Massive excavation work, tunnels that sink ever deeper and bulldozers scraping the bottom of rivers: in many African countries there is a growing army of gold prospectors armed with spades, pumps and metal bowls digging the ground and grinding, washing and sieving the dirt.
Academics Raphaëlle Chevrillon-Guibert, of the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), and Géraud Magrin, a professor of geography at Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne University, have described the phenomenon as the “biggest gold rush that Africa has seen”. This search for the precious metal started at the beginning of the 2000s and then grew in pace as the price of gold – now more than ever seen as a safe investment – grew ever higher.
Now, during the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, its value has rocketed: in July 2020 the price of gold broke the barrier of 2,000 dollars an ounce and has remained close to that level since. Twenty years ago the price was ten times lower. The discovery of new seams of gold, which criss-cross the Sahara from Sudan to Mauritania, passing via Chad, Niger and Mali, also explains the increase in the number of small-scale gold-prospecting sites, where gold panners work to scrape a living.
Several other countries have seen gold production grow, such as the Ivory Coast which extracted close to 30 tonnes in 2019. It was here that the Forces Nouvelles rebel group illegally profited from gold mines between 2002 and 2011. In all, Africa accounts for nearly a quarter of the world's total official gold production, which stood at 3,502.6 tonnes in 2019.
Some of the gold is extracted on an industrial scale by large corporations in the sector such as Barrick Gold and fellow Canadian company Endeavour Mining Corporation.
Alongside this, the amount of both legal and illegal small-scale gold prospecting is growing. In the Sahel this form of extraction represents more than a half of the volume of all gold produced, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This equates to a value of between 1.9 billion and 4.5 billion dollars a year and this unofficial sector involves around two million people. A million of these are in Burkina Faso alone, which has between 500 and 700 gold prospecting sites, according to areport by the American non-governmental organisation the International Crisis Group (ICG).
This small-scale or 'artisanal' gold prospecting, which is either little regulated or not regulated at all, often has a damaging impact on the environment. In Cameroon, several indicators suggest that there is a strong correlation between mining activities and deforestation, according to a forthcoming report by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the Cameroon-based Centre pour l'Environnement et le Développement (CED).
The process of gold extraction also uses materials which are dangerous both for the health of both miners and nature. In 2019 a laboratory found mercury present at between four and 26 times the permitted levels in a river close to gold mines at Bozoum. These mines in the north-west of the Central African Republic are run by Chinese firms. In 2019 the president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, said that small-scale artisanal gold mining had “led to a dramatic deterioration of our land and waterways”.
Yet because of their potential value, gaining control of gold production sites has become a key issue in many countries. Many different groups are involved in this battle for control, fuelling conflicts in areas where the state's authority is weak or entirely absent.
In Mali an alliance of rebel groups, the Coordination des Mouvements de l’Azawad (CMA), which has held sway in the Kidal region in the north of the country since France's military intervention in 2013 and which has good relations with Paris, has complete control of gold production sites in the area, where prospecting began in 2014. “Gold is used both to enrich individual combatants and to fund armed movements.30 The CMA often taxes miners in exchange for site security,” says the International Crisis Group.
In the north of the Kidal region, where the local airport remains under the control of the French army, the ICG says it is the jihadist group Ansar Dine that “levies the zakat (religious tax) upon miners and the rest of the population”. The ONG also says that the “financial stakes involved have become considerable in recent years” in the Sahel region, where the lawlessness that prevails in many regions has profited trafficking of all types.
The United Nations has meanwhile calculated that the Abbala Armed Group (AAG) in Sudan was earning more than 54 million dollars a year in the middle of the 2010s, thanks to the control it exercised over at least 400 gold mines.
Various armed groups are also involved in extracting and selling gold in the Central African Republic (CAR), where there are hundreds of small-scale or artisanal gold mining sites. “As they have an iron grip over the diamond mines, armed groups are now after the gold mines. In two years gold has become their main revenue source,” said Nathalia Dukhan, an analyst at the American organisation The Sentry, which in October 2020 published a reportabout the battle for influence in the Central African Republic between France and Russia. “The number one in terms of gold in CAR is the Union for Peace in the Central African Republic,” she said, referring to a group accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the UN.
In July 2020 UN experts reported that a group called Return, Reclamation, Rehabilitation (3R) was imposing a weekly illegal tax of 15,000 CFA francs (23 euros) on every miner at Gomforo in the west of CAR, a region where the group spreads terror and controls dozens of mine sites. According to the experts, the group had fifty armed men “permanently based” around the gold deposits at Gomforo and some of its members have “sometimes been seen in civilian clothing, digging out or receiving a payment in gold”.
Elsewhere in the country the Central African Patriotic Movement (MPC) and the Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central African Republic (FPRC) collect taxes “at control points leading to the mining sites”. The UN experts say that since December 2019 the development of significant gold mining around Kouki in the north-west of the country has attracted thousands of people, some from neighbouring states. These have provided factions such as the MPC and the FPRC with a “new source of income”.