Paying the real price of gold


As gold becomes increasingly important on world markets, BRIAN O’CONNELLand photographer MICHAEL MAC SWEENEYreport from Burkina Faso on the conditions for those working in the mines

ABOUT 70 kms from the city of Gaoua, in southern Burkina Faso not far from the border with Ghana, at the end of an improvised sandy track, is Tonoir, a goldmine on which thousands of people live and work.

It’s like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, with clay-covered faces emerging from makeshift homes either side of the entrance to the mine. Judging by the reaction from the workers on site, few outsiders have passed through here since the mine opened a year ago. There is a distinct edginess in the air, with locals stopping their work to eye us suspiciously. We learn later that a miner had died the morning we arrived — dynamite exploded in a shaft where he was working — so our visit was treated with mistrust and alarm.

The mining area consists of pockets of shafts, some 20m under the surface, propped up with tree branches and elaborate tunnel systems. Every few minutes dynamite explodes and the air is thick with dust and the smell of petrol from makeshift generators.

Over the past year, as the international demand for gold has risen, the government in Burkina Faso has been trying to close these mines, particularly following the deaths of at least 40 people after recent heavy rains.

The gold is shipped from here to markets in the capital city, or to Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Generally, the same person owns all the mining sites in one region, and the licence to mine is granted by local authorities. Sites seem to erupt overnight and whole families arrive and settle here so that only a month or two after gold is discovered the sites can have attracted thousands of people to an area where there are no lodgings or direct access to water. With people living so close together and in temporary structures, fires are a major problem. Also, with men outnumbering women significantly, and only a small armed presence, personal safety is an issue.

Chemicals such as arsenic and mercury abound, in the same space as small children, who have no schooling and no health facilities. Sites are also creating huge pressure on local food supplies. People arriving here don’t produce food and instead drain the surrounding areas. By the end of the mining season, fields in the locale have been stripped of crops and cereal, and so everyone goes hungry just to keep the sites going. At the Tonoir mine there are also no set wages.

Miners work in small teams of 10-13 people and get paid for what they found. In some cases, workers pay to be allowed onto the site in the first place. Rheal Drisdelle, Programme Manager of Plan International, one of the few Irish NGOs working in Burkina Faso, says: “It’s an epidemic here at present and the government is trying to regularise control over these sites. You can’t stop these mines from existing.

“Because of poverty, you cannot stop people from wanting to make a living. But hopefully we can force the owners to provide some basic services to the people and especially the children on the sites.” Plan International is attempting a study of exactly how many people are present, and what their general state of health is. It has been reported that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in mining sites in Burkina Faso is four times higher that the rest of the country. The nearest hospital to Tonoir is almost 100 kilometres away and while Plan International has built schools 20 kilometres away (funded through Irish donations and sponsorship), none of the children in the mine goes there. In a country where one in five children will die before their fifth birthday, addressing the needs of mining children is a pressing concern.

The Tonoir mine site only re-opened in November, following the rainy season. At the beginning of the rainy season, workers were so reluctant to leave that government forces entered the site and burned the houses down. One worker says that up to 50,000 people could be on site at any one time, in an area no bigger than a football pitch. “The people keep coming,” he says. Are more people coming because of the higher price of gold on international markets? “No, the people here don’t know whether the price goes up or down. They just know that there is gold and money to be made so they just come.” Where the makeshift shafts are located, the conditions are brutal and dangerous and the soundtrack is provided by constant coughing from workers, few of whom wear protective masks. Shafts overlap, there is little to prevent someone stumbling down open mines, and the seeming lack of structure means that the overall scene is chaotic and frantic.

Workers are in the shaft for up to four hours at a time, unearthing large rocks, which are hauled to the surface. These rocks are then removed and broken down. Once the material has been broken down, it is filtered in water troughs, after which tiny specs of gold emerge. Mercury, which can have harmful side effects when handled without protective clothing, is then added to bind the gold together and the gold is brought to a central office where it is sold and shipped off-site. Water, which is brought to the site in large containers from several kilometres away, is at a premium at Tonoir, and prices vary between 50 and 100 CFA Francs for a container – a day’s wages in some cases.

One such miner is Hama, a 28-year-old from a neighbouring state. How much money has he earned so far this year? “I got one piece of gold worth 300,000 CFA [approximately €457]. When I get money, I send it to my father at home. And I don’t know if I will get any other money this year.”

Yet, unless these workers can access alternative employment, in a country with one of the lowest GDP’s in Africa, sites such as this will continue. The fact that such a site could exist with so many people, shows just how large an issue mining has become across large areas of sub-Saharan Africa. And, as gold continues to rise in value, the problem only looks set to worsen.

Brian O’Connell and Michael Mac Sweeney’s trip was funded by Plan Ireland.

Burkina Faso gold rush slideshow: