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Artisanal mining is a type of small-scale mining operation that is not associated with large corporate enterprises. This type of subsistence mining is somewhat common in the developing world, and uses many hand tools and methods that have been employed by prospectors throughout history. Some artisanal mining is undertaken by individuals, though small-scale mining operations also pay people to engage in the same activities. In some cases, seasonal agricultural workers find employment in artisanal mining when there are no crops to harvest, though full time artisanal miners also exist. Many other economic factors can also drive people to artisanal mining as an alternative way to support themselves.
Unlike large scale mining operations that make use of heavy machinery, high explosives, and chemical treatments, artisanal miners typically use more primitive methods. Most of these small-scale mining operations use simple hand tools. Panning for gold is one example of artisanal mining that can occur with simple tools and little or no training. About 12% of yearly worldwide gold production comes from small-scale, artisanal operations, though many other materials are also obtained through these methods.
Minerals such as lithium and coltan are mined with artisanal methods, as are many types of gemstones. Most of the colored gemstones that are available to the world market are obtained by artisanal miners because there are very few large-scale mining operations for these precious and semi-precious minerals. Diamonds are also obtained by artisanal miners, though unlike colored gemstones, there are many large-scale diamond mines. One effect of artisanal mining on the colored gemstone market is that it can be difficult or impossible to determine where these gems were mined due to the fact that poor, subsistence miners rarely sell directly to wholesalers.
In addition to subsistence miners who use simple hand tools and make a living by selling the minerals and gemstones that they locate, small-scale mining operations can also employ people to perform similar activities. Some small-scale mining operations also make use of underground mines and processing plants, though they are often still limited to relatively simple hand tools. Many issues can arise from this type of artisanal mining, such as the working conditions in the mines and processing plants. In the developing countries where these operations are commonly found, there can sometimes be a lack of oversight or regulations that can lead to safety and environmental concerns. To help mitigate this, a number of organizations are working to improve the conditions of artisanal miners throughout the world.