At 150 meters’ depth and in temperatures of 50 degrees C, men, women and children dig for ten hours a day to find precious metal with the risk of collapses, highly toxic fumes and close contact with mercury and cyanide. It is the gold craft mine of Sougou, in the province of Zoundwéogo.
Throughout history, no other mineral was more valued than gold. About 5,000 years ago, man began to use it in various fields: commercial, medical, financial, etc. Since then, many civilizations were born, grew and disappeared for what is called “gold rush”. Africa is the continent where most of the mining companies are concentrated in the exploitation of gold resources. Burkina Faso is undoubtedly one of the main chests of African gold, where it is the first export product. It provides 20% of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and the economy of the country largely depends on the price of this mineral on the international market.
Burkina Faso, which literally means the land of the just, as its former president Thomas Sankara renamed it, is one of the poorest countries in the world. A land where people are still dying from hunger, thirst, and malaria. A society where AIDS has infected more than 20% of the population, where infibulation (FGM) is tacitly practiced and government corruption is flourishing. A country where the pan African dream of Sankara has been strangled by multinationals and by government corruption. A country where you decide as you please, not only on the riches but also and above all on the lives of the people; where the dignity, the respect and the beauty of men, women and children are violated every day. Gold exploitation is, for Burkina Faso, one of the main economic activities, to the detriment of agriculture which most of the local population still depend on. Those are the ones mostly affected by the “gold rush”, because of its disastrous consequences to the environmental and human fields.
In Burkina Faso, the mining sector could be a huge resource to boost the economy. To such extent that many consider the work in the mines as a better alternative to the one in the farm fields. The problem is that the gold market is poorly managed. On the one hand, there are multinationals that obtain the management of the mines; they feel free to act and decide the programs to be implemented, regardless of the local communities, who are often forced to be displaced to make room for new mines. Moreover, the tax exemption and the fact that the most part of the gold extracted is destined for export, restrain the country's economic growth. On the other hand, the government itself worsens the situation. By failing to respect the legal procedures to avoid environmental destruction or to stimulate economic growth and above all to protect the human rights of the workers, it fuels the illegal craft mines (about a thousand that give work to almost a million people), managed by local clans.
In the mine of Sougou, hundreds of bodies made as ghosts by dust rush around the holes of the ground. These are very narrow vertical tunnels with an average 80 meters of depth. However, if you are not lucky to find the golden vein, you can easily exceed 150 meters. Once you reach groundwater, you continue to dig horizontally. The rocks are crushed with picks and dynamite, bringing considerable risks for those who work there. The possibility that the land yields and that the workers remain trapped is very high, especially because they often dig into the groundwater and particularly during the rainy season. During this season that runs from July to September, the mining activity should be suspended for safety measures. Unfortunately, this ban is ignored.
The work scheduled of a miner goes from eight to ten consecutives hours of total darkness, partially illuminated by flashlights held tight around the forehead by elastic bands. Long and interminable hours where life is a gamble played with death, in which the air is unbreathable and the heat unbearable. The miners who remain on the surface try to reduce the high temperature which at certain depths can reach even 50°C, by waving air with jute bags in rudimentary plastic cones dropped into “holes”. The lucky ones can afford a fan powered by solar energy.
Gold fever does not even spare women and children. UNICEF declared that in Burkina Faso, between a half to three quarters of a million adolescents or pre-adolescents work in the mining sector. These together with women are generally used to transport and split the stones brought to the surface. It does not exclude they too who can sink into the “hole”. Going down there or not is not a question of age, but courage and body size.
Once the stones have been totally crushed, they are ground and reduced to auriferous sand with special machines. The deafening noises of generators and engines are in control along with the dust that covers the creeping bodies exhausted by fatigue.
Water and harmful substances such as mercury are added to the pulverized rock forming an amalgam with gold simply called “paste”. Part of the used mercury is recovered by distillation and by heating the amalgam. The highly toxic fumes produced during this operation are regularly breathed and inevitably contaminate water and soils. Work in the gold mines kills, both inside and outside the “holes”: sudden deaths due to collapses or accidents with rudimentary work tools, or long-term health damage caused by transporting loads, fumes and dust, cyanide poisoning that attacks the central nervous system, causing permanent disability.
Despite that, gold prices and demand for gold still reign. But how much is the value of gold? For miners, sometimes just a meal. Finding the mineral is not easy, sometimes you dig for months. During this period, the investors only guarantee your food. Miners will only get paid if they bring the gold-bearing rocks to the surface. The investor is the beneficiary of 20% of the mining production and in the case of a private land, the owners receive an amount varying between 1% to 10%, the remaining profit is divided between the chief of the village and the miners. The latter don’t know if their stones contain gold, nor in what quantity, until the end of the process. They could therefore dig for months without receiving any income, with the sole guarantee of food. One gram of gold is sold to private individuals in the capital of Ouagadougou for 10,000 francs CFA (around $20.5). In some cases, the gain is really substantial and it is precisely the stories of the miners who had succeeded that gives hope to the desperate ones.
Such is the case of Tapsoba, a 26-year-old boy who has worked in the mine for two months. “I was lucky”, he says, “at only 25 meters I found gold worth 300,000 francs CFA, the owner took his share and the rest was divided in two.” Tapsoba has a dream: to open his own carpentry shop, that’s the only reason he continues to dig. He has currently reached 50 meters’ depth, but does not give up. “I’m sure I’ll find more gold,” he adds “my miner’s life will end soon.”
But these lucky ones are not many. “I worked in Ivory Coast for several years,” said Kabakoti, a 37-year-old miner, “but I had to run away from the civil war in 2006. Arriving in Burkina Faso, I heard about this mine in Tiebelè and I wanted to give it a try. I’ve been digging for two months and reached 38 meters depth, but still no gold.” He sighs and adds: “Every day I pray to Allah before entering the 'hole', so that my efforts can be rewarded.”
Then there are also those who, like Ibrahim, call their family before descending. He is a 30-year-old miner, married and father of two. “If I’m here, it’s just for my family, to give them a small house,” he says with his eyes downcast. “I earned a bit, but it’s still not enough. Of course, in the mine I have the possibility to earn more than in the fields.” His voice stops, he looks up with his eyes bright and red, then continues, “I think I’m a good father. I only think of my children; when I’m down buried in that darkness I can almost see them. I always call them before going down, because I’m afraid it could be the last time. I recommend that they obey their mother and help her with the work. I do the same every time I come back alive."
The work in the Sougou mine is nothing but one of many dramatic stories of modern slavery. A place made of desolation and violation of human rights, where “you dig for the future” without having it, but with the hope of returning one day to daylight with luck in your hands.