It's the rainy season in rural West Africa, a time when most family members would normally be home helping in the fields. But in many villages across certain areas of Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Senegal, all you will find are women, children and old people. Most young men have left to pursue wealth in artisanal gold mining. While this form of mining could be seen as a new, more equitable and decentralised form of wealth accumulation, it is a risky endeavour that is crippling to small-scale agriculture, economically unsustainable, bad for the environment and conducive to health risks.
Gold mining is not new to these areas of West Africa and in fact, stretches back over a millennium. A series of West African empires thrived from the ninth to 15th centuries because they controlled the trans-Saharan trade with gold and slaves flowing north in exchange for salt, cloth and textiles coming south. Empires literally rose and fell, based on their ability to control where gold was being mined in contemporary Ghana, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali.
The gold mines of these ancient West African empires were eventually tapped out and largely fell dormant for several centuries. Large-scale gold mining returned to the region in the 1980s when new gold mining methods, such as cyanide leaching made such operations economically viable again. Regional gold production has surged in recent years and is now a leading source of income for Burkina Faso, Mali and Ghana.
Benefits and risks
Most large-scale gold mining in the region is executed and managed by international mining companies of Chinese, South African, US, Australian or Canadian origin. Unfortunately, these operations often yield little tangible benefits for the ordinary citizens of the region because, depending on your perspective, their governments did not negotiate sufficiently favourable arrangements, or foreign companies were too stingy.
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Small-scale artisanal mining also returned in earnest to the region during this period. I first visited such mines near Yanfolila in southwestern Mali in the late 1980s. It was a dizzying landscape pockmarked by deep well-like holes, hand dug by individual miners.
Not far from this scene was a large, open air market where traders would buy the gold from the miners. Then, just beyond these traders, was every form of commerce for the miners to spend their newly earned cash, from basic necessities to liquor and prostitution.
What has changed in the last ten to 15 years is the introduction of new, relatively inexpensive technology, such as metal detectors, excavators, sifters and crushers, that make artisanal miners all that more efficient. Furthermore, since the global financial collapse of 2007, artisanal mining has further intensified because of the relatively high international price of gold.
One could contend that this highly decentralised form of small-scale mining is better for the residents of countries who see little benefit from the large-scale mines run by international companies that repatriate most of their profits. In other words, is it not a more equitable approach involving millions of small operators who, by grit, determination and ingenuity, are able to partake of their country's wealth?
The problem is artisanal mining is not all that risk-free.
While visiting villages in southern Mali this June, where I have worked and conducted research since the 1980s, it became clear that small-scale farming in this "heartland of peasant agriculture" faces unprecedented labour shortages.
Young men leaving the village to work in other areas is not a new phenomenon. Historically, they would leave to farm cotton, peanuts or other crops in areas where the prices or conditions were better. However, in such cases they would still farm food crops alongside these cash crops, meaning that national or regional level food production remained robust. Alternatively, they would leave to work in the city during the unproductive dry season.
The new labour exodus for the artisanal gold mines seems more intense given the lure of wealth driven by high international gold prices. The young men are also not returning home during the rainy season to work on the farm, as they used to when they took on other forms of outside labour. Furthermore, their complete exodus from agriculture has important implications for food production on the national scale in some countries and more generally in the region. An over-reliance on excessive levels of food imports is potentially problematic. For example when global food prices spiked in 2007-2008, food riots broke out in many West African cities.
The question is: what will happen to these young men when the gold runs out or international prices drop back to a point where the activity is no longer viable? Will they return to farming or become a new proletariat chasing a limited number of wage-paying jobs?
The environmental and health consequences of artisanal gold mining are also not insignificant. Large tracks of land are dug up and rendered unusable for pasture, farming or forestry. Certain stretches of the Niger River and its tributaries have also been greatly disturbed following artisanal mining activities. Mercury poisoning among miners is not uncommon and the number of mining accidents is also large and growing. Finally, the level of HIV/AIDS is also known to be a major problem in many West African artisanal mining areas.
Addressing the problem
The policy options for governments and development advocates in West Africa may be limited. At a minimum, development organisations need to be extremely cognisant of the labour constraints facing many farming families in the region. While labour has long been a bottleneck in African farming systems, this is an increasingly significant problem. Technologies and approaches which are cognisant of this constraint are likely to be more successful.
For example, while the micro-dosing of fertiliser is more effective, economical, and environmentally friendly than conventional fertiliser application methods, it is also ore labour intensive. Using improved inter-cropping, or crop associations may be an alternative and under-explored labour saving approach for maintaining soil fertility.
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The other key issue is reform in the mining sector. It will be better in the long run to more rigorously regulate and formalise gold mining in many West African countries.
But this will only be meaningful if the majority of profits remain in the country and are spent on public goods such as health care and education. Many West African governments have a poor record in this regard. Donors and governments should look to the example of Botswana which has an admirable record of managing its diamond industry for the benefit of its people.
I have long been unconvinced of the notion of the resource curse, an idea frequently invoked to explain how resource wealth has led to corruption and mismanagement by West African governments. Myself and others have been sceptical because resources, in and of themselves, have no causal power to create corruption. They can just as easily be well managed and generate prosperity as in the case of Botswana. Corruption is a political-economic problem and to lay the blame elsewhere is misleading.
But artisanal gold mining may represent a new kind of resource curse because it economically outbids farming in the short-term and leads to the rapid exodus of labour from the agricultural sector. These artisanal miners may come back to agriculture, but I am concerned they may not, after a more significant and sustained break from farming. While others may have a different vision of West Africa's future, I continue to believe that it needs a vibrant and sustainable small farming sector.
William G Moseley is Professor and Chair of Geography, and Director of African Studies, at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, US. His latest book is An Introduction to Human-Environment Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes.
Follow him on Twitter: @WilliamGMoseley
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.