Mali is Africa’s third-largest producer of gold. Much of the production in the West African country takes place at large-scale mining projects owned by foreign corporations, but a significant portion of Mali’s gold sector also consists of small-scale, labour-intensive, low-wage mining.
The work in these mines is largely unregulated. Children often work alongside parents, mines frequently collapse and workers are exposed to mercury and dust without protective gear.
Despite the hardships, many people flock to the gold mines in Mali’s south and west to test their luck. Many came from elsewhere in Mali or from from neighbouring counties such as Burkina Faso, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, chasing after rumours about striking it rich.
Many parents encourage their children to work in order to contribute to household finances. Girls as young as six years old work in the mines, first coming as infants on their mothers’ backs and later working in the rivers and small water holes. Meanwhile, young boys are often tasked with digging and carrying earth that may contain gold dust.
Most children in the mines do not go to school and they, as well as other workers, complain of back problems and difficulty breathing or seeing as a result of the dust. The use of mercury to extract gold is also highly hazardous as the toxic element is handled with the miners’ bare hands.
Although gold prices have fallen over the past year and some large mining operations in the country have stopped or slowed production, gold mining still accounts for 20-25 percent of Mali’s GDP. Nevertheless, nearly 40 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line, and Mali remains one of the poorest countries in the world.
One worker, Moussa Togola, claimed that sometimes he didn’t make any money for weeks or even months, as his salary depends on the quantity of gold he finds. “I work hard every day, from sunrise to sundown. If people are making real money off of this gold, off of this work, it’s certainly not me.”