Burkinabe 49-ers: Gold mining!

In a lot of ways, Burkina Faso is reminding me of the tales of the Great American “Frontier” expansion of the mid-19th century. When I read about planting season and crop failures, and the possibility of dying if a year’s crop is bad but then coming up with coping mechanisms to keep families alive… it reminds me of Little House on the Prairie and similar tales.

Another way in which Burkina reminds me of the famed westward expansion is the fact that Gold has been discovered in Burkina Faso! And everyone wants a part in it!

Of course, unlike the California 49-ers, the whole process here is being managed by big business. The mines are big, enjoy good technology, dig deep underground, and employ staff. They also have been known to engage in Corporate Social Responsibility, whereby they attempt to assist the communities that may have been displaced because gold was discovered on their land! Small comfort, I’m sure, to know that there was gold on your land so you were bribed by some big French or American corporation to move off your land so the big corporation could mine the gold. Nonetheless, people who were displaced often got better-quality houses built for them, and now have schools to send their children to. It’s something.

And, truth be told, many Burkinabe have become prospectors. In one survey I reviewed recently, almost 20% of households who suffered from last year’s drought turned to gold mining to feed their families. I’m glad they can feed their families, but I’ve been told conditions in the mines fit the stereotypes of conditions in mines: long hours of back-breaking work for uncertain profit.

Even more worrying, though, is that apparently gold prospectors in Burkina Faso are as young as 5 years old. Even though I know the mines here are big and structured, I still have this picture in my mind of a young boy innocently panning rocks in a riverbed looking for something shiny. It’s a romantic view, but I think that boy should be in school. And I think he’s probably working in a much less pleasant place than a riverbed.

I haven’t really researched statistics about the overall role of gold mining in Burkina Faso, but during my trips to the field, I’ve passed several enormous gold mines in the countryside, and in the capital city there are dozens, at least, of offices for mining companies specialising in gold. It’s a big industry. There’s clearly a lot of wealth in this country.

But I do wonder how long it will last, and what Burkina will do when and if the gold runs out. And whether the profit from the mines has done enough to help the local economy.

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