected rainforest. The use of mercury in illegal mining is contaminating the soil, water and air harming surrounding communities and the wildlife living in the forest.[19] In Latin America, the illegal mining population is more likely to be infected with malaria since they are more vulnerable when they are ming deep in the rainforest.[19]

Illegal mining operations are often located in remote areas, making it more difficult to enforce mining standards. Furthermore, mining requirements can vary substantially from region to region, further complicating adherence with labor laws, environmental regulations, and tax legislation.[4] Emissions of mercury originating in artisanal mining, most of which is unregulated and illegal, are substantial, contributing to 37 percent of the atmospheric mercury emitted annually.[3]

While drug trafficking has historically been a prominent criminal enterprise, lower risks associated with illegal mining have propelled a shift toward lucrative illegal gold mining operations. In order to transfer illegal gold into the marketplace, criminal actors sometimes attempt to mask its illicit origins by melting together processed legal and illegal gold. This gold laundering task is generally facilitated by middlemen who falsify documentation to ease the transition into the legitimate international marketplace.[4]


Mining scams in India (colloquially Indian mining scam) refers to a series of alleged widespread scams in various ore-rich states of India, which has generated controversy. Such issues span encroachment of forest areas, underpayment of government royalties, and conflict with tribals regarding land rights.[20] The spill-over of the effects of legal mining into issues such as Naxalism and the distortion of the Indian political system by mixed politics and mining interests, has gained international attention.[21][22]

The latest scam that has come out is the coal mining scam in which the government has had a presumable conservative loss of Rs 1.86 trillion (short scale), due to the delayed implementation of a competitive bidding process for allotment of coal blocks, says the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).


The Nigerian government does not have the funds needed to enforce the law that prohibits illegal mining.[23] They do not have the capacity and authority for the full enforcement of the law.  Government funds are affected by illegal mining operations because they cannot profit from the extraction of metals.[23] Nigeria is rich in precious metals which causes foreign illegal mining operations to come to Nigeria.[23] This causes violence and conflict between the local and foreign illegal miners in some parts of Nigeria. The vastness of Nigeria causes remote places where illegal mining operations can occur without the government having any knowledge of it.[23]


In Ghana, the government has put together a task force that was created to remove all illegal mining operations due to the environmental problems it has caused.[24] The environmental and water quality deterioration caused the President of Ghana to make a press release to explain the urgency and need for public support to aid in fixing the problem.[24]

Illegal mining operations in Ghana have contributed to the reduction of poverty. Illegal mining is an employment option for men and women with no education and it is an easy way to make quick money.[24] The government is offering alternative sources of income in the agricultural field.[24] Illegal miners will continue to make money once their mine is shut down or change jobs to work an agricultural job that is much safer and legal.[24]

See also


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