July 29, 2021

In Côte d’Ivoire, the precarious life of gold diggers

Arriving at the edge of the river, Laurentine Zamblé discovers that her « coin » was visited and operated in his absence. She does not care: the banks of this stream are full of gold, there is something for everyone. This is what a friend whispered to him when she revealed the existence of this site a few tens of kilometers from Bouaflé, a town in central Côte d’Ivoire.

So this 54-year-old woman, a little weighed down by the child she carries on her back, embarks on a choreography that she masters perfectly. Equipped with a simple pickaxe, she begins to dig the sandy rock, then, in the water, she sieves, washes and sorts the deposit of earth before extracting a few tiny flakes of gold. When hiding her booty of the day in the knot of her loincloth, Laurentine Zamblé looks up and scans the surroundings. “Here, there is a lot of theft”, she said to explain her caution.

Around it, on both banks, are revealed dozens of sites like theirs, where everyone digs in the hope of finding a nugget. Each, rather, because here there are almost only women. “The men are a few kilometers away, on a much larger site”, explains the artisanal artisan. While listening, we hear the “Chinese machines” to roar; those with which gold diggers from Mali, Guinea and especially Burkina Faso engage in this illicit activity but in an almost industrial mode, far from the crafts – just as illegal – practiced by Laurentine Zamblé and her companions .

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In a few weeks, the rainy season will fill the river bed and make the site unusable. She will have to go elsewhere, as always, she who keeps moving from river to clearing in search of the precious yellow metal. “It’s the only job I know how to do”, she repeats.

The only one that allows her to pay for schooling and meals for the four children she has taken care of alone since she was abandoned by her husband. If she worked in the market, she would hardly receive 30,000 CFA francs per month (45 euros), she estimates. Thanks to the gold she sells “Around 20,000 CFA francs” the gram, she can hope to earn double, between 50,000 and 70,000 CFA francs depending on the month. All for an investment that comes down to a pickaxe acquired for a handful of CFA francs.

Drowning and sexual violence

This rapid gain and the little capital required for the launch explain the gold fever that has gripped Côte d’Ivoire for nearly fifteen years. Historically, Bouaflé is one of the epicenters of gold mining, but today, all regions of the country are caught up by this phenomenon. Its magnitude is difficult to quantify. In 2014, the Ivorian government estimated that 500,000 people worked in illegal gold panning. Other experts now believe that this figure should be multiplied by two, or even three, by integrating the related trades of clandestine mines.

Legal industrial gold mining is also doing well. National gold production is increasing: from 24.4 tonnes in 2018, it rose to 32.5 tonnes in 2019. Long neglected, the mining sector today contributes 5% of the GDP. Gold prices, which have been rising in recent years, largely explain the attraction of this activity for hundreds of thousands of people. Including women, who in Africa constitute 50% of the population operating in mines or revolving around mining communities, according to a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a research center based in Geneva.

But the financial autonomy they acquire through the precious metal is to be relativized in light of the many risks of clandestine gold mining. Lou, a “colleague” by Laurentine Zamblé, explains that drownings are frequent, because the narrow galleries dug on the banks of rivers tend to collapse. Further on, this mother of two children, the first of whom “Is with his father in Abidjan”, show his « bunker ». A shelter made of black tarps and a few wooden planks, where Lou, pregnant with her second child, sleeps with her ” boyfriend “. This man met on the site, she indicates, allows her to ward off the « danger » that represents her situation as a single woman.

In this rough universe, a woman is often ” prey “, explains Hyacinthe Kouassi, an extractive industries expert who works with donors on mining issues. And choose a friend, ” a tutor “, he corrects, “It is a way of protecting oneself from sexual violence, even if that does not guarantee anything because sometimes it is he who is at the origin of the violence”. According to Hyacinthe Kouassi, “The gold miners also go through these men to sell the grams of gold to the buyers on the spot and avoid being stolen too much”. A cohabitation of circumstance therefore, and ephemeral: “Most of these men abandon the gold miners, pregnant or with a young child, once the site is unusable. “

“Either you go to jail or you pay”

Clandestine mines are usually found in the middle of the bush. Far from the city, drugs and prostitution place women in very precarious situations. But the greatest fear of gold miners is to fall on “Water and forest officers”. Security forces who, in addition to taking part of the gold mined clandestinely, regularly carry out fake punch operations. “They tell us: either you go to prison, or you pay 100,000 CFA francs », Lou explains. Each time, the women pay. Because with whom to go to complain? “Our work is illegal”, they recall.

Christine Logbo Kossi, director of the Professional Group of Miners of Côte d’Ivoire (GPMCI), therefore encourages them to organize themselves into cooperatives, in order to be able to apply for an artisanal mining permit. This is the meaning of the “Pretty Mining” label launched by this former executive in the mining industry, also responsible for the Network of Women in the Mining Sector of Côte d’Ivoire (Femici), which she created in 2016.

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“Women must organize themselves to take advantage of the boom in the mining sector and allow the traceability of the gold they extract”, she insists, recalling that everyone will find something for them, “Including the State”. It is based in particular on a report by the African Security Sector Network, which estimated at around 30 tonnes of gold the illicit artisanal production which escapes the State, and therefore its coffers.

Today, three women’s cooperatives are supported by Femici, specifies Christine Logbo Kossi, who hopes that the model can be replicated everywhere. “Where women work illegally in mines”. An initiative well received by Laurentine Zamblé, in Bouaflé, who has just joined forces with a dozen of“Friends” gold miners to get out of hiding and work more serenely. It is also a way, they say, of silencing those who accuse them of prostituting themselves on the gold panning sites or who claim that mining is not a woman’s job.