Artisanal mining policy reforms, informality and challenges to the Sustainable Development Goals in Sierra Leone

Roy Maconachie, Felix Conteh

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In recent years, governments, donors and policy makers across sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have increasingly realised the potential of formalizing and supporting artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) – low tech, labour-intensive mineral processing and extracting. A significant body of evidence suggests that ASM has become the most important rural non-farm activity across SSA, and by making it the centrepiece of new rural development strategies being launched across the continent, it could help governments meet a number of targets linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Focusing on the West African country of Sierra Leone, this paper explores recent reforms to ASM, examining both their potential to support a formalized sector, and to make contributions to the SDGs. In doing so, two broad sets of formalization reforms that have taken place, or are underway, are analysed. First, the paper examines Sierra Leone's legal, policy and regulatory reforms that have shaped the development of a number of laws and policies, including the Mines and Minerals Act of 2009. Second, it analyses institutional reforms resulting from the splitting of policy making and regulatory functions, especially the decentralization of the artisanal mining licencing process. The paper argues that beneath these changes, there exists intractable continuities of informality that make reforms in the sector superficial, unsustainable, and potentially a barrier to attaining the SDGs. Underlining these continuities, the paper suggests, is the role that ASM has traditionally played in a political economy that links powerful local Chieftains with national politicians in mutually beneficial relationships, which invariably render formal state regulators such as the National Minerals Agency and Environment Protection Agency largely uncoordinated, and operationally weak. The paper concludes by arguing that that the persistence of informality in the sector needs to first be dismantled as a rational strategy for those who profit from it, and only then can sustainable mining reforms be linked to broader development initiatives, such as attaining the SDGs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-46
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Early online date20 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - 28 Feb 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This article was a joint collaborative effort by Roy Maconachie and Felix Conteh. The grant that funded the research was awarded to Roy Maconachie. Felix Conteh was appointed as a Postdoc on the project. The fieldwork for the paper in Sierra Leone was jointly carried out by Conteh and Maconachie, as was the drafting of the paper, editing of intermediate drafts and the production of the final paper for Environmental Science and Policy.

Funding Information:
We would like to thank Humanity United (Grant BP11037/16PROJ ) for the generous financial support that made this research possible. We are also grateful to Gavin Hilson and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments on an earlier draft of the paper.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM)
  • Informality
  • Mining policy reforms
  • Sierra Leone
  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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