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Guinean Gold Rush

Guinea 2018
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A miner is waiting for a signal to drag up the basket full of stones and sand. The basket usually weighs 20 up to 30 kg and the shaft measures between 25 and 80 meters.
A miner is going underground in search of the precious metal.
Two women are pulling out a basket full of stones from the above of 40 meters deep shaft. The first woman is on the edge of the shaft, fully stoop and legs wide apart. She takes this position because of the weight of the basket, to be able to pull it up. It is common that people lost their grips and fell countless meter down the shaft.
After 7 hours of work into the shaft, the miner takes a break. He is covered with dust from head to foot. For digging the gold, only rudimentary tools are used: a cheap flashlight tied to the head with an elastic tattered band and a small pickaxe so-called “Soulikoudouni”.
Miners are going one by one into the shaft for many hours and take turns throughout the whole day. Inside the shaft, the air is thick and heavy which makes difficult to breathe.
Permanently enveloped in temperatures of 40 degrees, miners - whatever their ages - are permanently cloaked in a heavy blanket of dust from morning to evening.
A miner is waiting for his turn to go deep into the earth. Even if landslides are common, miners are willing to accept that risk to find the famous gold nugget.
Most of the miners are young men who come from all over Guinea and further: Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso...
After many hours of work into the shaft without drinking and eating, the miner takes a break.
In addition to difficult working conditions, many miners do not have decent equipment. Most of them are just working barefoot. Accidents are common.
The Batambaye's main mine site is a small hill that is full of deep well-like holes reminding of an anthill.
The Batambaye's main mine site is a small hill that is full of deep well-like holes reminding of an anthill.
After being extracted, the gravel is transported to another area, where the stone will be pounded so they can extract the gold.
A man is preparing the gravel to be crushed.
Under a blazing sun, workers are doing the same task over and over for hours.
A handful of soil that has just been pounded.
After being crushed, the sand is sifted and washed with water. The resting mud is then checked and sorted using calabash or plastic basket.
The process of washing the soil required a big amount of water. In Batambaye, the so-called Laundromat area is just next to the Tikinsso river, a tributary of the Niger river.
Many women are panning for gold, wading all day long in the water.
Generally, it is possible to find 1 up to 10 grams of gold in 200 kg of soil.
Deadened by monotony and exhaustion, workers are toiling away under the hot sun day after day.
Deadened by monotony and exhaustion, workers are toiling away under the hot sun day after day.
Once the sand has been completely cleaned up, the first gold flakes appear.
Mercury is used in the gold extraction process to separate the metal from the dust.
After all the particles of gold are fixed on mercury, it is burned and only gold remains.
Weighs of a small gold nugget.
1 gram of gold is worth 10 up to 15 Euros at the mine site depending on the daily gold rate. Its price will increase significantly afterwards.
All over the mine site, buyers are waiting to buy the daily extracted gold.
While this form of mining could be seen as a new possibly more equitable and decentralised form of wealth accumulation, in fact, it is a risky economically unsustainable endeavour that is crippling the small-scale agriculture, is bad for the environment and is conducive to health risks.
In Batambaye, Thousands of people attracted by the gold fever came to settle beside the original village, where around 500 inhabitants were formerly living. Entire families, from near and far, live there in shelters made of wood and tarpaulin. Most of them stay a couple of years with the hope of finding the gold nugget that will change their lives.
The golden fever has turned hundreds of small villages, such Batambaye, from a sleepy isolated farming village into a kind of huge migrant camp where a whole informal economy around gold mining has been developed.
All over the village, there is every form of commerce for the miners to spend their newly earned cash. Here, a motorbike workshop.
All over the village, there is every form of commerce for the miners to spend their newly earned cash. Here, a mercury shop.
A young teenager is coming back to the camp after a long day of work.
A young boy is coming back to the camp after a long day of work.
Generally, children prefer quick cash that they can gain at the mine site rather than go to school.
A group of women pumps the water from the well that will be used for drinking, cooking, and washing. With the daily-used mercury released directly to the soil, chances are high that the water is contaminated but no studies have been conducted so far to evaluate the level of toxicity.
Petrol and other chemical products are released directly to the river where villagers fish and bath.
2 young boys are going to fish on the Tikinsso river alongside Batambaye.
When children do not work at the mine, they help their families in daily tasks such as going fishing.
When children do not work at the mine, they help their families in daily tasks such as going fishing.
When children do not work at the mine, they help their families in daily tasks such as going fishing.
Inside the camp, people continue to extract gold day and night.
Inside the camp, people continue to extract gold day and night.
Inside the camp, people continue to extract gold day and night.
Inside the camp, people continue to extract gold day and night.
Inside the camp, people continue to extract gold day and night.
198.7 grams of 18-carat gold is ready to be melted. After having purchased a significant amount of gold, the wholesalers melt all those gold at a dedicated workshop and transform it into ingot which, in turn, will be sell to the Guinean National Bank or foreign investors.
18-carat gold is ready to be melted.
A young boy permanently ventilates the fire to keep it constantly at the same temperature.
Inside the gold workshop, only young men and teenagers are working.
With a solder flux to remove impurities, the gold is melted in a crucible.
With a solder flux to remove impurities, the gold is melted in a crucible before to be turned into an ingot.
After being melted the liquid gold is poured into a mold that will give it its ingot shape
Inside the gold workshop, only young men and teenagers are working.
Because gold comes from different mine sites, when it is turned in an ingot, it becomes extremely difficult to trace it. In the end, it is impossible to determine if the gold come from Batambaye or somewhere else.

Guinean Gold Rush

Where: Guinea

When: 2018

Under a blazing sun, in the small village of Batambaye in Guinea's Siguiri district, some 700km northeast of the capital city Conakry, thousands of gold miners inundate the earth to find the famous gold nugget and escape the misery.

Gold mining is not new to this area and stretches back over a millennium. The gold panning is an ancestral activity already practiced since the first Mandingo empires from the 11th to the 14th century. But today, with the global financial collapse of 2008 and the high international price of gold, small-scale artisanal mines have intensified all over the region and have pushed hundreds of thousands of people of all ages into gold mines, both from all over Guinea and all neighbouring countries such as Mali, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso.
Known as the "land of gold", the area between Labé and Siguiri is well known to sits atop a vast reserve of precious minerals. It attracts not only traditional gold miners anymore, but also many women, children, entire families in fact, who hope to strike it rich.

This quest for Eldorado has transformed hundreds of small villages, such Batambaye, from a sleepy isolated farming village into a kind of huge migrant camp where a whole informal economy has been developed around gold mining. Every form of commerce exists all over these remote villages so the miners can spend their newly earned cash. From shops selling basic necessities to bars and restaurants. Black-smiths and motorcycle workshops, petrol and mercury shops, phone charging or metal detector renting services. In Batambaye, Thousands of people attracted by the gold fever came to settle beside the original village, where around 500 inhabitants were formerly living. Entire families, from near and far, live there in shelters made of wood and tarpaulin. Most of them stay a couple of years with the hope of finding the gold nugget that will change their lives. Some of them - the lucky ones who have generates profits from gold - settle for good and build huts. There are some little tangible benefits of this massive exodus for all these small villages. They can now access to electricity with generators, build new wells and renovate some buildings or infrastructures. But the majority of these profits are unfortunately not spent on public goods such as health care, sustainable agricultural production or education. Contrary, the gold rush led to more corruption and mismanagement. In fact, a majority of local officials take advantage of the miners’ work by collecting illegal fees and taxes.

While this form of mining could be seen as a new possibly more equitable and decentralised form of wealth accumulation, in fact, it is a risky economically unsustainable endeavour that is crippling the small-scale agriculture, is bad for the environment and is conducive to health risks. This new labour exodus has important implications on food production as well mainly because farmers abandon traditional agriculture in order to join the gold rush. Many families from rural areas are facing a labour constraint since there is not anymore people to work on the farms. The massive exodus impacts also children because their parents prefer to see them going to mines rather than to school. In fact, the gold panning boom has led to an increase of child labour in artisanal mines.

As if all of this was not enough, the artisanal mining is not at all that risk-free.
Although the introduction of new technologies such as metal detectors and crushers made artisanal miners more efficient, they are unfortunately not less in danger. Miners dig a one square meter large hole that goes as deep as 25 to 80 meters inside the ground and landslides, as well as other accidents, are frequent. They are willing to accept that risk and go deep into the earth everyday animated by the hope of a discovery that could change their lives. Permanently enveloped in temperatures of 40 degrees, miners are cloaked in a heavy blanket of dust from morning to evening. One by one, they go into the shaft for many hours without drinking or eating. They take turns throughout the whole day. Inside the shaft, the air is thick and heavy which makes difficult to breathe. Most of the miners are just working barefoot. They use only rudimentary tools such as a cheap flashlight tied to the head with an elastic tattered band and a small pickaxe so-called “Soulikoudouni”.
Once they extract approximately 200 kg of stones and gravel, this raw material is transported to another area so-called the “Laundromat”. Over there, the rocks and the gravel are pounded and the gold is extracted. After being crushed, the sand is then washed to bring out the golden powder. At this stage, the gold has to be separated from the rest. For this process, mercury is used as it glues the metallic particles. When gold is fixed on mercury, then the mixture is burned and only gold remains. The mercury that is used is highly concentrated and very toxic. It is a poison that is being handled by bear hand without. As a result, many miners are mercury poisoning.
Not far from this scene, traders are waiting to buy the daily extracted gold from the miners. After purchasing a significant amount, they sell it to the wholesalers who will melt all those gold at a dedicated workshop and transform it into ingot which, in turn, will be sell to the Guinean National Bank or foreign investors.

The environmental and health consequences of artisanal gold mining are not insignificant for the whole region. For instance, the Batambaye’s main mine site is a small hill that is full of deep well-like holes reminding of an anthill. Large tracks of land all over the region are digging up which render unusable for pasture, farming or forestry. Certain stretches of the Niger River and its tributaries such as the Tikinsso river alongside Batambaye, where villagers fish and bath, have also been greatly disturbed and polluted by the artisanal mining activities. The daily-used mercury is released directly to the soil and make is way down into the groundwater. The pollutants contaminate fauna and the flora as well as the water of the wells from which people are drinking on a daily basis. The mercury is a persistent product that remains for years in the soil. It poisons people slowly but contaminates water and land immediately.

Finally, the level of disease connected with overpopulation, hygienic and social conditions such as tuberculosis, silicosis and HIV is also known to be a major problem in this area.

While small-scale artisanal mining is legal in Guinea, the government of this resource-rich country where most of the people live in poverty has been unable so far to control and manage this activity to ensure safe and good exploitation conditions and generate inclusive prosperity.