- Corruption, inadequate mining laws, and crackdowns on artisanal gold miners are fueling trade in conflict minerals.
- Cut-throat competition for control of the profitable mineral is to blame for killings and exploitation of people.
- Armed groups in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger are terrorizing gold-mining communities by levying taxes in the pretext of offering protection.
West Africa is becoming a hub for the trafficking of conflict minerals partly because of rampant corruption, inadequate mining laws, and ongoing crackdowns on artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) operations.
Conflict minerals, which are mostly linked to gold rush, are fanning instability in political, economic, environmental, social, and security spheres of populations in West Africa.
Conflicts in mining zones are on the rise in gold-rich Mali and Burkina Faso and parts of Chad. This as competition for control of the profitable mineral fuels killings and exploitation of poor populations.
Gold mining has been a significant economic activity in Mali for centuries, and the country is currently the third-largest gold producer in Africa, after South Africa and Ghana.
Over 300,000 artisanal miners in Mali
According to the US Geological Survey, Mali produced approximately 71 metric tonnes of gold in 2020. The country has substantial gold reserves, estimated at around 800 metric tonnes.
ASGM plays a crucial role in Mali’s gold sector. It is estimated that around 200,000 to 300,000 people are engaged in ASGM activities, contributing to local livelihoods and employment. However, ASGM also presents challenges in terms of environmental impacts and social issues, including child labor and mercury pollution.
Some of the giant mining companies active in Mali include Barrick Gold, AngloGold Ashanti, and Resolute Mining.
The fragility in the nations experiencing the gold rush has also intensified as a result of mounting economic and environmental constraints. Agro-pastoral conflicts are on the rise as a result of the pressure that climate change and population growth are placing on land and water resources.
This fragility is creating economic environments that are readily exploited, perpetuated, and exacerbated by organised criminal networks and other armed groups.
A November 2022 report titled Gold, Conflict, and Criminality in West Africa, the Global Initiative highlights how armed groups in the region—including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which has strongholds in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger—are terrorizing gold-mining communities by levying taxes in the pretext of offering protection.
Nexus of insecurity and conflict minerals
Although criminal networks may provide the funding and supply chains required for the mining industry to operate economically for rural communities, their presence in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Chad is undermining governance and increasing economic fragility, leading to insecurity and conflict minerals.
“In June 2021, in the deadliest attack to date in Burkina Faso, insurgents attacked the gold-mining community of Solhan, in the Sahel region, killing 132 civilians,” the report reads in part.
According to Global Initiative, the Liptako-Gourma region, which spans the borders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, is not only a source of gold but also the scene of ongoing hostilities.
High levels of fragility have made it possible for jihadist groups to enlist new recruits. This is partly because of corruption, low economic growth, discontent with the governments, and escalating community-based disputes.
These same jihadist organizations have also targeted the gold market, raising considerable sums of money through taxes on gold production and trade.
ASGM runs without government license
Additionally, conflict is preventing West Africa from fully tapping the gold industry’s potential for economic growth. In all mining-producing nations, ASGM frequently happens without a government license and outside of legal restrictions.
This is prompting governments across West Africa to crack down on artisanal gold miners who operate without permits. The regulatory measures is, however, pushing ASGM and the gold trade deeper into the cycles of crime, exacerbating conflict minerals.
Overall, when miners and traders have little access to the formal value chains, no access at all, or few legal choices for selling gold production and obtaining financial backing, the criminal enterprise benefits. Access to finance has been identified as a major obstacle to formalizing ASGM operations in West Africa and around the world.
Burkina Faso’s gold mining
Burkina Faso is currently the fourth-largest gold producer in Africa, after South Africa, Ghana, and Mali. According to the US Geological Survey, the country produced approximately 60 metric tons of gold in 2020. Burkina Faso has substantial gold reserves estimated at around 60 metric tons, with the potential for further discoveries.
While ASGM occurs everywhere across Burkina Faso, industrial-scale large-scale mining activities are the main drivers of the gold industry. There are significant gold-producing zones in the Nord, Centre-Nord, Est, and Sud-Ouest.
The Sud-Ouest region has been found to have the greatest concentration of ASGM workers. Some goldfields in the area are hosting tens of thousands of miners. The majority of ASGM activity takes place in the informal sector. Unfortunately this is where they become more susceptible to falling under criminal networks. Currently, only a small portion of ASGM operations in Burkina Faso are licensed by the government.
Gold in Mali
Data from International Trade Administration (ITA) indicate gold exports accounted for over 80 percent of total exports in 2021. Gold is the leading natural resource for Mali’s extractive sector.
Mali continues to attract international investment in its gold mining sector. The country’s geological potential remains largely underexplored, and there are ongoing efforts to identify and develop new gold deposits.
The south of the nation has historically been the main region for gold mining. The main region for producing gold is the Kayes region, which borders Guinea and uses both industrial mining and ASGM.
The Sikasso region, which shares a border with Burkina Faso, is currently the second-largest gold-producing region in the nation. It has seen a growth in gold production from both industrial mining and ASGM in recent years.
Miners paying armed groups protection fee
Since gold panning reportedly started in northern Kidal in 2016, northern Mali has also had its own gold rush. Since that time, gold mining in the Kidal and Gao regions has grown dramatically.
The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) is controlling mining sites in Kidal and Gao regions, the Global Initiative says. CMA is an element within the larger Plateforme group and JNIM.
“The CMA has been the dominant force in the area, with control of gold mines and the subsequent financial flows. At sites controlled by the CMA. Miners pay a fee in exchange for protection, access to water and food, and the right to set up encampments at gold mining sites,” the report notes.
Across the board, there is a lingering threat of intertwining criminal networks threatening the fate of local communities. Other criminal activities such as drug and people smuggling also occur here.