Nelly Bassily | June 13, 2011
The landscape around Nobsin, a small town in central Burkina Faso, is almost lunar. The thorn savannah of yesteryear has given way to a bare and sandy landscape full of mounds and holes. Some craters are 40 metres deep and four metres wide. Gold mining is the main cause of the degraded environment in the village and its surroundings. The traditional method of digging for gold produces gaping holes in the ground.
In Burkina Faso, farmers view the discovery of the smallest gold nugget as a curse. Boukari Diallo raises cattle. He explains, “My cattle sometimes fall into the holes. Unfortunately, no one compensates [us] for the loss of animals.” If their owners are not able to save them, most animals that fall into the holes die. The animals which do escape the holes lose between 50 and 80% of their market value. Many have broken legs or are so badly injured that they must be slaughtered immediately.
As well as ruining the landscape, the miners dig for gold in grazing areas. Amadou Diallo is a local farmer who raises cattle as his main livelihood. He says, “The miners dig holes in our grazing lands without permission. They do not respect anything or anyone.”
The miners are aware of the accusations, and do not deny the problems they cause. Tiraogo Fafando has been digging for gold for three years. He says the miners can do little to improve the situation for the farmers. “When we dig the holes, farmers ask us to close them. But given the depth of the holes, what can we do?”
Amade Kafando is a gold prospector. He says, “We do not close the holes because we move quickly to other sites when we hear gold has been found. We cannot stop our business simply because farmers complain.” Mr. Kafando builds thorny fences around the edges of the holes to deter animals from approaching. But this is the only effort miners make to lessen their impact.
Farmers in Nobsin are not alone. Two years ago in the nearby village of Mankarga, 37 cows died after drinking water contaminated with the cyanide that is used to wash the gold. Farmers alerted the Provincial Animal Resources department, but the department could do little.
Gold has an important place in Burkina Faso’s economy. With gold’s value rising on the international market, domestic and foreign investors are pumping billions of francs into the area. Gold was the country’s primary source of foreign exchange in 2009, with 177 billion CFA francs in export earnings. In 2009, the mining sector employed 300,000 people. Small-scale, artisanal mines are often unregistered, and the state loses money in unpaid taxes. But the state tolerates the mines.
There is no end in sight for the farmers. New gold deposits have been discovered recently, and are attracting large international firms as well as small-scale miners. But for the farmers in Nobsin, gold does not bring prosperity or happiness.