MANGA, BURKINA FASO, MAY 2019
It is over 40 degrees in the sun. The muffled explosions of the dynamite remind us that underneath, at the bottom of the thousands of scattered holes that litter the ground, gold is being mined.
The Ariogo site, near the village of Mongomdé, has been active for more than 20 years and has experienced a real boom following the relocation of customs activities from the commune of Bittou to Cinkansé, which has pushed some of the youth, who were left without jobs, to take an interest in traditional gold mining. The Boulgou province, rich in minerals, has two sites, Ariogo and Mongomnoré.
Even if it is difficult to have reliable estimations, according to the head of the site, nearly 5,000 people work there every day. The gold miners come from all over the country, and even from the sub-region, to work on the sites. They come according to opportunities, stay a few months and then leave for other sites. Others settle down as a family, one generation following the previous one.
The organization is hierarchical. At the top, the owner of the hole, at the bottom, the others, who work together and switch roles. In the middle, a trustworthy man, who supervises in the absence of the owner.
Up to 15 people can work around an active hole. Everyone has a well-defined role. There are those who go down and are rarely seen. They break the rock and fill makeshift cans constantly pulled by hand to the surface by 4 men. The canister will be pulled by a fifth person who will be emptied on the ground, before being sent back down, again and again.
Around the pile, the others are busy. The children will prepare the bean, the only food they will eat during the day.
The stones are taken in bulk. It is difficult to guess the presence of gold in the rock. It will have to crush it and crush it again, until it becomes a fine dust, to extract the precious metal. A process that will take nearly three months and whose uncertain outcome is based almost entirely on luck.
Dabré Mamoudou explains: “You can dig for a year and find nothing. To survive, we manage”. The neighbor, on the other hand, can dig 5 meters away and become a millionaire. He arrived on the site in 2002. A few years later, he had saved enough money to buy his own hole. Over the past 10 years, he has explored more than 40 holes, always with his family.
Kaboré Aroun, also a hole owner, has a similar background. Orphaned at age 12, he started gold mining at 17 to support himself. Nearly 20 years later, he is a true entrepreneur. He presents himself as the father of the group. Among the fifteen or so people who work for him, there are cousins, brothers and even his children who come when they don’t have school. Gold panning is a family business. He will take care of the purchase of tools, food, and will take care of the good health of each person, but can also look for a companion for those who wish to marry.
For both Kaboré and Dabré, their children’s future is not in the mines. They hope that after school they will be able to enter the administration. Life in the mines is too hard: “Gold mining is very hard and you can earn nothing,” says Kaboré, who has sometimes not eaten for a week during the winter season shut-down.
Over the course of his career, of the six holes he has explored, only two have yielded enough to live on. Despite this, he does not want to work for the big mining companies whose salaries can reach 500,000 FCFA.
His current hole earns him 12 million per year. An amount that he will divide by two, between him and his team. On resale, a hole that pays can be worth up to 20 million. A figure to put in perspective with a basic investment of almost zero. Anyone is free to start digging if they get permission from the site manager.
On the counter
The counter looks like a small town whose occupations all revolve around crushing and washing. Clothing stores, food stores, jewelry stores, bars and other butcher shops have sprung up on the site. One can hear everywhere women’s hammers breaking the stone by hand. Further on, makeshift sheds disappear under a thick layer of dust. Silhouettes can be seen feeding more and more stones to the mechanical pestles.
The resulting dust will be washed with water on sloping boards. The gold must be caught by the mats that line the wood of the boards. The loaded water will be collected and mixed with cyanide which will trap the gold, before being released into nature.
The mine site is a potential environmental disaster. Without any treatment, the pollution is found in the plantations that will be used to feed the animals. According to the Secretary General of the commune of Bittou, the sensitizations carried out by the commune remain unanswered by the local populations.
The environmental issue is part of a series of challenges that have led the authorities to take an interest in gold mining activities. According to the Secretary General of Bittou, child labor, which is a central concern of the mayor’s office, remains difficult to curb due to a lack of resources, despite awareness-raising activities. This situation is exacerbated by the difficult presence of the authorities on the ground.
With the expansion of activities on the counter, prostitution and crime have developed. Brought by her sister two months earlier, a young sex worker from Togo described the difficulties she may encounter with the gold panners. Drugs can make people uncontrollable and violent.
According to the police commissioner in Bittou, tramadol, although illegal in Burkina Faso, is considered a simple tool. In order to descend by the light of a torch to the bottom of a hole that can be up to 70 meters deep, gold miners pump up their courage with tramadol, which helps to chase away fatigue, multiply strength and, above all, silence fears.
Most of the prohibited products come from Ghana or Nigeria. There is a traffic against which it is difficult to fight. The police is left on its own. The Bittou police station, which has 28 staff, has to cover the 26 villages of the commune, the furthest of which is 75 kilometers away. This situation is made even more difficult by the deteriorating security situation in the area.
Unable to provide a daily presence, the police rely on the internal organization of the site for security. A network of gold miners, entrusted with security by the person in charge, will serve as informants for the police by warning them of any unusual movement.
It is thanks to this organization that conflicts rarely occur. The relationship between the gold miners and the local community of herders and farmers remains good. Each mixes according to the seasons, with one working on the activity of the other. If an animal dies from falling down a hole or from cyanide poisoning, it is usually settled out of court, without the need for police intervention.
A situation set to disappear
Despite this organization and good understanding, the arrival of the large mining companies, under direct contract with the government, heralds the end of traditional gold panning activities on the site. Practicing in an almost total informality and with almost no security, the gold miners of eastern Burkina Faso are set to be put out of work.