Reshaped gold mining

Gold mining has become a key sector for many West African economies following the increase in global prices during the last two decades. This is accelerating internationalization and transforming the livelihoods of millions of people. NAI researcher Cristiano Lanzano draws from his ongoing ethnographic work around a village in Upper Guinea.

“Small scale gold digging has turned from a mostly “local” activity to a much more transnational one. This means a bigger number of migrant miners residing temporarily in the area, which translates in challenges such as increased pressure on resources.”

Water in particular has become scarce and services such as health assistance are more needed. At the same time opportunities have increased. The village has grown significantly in size in the last two years and typical urban activities, bars and video-clubs for example, are available.

“I want to conduct long term research in the village. It would allow me to understand the conflicts, often underground and subtle, never violent, that have been developing among different local actors over the control and the rent of gold extraction.”

Because of new mining techniques the balance of power has shifted. Local institutions previously closely followed and regulated the extraction of gold. Their control is now challenged because of the mobility of the diggers and the unpredictability of the extraction.

Cristiano Lanzano holds a seminar at African Studies Center in Leiden on 3 December. Click here to find out more.

Facts about mining techniques

Metal detectors
The distribution of portable detectors has increased. The detectors are composed by handles who connect the user to a round or oval coil which works on the principle of “pulse induction”. The coil emits an electro-magnetic pulse directed toward the soil and measures the "return pulse" which would signal the presence of metal objects. Metal detectors have been spreading all over the area in the last 5-6 years, and although they are still expensive they can be easily operated by very small teams. One person drives it, and two other persons dig when the machine reveals the presence of gold. This has democratized the task of locating gold reserves in the ground, and it has made the search quicker and increased the short-term mobility of diggers.

The “Burkinabe” technique
The Burkinabe technique most likely got its name because it was brought to the area for the first time by miners migrating temporarily from Burkina Faso. It implies the digging of deeper pits. Pits used to be around 10 to 15 meters deep, now they easily reach 30 meters of depth or more. It allows diggers to reach gold veins, instead of limiting the extraction to more superficial alluvial deposits. This requires some support activities such as the building of internal wooden structures in the pits, to prevent collapse. It also requires a higher specialization of work. Previously, the choice of the localization of mining activities was centralized to the competent local institutions, and pits were pre-designed geometrically at equal distance from each other and attributed to the different households and rentiers. Now the digging of pits is much more unpredictable. Pits can be deeper but are also abandoned more quickly, and the digging has to follow the direction of gold veins – which makes the previous geometrical or territorial approach less adapted.

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