- A decade ago, Burkina Faso's western town of Poura reveled in a boom from a government-run industrial gold mine and became known as Petit Paris. The town quickly lost that reputation after the mine closed in 1999. Now it is known for something else: the hazards of small-scale mining. A cave-in killed at least three miners and injured several others in August.
"We have difficulties preventing people from exploiting the mine," said Théodore Balma, who worked at the mines in Poura for 22 years. "It is dangerous and we know we will have more deaths, but people are jobless and come from all parts of the country because there is gold there to be exploited."
Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. Artisanal mining flourished in the country after droughts in the mid-1980's forced farmers to find alternative sources of income. Now, close to 200,000 people mine on a small scale to make a living, working on 200 sites throughout the country.
They sell the gold for 50 CFA (US$ 0.10) per gram to the government, making artisanal gold Burkina Faso's third largest export. Despite these high earnings, the government is attempting to close down mines such as the one at Poura, 120 km west of the capital, Ouagadougou, as it moves ahead with efforts to privatise the mining industry.
But local authorities disagree. "There will be a social disaster if the mine is closed. Everybody depends on it because of a lack of fertile lands," said Youssek Konaté, Poura's deputy mayor.
Willing to risk dangers
Emile Nigna, the traditional chief of Poura for the past 60 years, wants authorities to invest in training and reorganising the traditional miners rather than shutting off access to the mine.
"People were exploiting gold here before I was born and they will not go away so easily now that their whole life depends on it. There is enough gold here and people will die if there is no organisation," Mr Nigna said.
The risks of small-scale mining go beyond cave-ins. A 2001 report by the International Institute for Environment and Development said that mines tend to be in isolated areas where "miners live in poor housing conditions without access to safe drinking water or electricity." It said that many young male workers abuse drugs and alcohol, and that diseases such as meningitis, cholera and HIV/AIDS are rife.
Officials admit that reorganising traditional miners would likely help prevent accidents and otherwise protect the workers, but those familiar with artisanal mining say things are unlikely to change.
"The trend today is to go formal in gold, but we admit that traditional exploitation is a necessary evil that we cannot get away from overnight," said Roger Bouri Zombre, director of traditional mining at the Ministry of Mining, Geology and Quarrying.
He said that since the Ouagadougou government began a structural adjustment programme prescribed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1991, it has moved toward privatising the industry. The 1997 Mining Code provided incentives for companies, including tax breaks, to invest in mining.
"Since we undertook economic reforms, we realised it is imperative for the government to give up the mining business and only keep its role in controlling, regulating and promoting its activities," said Seka Ky, executive director for the mining ministry. "The state cannot and should not invest in mining, which is a risky sector. It should provide adequate mapping of sites for investors."
The Burkinabe government nevertheless still has high hopes for the gold sector to help alleviate poverty and boost employment in the country.
The gold-mining potential of Burkina Faso has been compared to that of neighbouring Ghana and Mali, the largest gold producers in West Africa. The London-based 'Economist Intelligence' says gold production in Burkina Faso is set to reach 8,700 kg in 2007 - nearly a six-fold increase from 2005.
This year, the government expects to receive CFA 1.3 billion (US$ 2.5 million) in annual taxes from mining companies, and foresees the creation of 800 new jobs every year for the next eight years. It also stipulated in its new mining code that companies must invest in community development projects, such as the building of schools, housing and wells.
"Companies have a moral duty and it is in their interest to leave populations with something because the resources we are exploiting are not renewable," said Adama Barry, country representative of Nantou Mining, a subsidiary of Australian AIM Resources and president of the Burkinabe Professional Miners Association.
The government also hopes that eventually the private sector will absorb traditional miners into their fold. "We do not want this traditional exploitation, but despite legislation we can’t eradicate it. We just hope that industrial mining will absorb these workers as this is what they know how to do," said Mr Zombre.
This, however, will depend on whether private companies respect their corporate responsibility.
Officials from the Ministry of Mines and Quarrying have already expressed concern over the privatisation process of the Burkinabe Precious Metal Counters (CBMP), the last remaining government owned-mining operation. It oversees artisanal mining and assures control of gold production in the country.
Mr Zombre says that of the six private counting companies set up to replace the CBMP, two are already close to losing their contracts after they failed to provide an accurate report of their activities.
Meanwhile, the miners in Poura are still waiting to see if their source of livelihood will remain intact. When the government abandoned the gold mine it promised to find an investor and restart operations there by 2005. Negotiations with the only interested party fell through.
"We have been left alone, discouraged," said Mamadou Ouattara, a former worker at the mine who has been waiting for a new investor to come. "Those who could not stand it any longer have gone."
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