Photo: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Gold and cyanide

Muddy business turned into a family affair

The use of cyanide for gold extraction has changed the entire production chain of artisanal mining in Burkina Faso. And more importantly, it has rocked the power structure.

When Cristiano Lanzano, researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, returned to Burkina Faso to do interviews and gather data for his ongoing research project on artisanal gold mining, he discovered some small but important changes.

“The use of cyanide to extract gold from the residue has increased. Though the process has been in use for some time, it has now improved and become more systematic,” Lanzano says.

NAI researcher Cristiano Lanzano.

The cyanidation process is used alongside with the more manual mercury process. Mercury has a longer-term effect on both environment and health. It accumulates and can cause water pollution, for example. Cyanide is more dangerous in the immediate term, but also more effective for the purpose of extracting gold. From the beginning the cyanidation process took place in the middle of the village, but then it was moved to the outskirts, away from the residential area.

“Extracting gold from the residue has always been an important way of making some additional money. This was up until a couple of years ago done in a two-step process. Using mercury and water to get little gold specks out of the residue was the first step. This was done in cleaning stations which lay in the same area as the mines. In the next step, the residue of mud was sold to specialists or traders, who brought it to cyanidation plants to extract the last remaining tracers of gold,” Lanzano adds.

New way of working

Women have usually been in charge of the washing stations, where the residue has been treated. This made some of them rich and powerful. Then other actors in the mines started to realize that this was a profitable by-product and started claiming ownership of the cleaning stations.

“Landowners who had exploitation permits from the state started to claim the residue as their property. This caused conflicts and fights. The organization of the entire work chain has changed, and this means that the owners of the cleaning stations have become less autonomous,” continues Lanzano.

Previously different people managed each phase – it was individualized entrepreneurship and involved more transactions. Now the model has evolved toward a situation where the same person can retain control of the entire production chain, including the cyanidation process, where most money is to be earned.

“In some cases, gold mining has become like a family business, where each family member is responsible for one part of the production chain. In the end, everybody benefits from the teamwork,” Lanzano says.

Cleaning up the mining sector

That is to say, in 2013–2014, there was a series of complaints about big entrepreneurs who were collecting the residue without asking permission, since they had official permits. This was the most confrontational phase, during which time the media also reported the problem. In addition, there were attempts to monopolize the sale of gold.

“A parliamentary commission investigated the misuse of permits in the mining sector, and in its report it exposed entrepreneurs who broke the law. For example, entrepreneurs who used agents to obtain several permits for the same contractor,” Lanzano notes.

One thing that Cristiano Lanzano is eager to look into is the growing interest in fair trade and the certification of artisanal gold. An international project supported by the United Nations has recently tried to promote a reduction in the use of mercury and to improve working conditions and transparency at some pilot sites; but certification has not yet commenced.

TEXT: Susanna Dukaric

Further reading:

Report from the Parliamentary Commission in Burkina Faso, September 2015 (in French)

Project to reduce the use of mercury in gold mines (in French)

Fair Jewelery Action

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