Mali’s gold mines

Mali’s gold mines

All mining operations in the country are to be reviewed and those not in the best interests of Mali are to be renegotiated, said Mines Minister Boubou Cisse in September of last year. Cisse was speaking a month after President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita came to power and announced his party’s commitment to weeding out corruption. According to the Minister, previously a World Bank economist, the assessment of all mining contracts, licences and titles would be done with complete transparency and findings made open to the public. The hope is that gold – the country’s mineral backbone – will, over several years, double its present GDP contribution of 8 percent.

A legacy of gold

For almost a millennium gold has been an important source of revenue to the region that is now the Republic of Mali. The discovery of sizeable gold caches such as Morila, Yatela, Sadiola Hill and Loulo in the 1990s and the attendant investments by foreign firms into the mining sector helped Mali to become the third largest gold producer in Africa by the end of the century.

Today, Mali still sits on great potential mineral wealth, not only in terms of gold (which was its primary export in 1999 and looks set to reclaim that spot from cotton in the coming years) but also in terms of limestone, bauxite, phosphate and salt, among others. However, it is gold on its own that accounts for 95 percent of the country’s mineral output, and so for now the mining sector sinks or swims on the success of its gold mines. Its other minerals are not of negligible quantities, they are simply under- or undeveloped.

Gold production today

Randgold, IAMGOLD and AngloGold Ashanti are three of the multinationals that have long been key players in Mali’s mining sector, contributing greatly to socio-economic development. A few projects, such as Randgold’s Loulo-Gounkoto mine complex and Iamgold and AngloGold Ashanti’s joint Sadiola Hill mine, for instance, have been crucial in allowing Mali’s gold output to reach internationally competitive levels. As of 2012 national gold production was at 50 tonnes a year, with the Government hoping to double that output by 2018.

Exploration is underway in many parts of the country, aided by the country’s relatively flat terrain. Just this month Papillion Resources announced the discovery of what are likely satellite gold caches at its flagship Fekola mine in west Mali. In addition, the country’s first gold refinery, a joint Malian-Swiss enterprise, was established last year.

The Malian Government has recently been promoting loans for smaller mining firms, believing they will prove crucial to the growth of the sector. It has also been encouraging diversification in the extraction sector, hoping to launch aluminium, copper, bauxite and iron ore industries, among others.

Internal conflict and unequal income

From 2012 to 2013 Tuareg rebels in the northern half of the country attempted to break away from Mali and form the independent nation of Azawad. With help from French forces, government troops were able to quell the revolt by February 2013. The uprising doesn’t appear to have deterred foreign investors too much, with new mining ventures having since taken place in the gold-rich south, which is politically stable.

Perhaps the primary problem facing the mining industry is that of unequal wealth distribution. International gold mining corporations, who work in partnership with the Malian Government, giving the latter 20 percent of returns, are judged by many Malians as robbing them of the country’s natural wealth. The Government has talked of banning small artisanal mines, pointing to such mines’ safety hazards and the exploitation of workers by traditional mine owners. Many of these workers, which include women and children, labour for up to 11 hours a day in terrible conditions, and sometimes for no pay – instead they are given a rock to take home, and should it contain some gold, only then do they have a source of income.

Mali sorely needs its mining sector to prosper, as it currently ranks amongst the world’s poorest nations, with almost half the population living below the poverty line. It also needs to find ways of ensuring that its gold and other mineral reserves benefit the local economy and job market and are not simply filling the coffers of foreign firms.

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David Okwara

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