The detectable threat of illegal mining 


April 18th, 2024



Written by

Marta Mas i Serra

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illegal mining

Illegal mining is the process of digging, extracting, and transporting minerals without government permission. It can be a subsistence activity, like artisanal mining, or part of large-scale organised crime, led by illegal mining syndicates. 

It occurs at abandoned mines and operating mines with illegal miners often operating under dangerous conditions. On a global scale, about 80% of small-scale mining operations worldwide can be categorised as criminal. 

Despite strategic developments towards “responsible mining,” even big companies can be involved in illegal mineral digging and extraction, only just financing the operation. That is why governments, mining companies, partners and investors need to ensure they are not embroiled in this activity. 

 Environmental impacts 

  • Pollution 
  • Water quality 
  • Land degradation 
  • Biodiversity 
  • Deforestation 

 Human rights 

  • Abuses 
  • Community development 
  • Human trafficking 
  • Child labour 
  • Security or health risks 
  • Lack of protective gear leading to injuries or death 
  • Peace and stability 

 Financial impacts 

  • Tax evasion 
  • Fraud and corruption 
  • Money laundering 
  • Smuggling of precious metals 
  • Illegal trade in weapons and commercial explosives 


Preventing illegal mining 

The most susceptible areas should be identified and protected to prevent illegal mining. Small-scale mines should be monitored and regulated, and more complex regulatory controls on mine closures should be ensured. 

Therefore, the most important thing to help prevent illegal mining is detection. It has to be identified first and then monitored. However, illegal mining usually occurs in remote places, with difficult access, and it can be hard to find and serve them.  

That’s why satellites are the most effective and powerful tool: they can access any remote place on Earth, and gather independent and reliable data and continuous and historical information. 


How can we detect illegal mining? 

Using satellite technology, it’s possible to regularly monitor the expansion and evolution of a mining site and its encroachment into communities adjacent to the mine. 

Several parameters can provide evidence of illegal mining activities. These include: 

  • Surface expressions: The identification of subtle disturbances to the surface, which might indicate the presence of activity over mines which have been closed. 
  • Water: Surface water contamination can be detected, mapped, monitored and assessed directly from space through multi-spectral imagery analysis, or indirectly through change analysis of indices, such as vegetation health. 
  • Human Signs: Using optical and radar imagery, it is possible to detect machinery and associated transport, increased people movements, aggregations and excavation, and ore processing.  
  • Land Cover: Maps can be generated using both optical and radar and high and low-resolution EO data. To assess their change, those maps will be generated over a defined temporal period. 
  • Infrastructure: Identifying changes in the infrastructure surrounding the mine, such as the creation of new temporary settlements, changes to the state of public roads, and the condition (stability) of bridges and other public infrastructure. 
  • Deforestation: Identifying the presence of deforestation and wider vegetation degradation 


GlobalTrust provides users with updates and alerts of potential mining activities across vast areas, viewing both historical and new imagery to provide instant situational awareness and the ability to overlay additional data to contextualise alerts or provide additional environmental impact intelligence.