The industry of Burkina Faso is dominated by two goods. Cotton and gold. Cotton used to be the dominating export, but gold overtook it a few years back and made the country the fourth biggest exporter of gold in Africa. Most of the gold is extracted by international enterprises and almost 100% of the Burkinabe gold is exported to Switzerland. The gold industry is an important political issue. Historically, The Burkinabe state has been quite bad at getting good deals with the companies that extract gold. The industry has caused a lot of environmental and social problems to communities while the state hasn’t collected taxes to the extent it could have and hasn’t been able to control the amounts of gold produced. There’s a story I’ve heard a few times here about how the French used to smuggle the gold they had produced here back to France. When a certain amount of fairly concentrated gold ore had been extracted, the machine treating it would break down, with the gold inside it. Because these machines were very high-tech, they supposedly had to be brought back to France to be repaired. There was no way to control the amount of gold inside when the machine was broken down, but somehow it always came back nearly empty. The undeclared gold stayed in Europe. I have no idea about the degree of truth to that story. However, it’s a rather accurate analogy for how the mining companies have taken the gold out of the ground and left very little for the people of Burkina Faso.
There isn’t only the industrial mining sector in Burkina. There’s also the artisanal part of it.Having studied political science, I am very interested in institutional issues such as whether multinationals pay taxes or not, but the artisanal gold sector is more closely related to what I am doing in Burkina. It is estimated that as much as a million people are employed in the artisanal and semi-mechanized gold mines. Artisanal mines are pretty much what they sound like. You dig a hole. You go down the hole. You try to find gold. You sell the gold and get money. We visited one in Matiacoali last time we went.
As I have mentioned before, it is not uncommon to find children crawling on the narrow tunnels of the mines. They come for several reasons. Some are sent by their parents who can’t supply for them, others take a shot at earning a quick buck. The majority of people working the artisanal mines are adults. Needless to say, work is hard and dangerous, and you get paid when the gold shows up. If it does indeed show up. One young man we spoke to said it’s been three months and no gold. It was starting to feel hopeless to him.
Safety is a major problem. Each hole is operated more or less independently of the surrounding ones. Once a certain level is reached, shafts are dug horizontally. After a while, there’s a widespread system of tunnels, and collapse becomes all the more likely. This happens on a regular basis. With very limited possibilities of being rescued, many of them will die beneath the crumbled masses of soil.
I was interested in how labour is organized. Bargo explained that usually, there’s someone who invests the money that’s needed. That person buys the rather limited materials needed and puts his employees on a food and accommodation “payroll”. The employees dig until they find gold. The gold is usually found in very small grains, so it needs to be jigged (washed out of) the soil that surrounds it. When enough gold has been found to go to the market, it is sold, and profits are shared according to the agreement between the miners and the employer. I may draw a rather negative picture here, but a lot of miners can make a good salary from the mines. That is not to belittle in a country where a well payed job, or even a job, is not gonna fall out of the clear blue sky. Especially not if you live in the countryside of the poor east. Nevertheless it is problematic that children are drawn to the mines instead of going to school. Although my colleagues have actively targeted the mines in the municipality, we did meet some youngsters who shouldn’t be there. My colleague Daniel told me there used to be lots more. Just like the internationals will probably have to pay more taxes soon, hopefully fewer children will opt for the mines as education proves to be a better way towards a decent life. It’s not going to be fast. But it’s happening.