Mapping gold from West Africa

Anthropologist Matthieu Bolay conducted research at sites where artisanal miners dig for gold. He then traced the gold through every transaction and transformation all the way to the traders in Switzerland. Not only is the gold’s physical shape changed, but also its legal status.

Anthropologist Matthieu Bolay took part in the NAI workshop on Artisanal Mining in Africa in Uppsala, 5-6 December 2016
For a total of 12 months, Bolay researched gold diggers and gold traders in Mali and Guinea. He later followed-up with interviews with intermediary traders in Switzerland. He found that diggers sell at an average price per gram on a daily basis to small-scale traders, who come to the mines and themselves sell in towns to artisanal smelters, from whom they also often get finance.
“Buyers who also manage artisanal smelters measure the carats and calculate the value of the gold with great precision. Many observers believe the gold diggers and small traders know nothing about these processes, but really it is the tools that they lack. Variations in carats don’t make a big price difference for small amounts, but they do where the quantities are larger. These artisanal operations are like catalysts along the chain, since they funnel small but steady quantities of smelted product,” Bolay observes.
Gold traders operate in most towns near informal mining sites. After purchasing the gold, they mainly deliver it to registered exporters in Mali’s capital Bamako, a major West African centre for gold exports. “They make a tidy profit ‒ not only from selling the gold to wholesalers, but also from selling to gold diggers the mercury, metal detectors and other tools they bring back from Bamako,” Bolay adds.
In Bamako, the wholesalers either export the gold themselves or sell to foreign import companies, mainly from Switzerland and Dubai. However, before leaving the country for overseas destinations, the gold needs proper documentation. “Normally, there is no fuss. Authorities in Bamako have realised it is futile to prevent artisanal gold digging and prefer to recognise it officially. This also allows Bamako to control most gold extraction in the region,” Bolay says.
Mali appears to be something of an African Klondike. The reason is that much of the “informal” gold from neighbouring countries end up in Bamako before export.
“Most commonly, gold is refined in Switzerland, with Swiss companies processing 70 per cent of the gold on the world market, but also increasingly in Dubai. However, soon a laboratory will open in Bamako. Once it is in operation, gold from West Africa can be legally designated as bullion or as a semi-finished product for the industry and for jewelry before it leaves the continent,” Bolay concludes.
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