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Artisanal gold mining in Mali is an economic boon and an environmental disaster

By Michel Yao and Sory Kondo

The Malian town of Kéniéba, near the borders with Guinea and Senegal, is well known for its gold sites. Major mining companies have been established there for years, and just outside the large mining sites, traditional gold panning attracts thousands of young miners from the surrounding areas and elsewhere. While artisanal mining has a positive impact on the local economy, there are also severe risks, especially for the local environment.

Miners install their sites wherever they can in the region, as in the Doucoureya area, three kilometers from the city of Kéniéba, where “gold is king.” The area’s farmers have long ago abandoned their fields. According to Lassana Camara, president of the gold panners of Kéniéba, “the main activity is gold panning. All those who are here live in one way or another from this activity. Whether they are tailors, traders or transporters, it is a chain. If the gold panners suspend their activities today, the consequences will be terrible, worse than that of the coronavirus.”

The artisanal gold mining community is made up of locals and men and women from Mali’s neighboring countries. Mady, a 19-year-old from Burkina Faso, came to Kéniéba after abandoning his Quranic school three years ago, and hopes to save money before returning to Burkina. “We collect the mud with the others and we’re paid between 5 and 15,000 CFA francs a week. In one day, some people can find between 1 and 3 grams. Working with gold is not easy. Sometimes we earn a decent amount and sometimes we have nothing,” he explained.

Men and women of all ages mine gold in the region. Like Ms. Sissoko and M’balou Diarra, the women do it all: they dig, transport and wash the removed portions of land. In her nearly 20 years in the business, Ms. Mbalou says she has been a real support to her family. “Thank God, I earn a bit here. I support my husband and I take care of the children’s education. I will also pay for daughters when they get married, because in our country, when a child marries, his mother and father have to pay for her ceremony,” she said. Despite her courage and determination, Ms. M’Balou is struggling. “Some days, I can’t even find 5 francs. Gold is a matter of luck too,” she added.

Risk of landslides

The risk of landslides on gold mining sites is very high, especially in the rainy season. Last June, five people died and ten others were injured following the collapse of a mine in Sadiola, in Kayes region. In January 2019, seventeen people died at a former site of the Société d’exploitation des mines d’or de Sadiola (SEMOS SA). Since 2014, an interministerial decree prohibits all activity on gold panning sites during the rainy season.

In Kéniéba, gold panners operate clandestinely in various locations despite the risks and the ban during the period from mid-May to the end of October. “The gold panners have a technique of cutting wood and putting it underground, but in the rainy season, it is not easy to exploit the underground mines because it brings landslides. Unfortunately, when that happens, there are always victims. It is a practice that should be discouraged and abandoned in this season. As long as it rains, we have no control over the soil,” said Cheick Oumar Camara, 1st vice-president of the Kéniéba Circle Council.

Economic impact

Mali is the third largest gold producer in Africa, but the gold profits are of little benefit to the population. For a sector that generates about 11,000 jobs, the large mining companies benefit the most. “The gold belongs to the multinationals, they are the ones who mine the most and have the most money to invest. The Malian state has very little stake in the mining companies, so the state has a limit to the fiscal and non-fiscal revenues that derive from the exploitation of gold,” explained economist Modibo Mao Makalou.

“Gold does not benefit the population,” Makaou said. “This is due to a glaring failure in the mining policy. The mining companies invest a small portion in the local communities: drinking water, roads, etc. But this is not enough.” According to Makalou, “a national sovereign fund is needed so that the gold revenues can go there, and the state as a public power can undertake the necessary public investments. We can’t expect multinational companies to come and develop our country, especially in terms of basic social services. This is the responsibility of the state.”

For former Kéniéba member of parliament Mamadou Salif Diallo, the impact of gold remains positive. “In 2009 in Kéniéba, there were only two villas, today in 2020 the city is growing. In each family, there is at least one motorcycle. Others have cars, solar panels on the roofs. All this is due solely to gold mining. Out of 10 villas here, at least 7 are owned by those who do artisanal mining.”

Unfair tax structure

Despite the intense gold mining activities in Kenieba, many in the community, including Kéniéba Council’s vice-president Cheick Oumar Camara, feel that not enough taxes are being paid. “The law provides for communities to collect taxes for gold mining. But no community imposes these taxes on the various miners.  I don’t know why. But these are revenues that could helped the communities to support the various operating costs. Unfortunately, this is not the case at present,” Camara lamented.

Camara says it is difficult to know the number of gold miners in the area. “Someone who says they have statistics is lying to you. It depends on the recruiter. A recruiter can be prolific and attract a lot of people. But after a couple of weeks or a month, the gold starts to disappear and people start going to a different site. Gold panning constitutes 80 percent of the local economy because the trade comes from gold. There are so many gold traders.”

Threats to the environment

Artisanal gold mining is a danger to the environment, according to Adama Guindo, head of Kéniéba’s chemical control department. “The gold panners mix soap powder with the earth. This mixture will then be poured into the riverbed. Fish and other aquatic animals cannot survive. The real problem, though, is the use of white mercury and another cyanide by-product,” he said.

Cheick Oumar Camara also noted that deforestation is a problem in gold mining areas. “First there is the impact on fauna and flora. They are uprooting the forest. The use of chemicals devastates the flora, but so does the wood needed to build the mining chutes. Miners use tons of wood to make the chutes.”

The economist Modibo Mao Makalou agrees. “They use a lot of use of chemicals the safety standards are not respected.”

Even though artisanal gold mining provides a livelihood for millions of Malians, it is still a danger to the ecosystem and to people’s lives. In 2019, an interministerial decree banned all dredging activities in Mali. This other form of gold mining in the waters of the river has grown in scale and the consequences are harmful to the environment.

“Going deep into the bed of the Senegal River is disastrous, catastrophic! Dredging has been forbidden, but unfortunately the practice still exists in Kéniéba. You check out the banks of the Falémé, you will find dredgers which are making the gold exploitation. This has a negative impact on the rivers that belong not only to Mali, but also to Guinea and Senegal,” warned Camara.      

In addition to these threats, childhood education of children remains a challenge in Kéniéba, because many work on the gold sites.

*Reporting supported by the IMS Sahel Program, funded by DANIDA.

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