Small-scale mining, natural resources and development in Burkina Faso

Researcher: Cristiano Lanzano

Along with last decade’s “mining boom”, which has boosted many African economies in terms of exports and foreign investments, gold extraction is growing in all West Africa. In Burkina Faso, gold has become the first export good since 2009, replacing cotton - Burkina Faso’s historical cash crop - and turning the country into the 4th biggest gold producer in Africa. Beside the industrial sector and the large-scale mines, the number of artisanal and small-scale mining sites has hugely increased in the last decades. Around 1 million people are currently estimated to be involved, more or less directly, in "orpaillage" (as gold artisanal extraction is locally named in French), distributed between a few hundreds small-scale sites. Production in artisanal sites develop largely outside the sphere of formal regulations, but still contributes to the national production and has a significant impact on the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people. Given the variable degree of productivity of gold veins through time, the continuous opening and closure of sites determines an unstable geography of orpaillage: a moving frontier of gold, made up by an extremely mobile workforce of internal migrants. The project aims at developing the analysis in four possible directions:

1. mining and resources. Small-scale mining often raises concerns over the environmental impact of informal sites: the danger represented by the use of mercury and cyanide in the amalgamation process generates public debate, but the impact of informal mining must be evaluated also for the additional pressure that mining sites generate on natural resources. Increased demand for water or wood can generate conflicts involving local interests and authorities at different levels, or commodification practices that modify or graft onto preexisting informal or formal regulations.

2. new livelihoods and new economies (real and imagined) of mining. The growth of mining sites affects demography, economy and spatial organization in the regions concerned: pressure is exerted on arable land and at the same time the demand for food and other consumption goods increases, the prices follow, and new markets emerge near gold extraction and processing areas. As such, mining stimulates a reconfiguration of the urban-rural continuum. At the same time, the “new economy” of mining has an imagined dimension which deserves attention as much as its material one:   the social identities linked with gold extraction, the new forms of conspicuous consumption stimulated by the sector, the site imagined as a space of free competition and individual success.

3. the governance of gold sites. Even in the presence of regulatory gaps or limited application of national legislation, institutional solutions emerge to organize work within the sites and provide a minimum degree of acceptance in the local context. Arrangements are set between the leaders of the miners on one hand, and representatives of local communities on the other. These dynamics should not be confined in the field of informality: in a context of evolving norms and redistribution of powers between institutions, informal solutions can sometimes serve as a reference or undergo formalization. Moreover, many actors in the mining sector develop their strategies on the border between the formal norm and the search for recognition based on local consensus or customary legitimacy.

4. small-scale mining as an arena for development agencies. Development actors are becoming increasingly interested and involved in the mining sector. While the political discourse links mining investments with stated objectives of economic and social development of the areas concerned or the entire national territory, initiatives to involve stakeholders in the “civil society” are increasing. More particularly, the artisanal sector raises concerns about working conditions, insecurity and environmental and social impact of the presence of sites: these become the target of a growing number of development projects funded and implemented by local organizations, foreign NGOs or United Nations agencies. Attention will be given to the creation of new sets of discourses and practices at the crossroad between more traditional areas of development intervention, on one side, and the expansion of a new economic sector and the issues that it entails, on the other.

Case studies will be conducted primarily in Western and South-Western Burkina Faso, but   the possibility of developing a more comparative approach and of including case studies in neighboring countries (Guinea Conakry, Mali or Ghana) will be explored.  

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