4th March 2022
As if there’s not enough tragedy to go around at the moment, news came in this week of a mine collapse at an artisanal gold mining operation in Guinea that has killed at least 18 people. Guinea is no stranger to such events at its informal gold mines; a non-exhaustive list might include a landslide in 2014 that killed seven, a collapse in 2015 that killed at least 12, a 2019 landslide that killed at least 17 people, and a 2021 collapse that killed at least 15. Many of the dead are women and sometimes girls; Guinea apparently has a cultural history of women’s involvement in gold mining that is often lacking elsewhere. But as with women in artisanal mining virtually everywhere, their roles often fall at the bottom of an informal but rigid hierarchy: digging and washing, for example, provide little chance of striking it rich, but can be back-breaking and dangerous work. And the number of women killed in these and other accidents in Guinea show that risk is egalitarian in this case.
Artisanal gold mining in Guinea certainly has a pedigree; the purported richest man in human history, 14th century West African king Mansa Musa, derived a significant part of his wealth from the practice. And in parts of the country where gold deposits have been known for centuries, a yearly rhythm sees the rainy season dedicated to agricultural pursuits and entire villages decamp for the mines in the dry. But this seasonal cycle has been violated in recent years by transient populations whose sole source of income is mining, and this has led directly to many of the tragedies Guinea has experienced. Shafts that run too deep without proper supports or surface mining operations on slopes are particularly susceptible to collapse when the ground is saturated by heavy rains and the soil is little better than mud. In a very real sense, miners risk their lives to pan or dig for gold in Guinea.
The safety of workers is not the only problem facing artisanal mining in Guinea. In some cases, especially in areas without a strong history of mining, new gold discoveries can lead within days to the uprooting of local lifestyles and industries. This is the result of overwhelming and immediate migration to the site of new discoveries, not just from all over Guinea but from neighbouring countries as well, as opportunists and the desperate converge to try their luck. This week’s disaster was a case study in this phenomenon; while most of the country’s mining disasters occur in the northeastern Siguiri region, this one happened in Gaoual in the northwest. The discovery of gold at Kounsitel in Gaoual was revealed in June last year, and within 72 hours literally thousands of people had descended upon the town of 18,000 inhabitants and the surrounding region. They came from all over Guinea as well as other West African countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone. Government checkpoints proved useless to stem the flow of migration.
Kounsitel’s economy and culture centres on the raising of livestock, but that practice is now in chaos. Local reports indicate that within days of the migrants’ arrival, the landscape was stripped. Cattle theft was rampant. The social effects were immediate and profound: students abandoned schools for the mine, the price of transport and consumer goods skyrocketed, and miners slept wherever they could find space in the town. And all this came in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and a resurgence of Ebola in Guinea. Almost immediately, the government banned panning at the site, deployed police and instructed migrants to leave, but as with other supposedly-shuttered artisanal gold mines in the country, the effect was negligible and mining activities continue virtually unabated to today. As a result, locals who resent the complete disruption of their community and way of life have clashed violently with miners.
Gold mining has a particular allure for artisanal miners, partly due to the cultural associations of gold but chiefly because its high value per gram and native occurrence mean that small-scale operations can plausibly succeed with small ore volumes and basic (if toxic) processing techniques. On top of this, there is a reliable market that, more often than not, does not care about where or how its gold was mined. Guinea, clearly, is rich in the yellow metal, but like many developing nations it struggles to consistently attract foreign investment to develop its potential. It’s far from impossible for foreign companies to operate in Guinea; the country is China’s number one source of bauxite, and that is certainly not being mined by artisanal operators. But with a few exceptions, investment in formal gold mining has lagged, and even the most enterprising explorers and developers are likely to be deterred by a political landscape that, since 2019, has included anti-government protests that killed 800 and a coup d’état by the military.
As with so many developing nations, Guinea has a wealth of natural resources that could, if properly developed, be the source of very welcome foreign investment and tax revenue for the country. Management of these resources by experienced and well-regulated companies would also create physically safe jobs for people who are urgently in need of a dependable source of income. But, again as with many developing nations, in order to tempt in these corporations, Guinea will have to create a secure political and regulatory environment where they can thrive. Until that is achieved, I fear we will only continue to hear of the deaths and injury of people performing unimaginably hard labour for survival money and the outside chance of getting lucky.
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