By Mirka Schäfer, Franza Drechsel and Bettina Engels
Gold mining has both a long history as well as a recent boom in Burkina Faso. In the form of artisanal mining, locally known as orpaillage, it began long before colonisation. Industrial mining, however, is a new phenomenon: since 2007, 15 industrial mines have opened. Currently, in 2019, eleven gold mines and one zinc mine are in operation, and exploration and exploitation licenses for industrial mining have been issued for almost half of the surface of the country. While mining companies and the government promise jobs and ‘development’, what is the actual experience of the people living close to the mines? The research group GLOCON (Global Change – Local Conflicts) has released their most recent Country Report which puts the views of those affected by the industrial mines in Burkina Faso at the centre of the analysis. The analysis reveals that the perspective of the people living close the mines differs from the one of the companies and government. While there are few advantages, mainly certain investment in infrastructure, there are many negative impacts, including the devastating loss of livelihood.
Loss of livelihoods
The most relevant negative impact of industrial mines concerns the loss of livelihoods. Burkina Faso’s rural population mainly depends on subsistence agriculture and livestock farming. Artisanal gold mining is another important source of income. A new mine is installed on land that was previously used for farming, cattle herding or artisanal mining. Many residents are impeded from pursuing their former livelihood activities as they have lost their fields and/or are denied the possibility to engage in artisanal mining.
The expropriation of people from their land for the purpose of mining is legally possible in Burkina Faso, and mining companies are obliged to compensate the residents for their loss. But despite international standards which recommend providing substitute cultivation areas, land is nearly always compensated by payments. While these should serve as an investment in alternative income generating activities, they are more often used for the daily needs as it is difficult to establish alternative livelihoods, and many people state that the loss of land for agriculture and herding leads to poverty. Also, the construction and production phase of a mine and the effects on the environment and living conditions of the people last much longer than the actual compensation payments.
Since orpaillage is generally prohibited on mining concession areas, the local population is deprived of yet another important source of income. Even though the mining management as well as government officials make promises regarding employment opportunities in the industrial mines, people strongly express their dissatisfaction with the few positions being created and that non-locals are advantaged in being employed by the mine. Unemployment and poverty, sometimes even hunger are the consequences of the combination of the loss of livelihoods and the lacking compensation and employment options by the mining operators.
Thousands of households are relocated to newly constructed villages for the benefit of the construction or extension of a mine. Problems of the resettlement process include a lack of transparency and information, disruption of the social structure by the new arrangement of the houses in the villages, and longer distances for the daily routines of the residents.
Another concern is related to damaging effects and increasing health problems. The work of the mine includes dynamite blasts in order to crush the gold containing rock. These provoke ground motion and bring dust and rocks into the village, which leads to increased respiratory illnesses. Furthermore, the detonations cause damage to the houses, even the newly built ones, and produce a lot of noise and even a feeling of ‘earthquakes.’ Residents also complain about pollution due to the use of toxic products or waste left close to the village. Furthermore, defunct tailing dams or the spill over of chemical products contaminate the groundwater.
The reallocation of land and the damaging effects of the mines also impact cultural sites such as graves or religious sites that become inaccessible or are threatened by the mine operations. This has led to conflicts, for example around the Karma mine, where dynamite blasts are viewed as a threat to the nearby Ramatoulaye Mosque, an important site of pilgrimage.
Unfulfilled promises and repression
Even though according to Burkinabé law, mining companies need to obtain the consent of the local population regarding the plans to construct a mine in their vicinity and the potential repercussions on their lives and environment, many residents in the neighbourhood of the mines claim not to have been informed. Apart from the lack of prior information they also complain about unfulfilled promises. Often, the mine management attempts to counter the negative impacts of the mine by promising infrastructure developments and employment during the construction process as well as later in the mine. However, these promises do not materialise for the vast majority of the population.
When residents stand up for their rights, they often experience repression by state authorities and operators. Repression includes unlawful dismissals of those who unionise. Demonstrations and roadblocks are countered with physical violence by police or special security forces and protesters are arbitrarily arrested.
Generally, residents feel that the mining companies are taking from them without giving enough back. Many people are under the impression that the mine management and the government are in cahoots. A housemaker from the village Imiougou, close to the Bissa-Bouly mine states: ‘I ask the government and the mine not to turn their backs while we suffer.’
The mine management and the government
The affected populations try to engage with the mine management and the local and national authorities to demand local employment and income generating opportunities. They also seek compensation payments, investment in local infrastructures, and access to artisanal mining sites, micro-credit schemes and training.
Despite repression, the affected populations use different ways of addressing the actors they see in charge: letters, meetings, petitions, press conferences, demonstrations, marches, roadblocks and sit-ins are just some of the highly diverse array of strategies that the residents employ to raise their claims.
GLOCON’s Country Report offers a rare perspective on how local populations experience industrial mining in Burkina Faso. Contrary to the promises of mining companies and the government agencies, the qualitative analysis of the survey shows that the opening of mines in the country have not improved the living conditions of the residents. Instead, the findings reveal that the grave social and environmental impacts of the industrial mines are at the expense of residents. One peasant from Taparko in the North of the country summarises: ‘They have taken everything from us: our land, our jobs, our health, our peace and our hope.’
Mirka Schäfer is currently studying in the Master programme in social and political sciences with a focus on social inequality and postcolonial and feminist theories at Humboldt University in Berlin.
Franza Drechsel is a reseacher who focuses on conflicts over gold mining in Burkina Faso as well as state-society relations and post-coloniality in Africa.
Bettina Engels teaches at the Otto Suhr Institute for Political Science, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany and is a regular contributor to ROAPE. Together with Kristina Dietz, she is joint director of the research group GLOCON. Her research focuses on conflict over land and mining, critical agrarian studies, and class theory.
Featured Photograph: Essakane gold mine is located in north-eastern Burkina Faso.