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Since the commodity boom of the early 2000s, the visibility of ‘artisanal’ or ‘small-scale’ mining has grown in media coverage and development policies focused on Africa. This article argues that the regulatory category of ‘artisanal’ mining in Africa originated during the colonial period as ‘customary mining’. I build this case through a regional case study of mining policies in the colonial federation of French West Africa, where a single decree accorded African subjects ‘customary rights’ to seasonally mine gold and rock salt in restricted areas. By contrast, colonial citizens, mostly Europeans, accessed stable mining titles. Customary mining rights never codified actual African mining ‘customs’, as colonial officials argued. Rather, this law marked the boundary between the technological status of French subjects and citizens. Core elements of this colonial legal framework have been incorporated into postcolonial policies governing the rights of citizens to mineral resources in Africa.
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