Small scale mining: Small step or giant leap for Africa?

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By Ncebakazi Ntsokota

“Small scale mining is about people’s livelihoods and could very well be the backbone of our country’s economy if done properly.” These were the words of Tshiamo Legoale, geologist at Mintek and the 2017 International FameLab Science Communication Champion.

Small scale mining is prevalent in Africa but it is physically intensive and often harmful – to both workers and environment. Unlike mainstream mining, small scale mining has still not advanced technologically. This is why Legoale is championing phytomining, as it is environmentally sound, less labour intensive, and it does not require huge amounts of capital.

Phytomining is the use of plant hyper-acumulators to extract metals of interest from the ore substrates to create bio-ores. An example of this is how Mintek is using wheat to naturally extract gold from mine dumps. “However, phytomining especially using wheat is not suitable for all climates or regions,” cautioned Legoale. She emphasised the need to communicate such alternatives to small scale miners, as it would improve their mining methods and yields. This is why science communication is vital as it aids in educating and developing communities.

It is science communication that helped Legoale and her team demystify the “winter snake” myth in one of the communities she was working with in Durban. This community lived near a coal dump and during the winter season each family in that community would slaughter a goat or chicken to offer as a sacrifice to protect their children from the mythical “winter snake”. Curious, she enquired through the chiefs about this tradition and was told that many children had mysteriously died in their homes during the winter seasons.

Upon investigation Legoale and her team found that it had not been the mythical “winter snake” that had killed the children but rather carbon monoxide. During the winter season the women in the community would head out at night into the dump and collect coal which they would use to cook outside. Once they had finished cooking they would bring the coal indoors for warmth. This proved detrimental as no windows or doors were open during this time and therefore no air ventilation was present. This resulted in the children’s deaths. Upon learning about the causes of the deaths, Legoele with her team members held meetings with community members to educate and communicate the science behind the mythical “winter snake”.

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