Unsafe Conditions and Death in Africa’s Legal and Illegal Mines

At least 10 people were killed in an artisanal gold mine collapse in Burkina Faso last week.

The collapse occurred in Sideradougou, Western Burkina Faso on the 14th, in a region that sees frequent “deadly” landslides.

“About 10 bodies have been found after the slide. The death toll can still rise since the exact number of persons underground in the mine is unknown,” an eye witness said.

The news comes a month after a similar landslide in Chad left 30 people dead. The illegal gold mine, located in the Tibesti region, near the Libyan border, is part of a surge of legal and illegal mining in Africa as global investors rush to profit from Africa’s minerals.

On October 2, another landslide, at a shuttered Kampene gold mine, in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, killed at least 16 people. Whether illegal or legal, the mining industry in Africa is widely unregulated. Landslides frequently cause collapses, due to old-fashioned, unsafe health and safety and environmental practices.

Speaking on the collapse, Auguy Musafiri, Governor of Maniema province, said: “There was an accident at the Kampene mine, and for the moment we were able to get 16 bodies from the site of the landslide.”

“What surprises us is that the activities continued in this mine, which had been closed by the provincial division of mines.”

In February this year, five decomposed bodies which had earlier become trapped in a gold mine collapse in Tappita, Liberia, were recovered. Local reports claimed that, lacking specialised machinery, local miners had been using their bare hands to excavate the earth.

In South Africa, last year, seven miners were killed at a South African gold mine in Gauteng, run by mining-giant Sibanye-Stillwater. Shortly after, the congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) picketed the headquarters of Sibanye-Stillwater in Johannesburg.

Thamsanqa Piet Matosa, NUM president, said: “If safety measures had been implemented, this incident would not have happened. We believe Sibanye could have done more. We are here to remind the Chamber of Mines to ensure that mining companies observe the law. Miners have the right to be safe.

“These people [Sibanye-Stillwater] are into profits. They have no respect for workers. Some have never been underground to see the conditions of work. It is neglectful to send people who are not properly trained underground just to make profits.”

In 2013, Ghana began conducting arrests and deportation of illegal foreign miners (most of whom where Chinese) operating small-scale mines in the nation’s gold-mining regions. As in Burkina Faso, gold mining in Ghana is a growing industry. One of the world’s top ten gold producing country last year, Ghana produced 100 tonnes of gold in 2018, up from 85 tonnes the year before. In Burkina Faso, gold production went up from more than 46 tonnes in 2017 to almost 52 tonnes in 2018.

To tackle the small-scale and artisanal mining problem, the Ghanaian government released a headline in 2018 that read: “Ban on small scale mining to be lifted soon.” On December 17 2018, it would remove its temporary ban on small-scale mining.

Some of Ghana’s big-scale licenced mines are owned by world giant gold mining companies, for example, Newmont Mining Corporation and AngloGold Ashanti. Yet Ghana is still dependent on its small-scale mines. Drs Gabriel Botchwey and Gordon Crawford, political scientists, wrote last month that: “Artisanal and small scale mining accounts for 35% of Ghana’s total gold production.”

“For many years, small-scale mining suffered benign neglect from the state which focused on large-scale mining. Local financial institutions also remained uninterested, and very little was done to advance production technology.

“The [mining] sector is rife with corruption,” they continued. “Closing off foreign involvement in small-scale mining in the face of extremely low local investment and high unemployment is unlikely to work. … The [Ghanaian] government may have to shift its focus. Instead of trying to ban the activity, it should allow it, and accompany this with better regulation”

Small-scale mining in Ghana was illegal until 1989. Its current ban was implemented in 2017, because of the uncontrollable spring of “informal and illicit” small-scale mines, known in Ghana as “galamsey”. Currently, less than 30% of small-scale mines are estimated to be formally registered in the Gold Coast.

In addition to lifting the ban on small-scale mining, President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo promised to issue a “comprehensive roadmap” that will “permanently address the illegal mining phenomenon.” It promised to fix environmental problems caused by small-scale mines, including reclaiming and re-afforesting mined-out areas, restoring impacted water bodies, and supervising the awarding of mining licences and permits.

When the Kampene gold mine collapse occurred earlier this month, Governor of Maniema province, Auguy Musafiri, revealed surprise that a formally shutdown mine was still in in-clandestine operation.

Socialists and political scientists have named international corruption to be the primary obstacle behind improving Africa’s unsafe mines. African governments would do best to think about how much more profit is to be made should they better regulate their small-scale and large-scale mines. Less deaths, less accidents, less arrests and less environmental disasters all equal long-lasting profit.