Thousands of people labour in the gold mines of Burkina Faso. Working conditions are miserable and many children risk their lives.
The sun has not risen yet and Jean Pierre is already walking along the dirty road that leads to the mine. Another day has just started. Five years ago he left his village to work in the mine. The gold mine of Alga is located about 130km north of the capital Ouagadougou. Outside the mine, the landscape is striking: just some dilapidated huts on a a barren slope covered with gray dust and riddled with dozens of wells. Hundreds of people work here, their faces are covered with dust. The noise all around is incessant: the pounding of machinery, the underground explosions, and the honking of motorbikes which speed along the narrow streets, carrying minerals and people.
“Gold has been extracted for more than 30 years here in Alga”, says Elijah Sawadogo, owner of a mine, “however, the population ‘exploded’ when a few years ago a large gold field was discovered in this area. Now about 7,000 people live here, most of them are from Burkina Faso, and a minority from neighboring countries. About 40 people arrive here every day. There are many working underground and as many again work on the surface, such as mechanics and machinists”.
Lack of safety
Every morning, miners of Alga go down 170 meters underground using hand-powered elevators. They work in shifts of 12 hours each. Miners first dig down to reach the gold-bearing gravel, then they dig horizontally to follow the gold veins. They use dynamite to extract the metal. Then the gold-bearing rocks are put into bags and brought to the surface. “Air compressors are used underground in order to provide cool air”, – Amadou, a miner expert explains – “but when the smoke of the compressors invades the tunnel, it gets even hotter down there”.
Helmets, gloves, safety boots and other protective devices are unknown in the mine of Alga. One can also see children crawling in the dust among the noise of generators and other machineries. Some of them are not even 10 years old and already crush stones into pebbles and extract gold from the stones by using mercury, which is toxic. Many children use amphetamines to keep going, to reduce anxiety and hunger. Mohammed, head of a group of miners, says,“It is just about courage. If a child is brave enough, he can even work in pits. Age does not matter”.
Although artisanal mining is performed by using very simple equipment, it still requires very high investments. Sometimes it takes up to five months to reach the gold-bearing vein, at least according to Albert Ousse, investor and manager of a mine in Tikando, 400 km south-west of Ouagadougou. Ousse recalls that once miners had to dig for about two months before starting to extract gold.
During this research period, the only reward for the miners is food. The investor pays the digging equipment, and miners get paid only when they carry the bags filled with gold-bearing rocks out of the mine.
There are stories about miners who found extremely profitable gold veins and have become quite wealthy. But these lucky fellows are really few. “I worked as a miner for 16 years in the Tikando mine”, says Bamoro Maadi, “but I have not had much luck up to now”. However Maadi and his colleagues admit that they earn more by working in the mines, than by cultivating fields. They can make about CFA10,000 ($17) a week.
Yields of small-scale mining amount to about 900 kilograms of gold per year, while the industrial extraction is equal to 30 tons, according to a recent report of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which controls the turnover linked to oil, gas and mining. But according to Kevin Telmer, executive director of Artisanal Gold Council (AGC), a Canadian, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the environment, health and livelihoods of artisanal and small miners, the real amount yielded by artisanal gold miners is equivalent to 20 tons per year.
About 200,000 workers are directly employed in the gold mines of Burkina Faso, and up to five times more that number are employed in associated services.
But most of these miners work for starvation wages and in dangerous conditions, without protective equipment and are moreover exposed to toxic chemicals. They cannot even afford to pay the rent for those miserable huts in Alga. So they sleep outside on the bare ground without blankets because they have no place for their personal belongings. The lucky ones, like Jean Pierre, sleep in a straw hut near the mine. (H.K.)