Africa Defense Forum
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A Precious Resource

As Violent Extremist Groups Move to Exploit Artisanal Gold Mines, Children Fall Deeper Into Peril

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ADF STAFF

During the four centuries of its rule, the Mali Empire was known around the world for its fabulous wealth in gold.

Nearly 700 years later, areas of the former empire are still rich with deposits of the precious metal. Now much of the small-scale gold mining in Mali and Burkina Faso — known as artisanal mining — is marked by dangerous and exploitative child labor, inhumane working conditions, pollution, health hazards and the scourge of human trafficking. All this is happening in a region plagued by violent extremist organizations (VEOs) that see the unregulated mines as ripe for extortion and a source of revenue to fund operations and recruitment. Regional violence is increasing, and the resulting instability and displacement will make such mines vulnerable to increasing exploitation as VEOs expand into new areas and try to corner local gold markets.

For the past year, COVID-19 has mixed with regional violence to produce an increase in child trafficking, forced labor and recruitment in Mali, according to a 2020 study by the United Nations Refugee Agency-led Global Protection Cluster. The cluster is a network of U.N. and nongovernmental organizations that protects those affected by humanitarian crises.

Boys sift soil for gold in Mogen, Burkina Faso. Studies show that human trafficking and harsh labor conditions are common at such mines. REUTERS

COVID-19 combines with other factors to close schools and acts as a force multiplier for misery in everyday life for an already impoverished and violent region.

The study found 230 cases of child recruitment in the first half of the year, eclipsing the 215 total reported in all of 2019 and doubling the number logged in 2018. Authorities found that about 6,000 children — mostly boys — worked in just eight Malian mines. As armed terrorist groups scramble to control lucrative local mines, human trafficking reasonably can be expected to increase, even in neighboring Burkina Faso. 

THE COMMON INDUSTRY OF GOLD

Artisanal gold mines are common throughout Mali, Burkina Faso and Sub-Saharan Africa. With their large numbers often come dangerous working conditions, especially for children. Such mines often find children younger than 15 working long hours wielding heavy tools such as picks and hoisting dangerous loads onto their developing bodies. Shafts can collapse, burying workers alive.

The sites also present chemical and environmental dangers. Miners often add mercury to silt to help form an amalgam with gold. Workers then heat the result with blowtorches or over fires to evaporate the chemical, leaving behind the precious metal. The mercury can be inhaled and settle into the surrounding environment, where it reacts with bacteria in water, plants and dirt to form lethal methylmercury. Exposure in high doses can be fatal, and it can damage the nervous, digestive and immune systems and slow intellectual development.

A 2018 survey of satellite imagery found about 2,200 informal gold mines spread across Burkina Faso, according to a Reuters report. The artisanal gold industry there and in neighboring Mali and Niger has a combined estimated value of $2 billion a year. As VEOs further proliferate into Burkina Faso, a top-10 gold producer in Africa, they will find themselves closer and closer to gold mines where they can hide out, extort taxes and recruit new members.

Human trafficking and exploitation are not recent developments at these artisanal gold mines. A December 2011 report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) indicated that trafficking of children in West Africa in general, and Mali in particular, was increasing. “Most of the trafficking is done through small, informal networks, including families and acquaintances,” HRW reported. “In addition to internal trafficking, there is cross-border trafficking between Mali and its neighboring countries.”

Often children working in artisanal gold mines are migrants, and some live and work there without their parents. This intensifies their vulnerability to further trafficking and exploitation.

The HRW report examined conditions that existed before an explosion of violence and instability that began in 2012 with a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali. It since has metastasized across the region at the hands of several extremist and terrorist organizations.

That violence has continued to grow. The Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) reported in January 2021 that the 1,170 violent incidents observed in Burkina Faso, Mali and western Niger in 2020 marked a 44% increase over 2019. Violence has increased steadily since 2015, and two groups — the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS) — have been responsible for nearly all of the 2020 attacks, which resulted in 4,122 deaths, a 57% increase over 2019. 

Sahel violence has displaced 1.7 million people,
1.1 million of whom are in Burkina Faso, according to the ACSS. That instability is bound to intensify human trafficking.

“When you have that degree of displacement, then you’re also going to have an increase in human trafficking because you have a bunch of communities that have been just thrown to the wind and having to figure out how they can make ends meet, and they become extremely vulnerable,” Dr. Daniel Eizenga, ACSS research fellow, told ADF. 

Young miners, one with crutches, stand at an artisanal mine in Burkina Faso. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

“Child labor and the trafficking of children in this region is a pretty dominant thing,” Eizenga said, noting the long-standing practice of sending children to Côte d’Ivoire to work in cocoa fields. “And that was true before the onset of violent extremist organizations and violence with which this whole region has been destabilized.”

A LUCRATIVE SOURCE FOR EXTREMISTS

Artisanal gold mines operate outside government control and regulation, and although smaller than legitimate industrial sites, their output can be significant. In 2018, Burkinabe officials visited 24 mines near where extremist attacks had taken place, Reuters reported. They estimated that just those few sites produced 727 kilograms of gold annually, worth about $34 million. The total from artisanal sites in Burkina Faso alone is thought to be 15 to 20 metric tons a year, valued at between $720 million and $960 million.

VEO activity started to spill out of Mali and into northern Burkina Faso in 2017, and by 2019 had flowed into the country’s east, Eizenga said. As VEOs proliferated, they forced schools to close, which released thousands of children. Some of these children probably found their way to mines on their own, but it’s plausible that many are trafficked to the mines by various groups.

Identifying those groups, networks and trafficking flows is challenging. The ISGS and FLM are the two extremist groups most closely associated with gold mines, but their direct involvement in human trafficking is not clear. ISGS started spreading into areas with gold mines more than a year ago, Eizenga said in February 2021. The group, which has only a few hundred mobile combatants, moves from one mining site to another extorting a tax from the community. They won’t operate or disrupt the mines for fear of losing a revenue source, but they do sometimes deter government authorities from interfering with the mines.

Given the wholesale displacement of people and school closures, “it’s not hard to imagine them taking another step of trafficking children to the mines and potentially trying to use that as another way of generating increased revenues for themselves,” he said.

A gold miner works underground with a hand tool in Nigeria. Artisanal mines are common across much of Africa. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

FLM, which also is known as Katiba Macina, appears to be trying to expand into southwestern Burkina Faso, an area that also has a lot of artisanal mines, in hopes of cornering the gold market there, Eizenga said.

Tying specific groups like ISGS and FLM to human trafficking of children or others at artisanal mine sites is difficult. Eizenga said he hasn’t seen hard evidence of direct involvement by either group. But he agrees that even if such groups are not directly involved in trafficking, they are at best complicit with it because they benefit from the labors of those who have been trafficked. 

ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM

Human trafficking in the Sahel region, including Mali and Burkina Faso, is an entrenched practice in an area long known for informal communities and a lack of security and law enforcement capacity. The explosion of extremist violence in the region after 2012 adds complications to any response. The region already has several multinational security forces operating, such as a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, the French-led Operation Barkhane and the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force. 

The challenge, Eizenga said, is to provide sustained protection and security to gold mining communities without disrupting the economies the mines provide to locals. “This is a big challenge when looking at artisanal mining, is how do you integrate this way of life — the informal economies that exist around these mines — without completely disrupting the economy of these smaller communities?”

Building trust will be an essential component. Sometimes security forces have been heavy handed in trying to uproot VEOs from communities. Locals who are not part of the violent groups but who have been forced to cooperate with them sometimes get caught in the middle.

Establishing trust will first require establishing sustained security. Generally speaking, counterterrorism forces have been “tactically successful” in degrading VEOs in the tri-border Liptako-Gourma region, where Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger meet, Eizenga said. Holding that territory will require a strategic change in how forces interact with local communities.

Keeping a meaningful presence in mining areas could include finding a way to deploy local police units that are connected to military forces to ensure a quick reaction to VEO threats, Eizenga said. 

In the long term, government authorities will have to identify and regulate artisanal mining sites in ways that don’t disrupt the lives of communities that depend on them.

Building sustained security will help build trust, he said. Then authorities can use that trust to identify, register and regulate gold mines in a way that adds the legitimacy that will ward off exploitation by extremists.

“That has the added benefit of being able to disrupt the illicit activities of the violent extremist organizations, and so you’re simultaneously, when protecting these communities, also disrupting the activities of VEOS,” Eizenga said. “And just like with any kind of insurgent force, if you can kind of cut them off from their revenues, eventually that puts pressure on them, and when you put that pressure on them it makes it harder for them to operate, it makes it harder for them to recruit. Adding those challenges is going to have a positive overall effect.”  

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