Burkina Faso has an artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) sector that directly employs over 430,000 people and indirectly supports six times as many people via the secondary economy created by the sector. The economic support provided by ASGM and the skills diversification that it provides agrarian workers and rural villages is a fundamentally important feature of the Burkina Faso economy and one that is providing key support during the economic turbulence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many artisanal miners use mercury to separate gold from the ore, exposing themselves, their communities and the local ecosystems to the negative health and environmental impacts of mercury. A lack of access to education, land title, resources, finance, training and alternative clean and efficient mineral processing technologies hinders miners from switching to alternative, mercury free gold processing methods. The planetGOLD Burkina Faso project which is supported by the Global Environment Facility aims to eliminate the use of mercury in the ASGM sector rapidly. The project was launched by the Burkina Faso Ministry of the Environment, Green Economy and Climate Change (MEEVCC) one year ago on September 12, 2019 in Ouagadougou. The planetGOLD Burkina Faso project is implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and executed by the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) to implement Burkina Faso’s obligations under the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which Burkina Faso signed on October 10, 2013 and ratified on April 10, 2017.
Selecting an artisanal mining community to pilot a mercury free processing system
The planetGOLD Burkina Faso team is excited to find a good home for installing a mercury free gold processing system. The project team, accompanied by our government partners from the national agency supporting artisanal and semi-mechanized mines (ANEEMAS) and MEEVCC, visited four mining sites located across the South Western and Cascades regions. These regions are home to a large population of miners who are dependent on gold mining for a livelihood. In addition, the regions are easily accessible, have no major security problems, are contiguous to each other, have similar gold hosting geology (The Birimian Greenstone Belt), and mining potential. The site visits took place between July 13 and July 20, 2020, with the objective of selecting the best suited mining site to introduce the pilot mercury free gold processing system.
The project aims to showcase innovative and affordable mercury free technologies, while creating a socio-economic enabling environment to facilitate adoption and replication throughout Burkina Faso. The main barriers preventing the miners from shifting to mercury free processing are a lack of reasonably easy access to land title (mining concessions), low knowledge of technological options and how to operate and maintain mercury free processing equipment, and low access to financing needed to overcome these barriers. The project will therefore: 1) establish a revolving fund that aims to provide capital to mining groups that can learn or demonstrate sufficient management capacity for replicating the technologies in other sites, and 2) develop and deliver a curriculum in coordination with local Burkinabe vocational training institutions to deliver knowledge, education, and training necessary to operate mercury free processing systems.
The first visit took place at the artisanal mining site of Gnikpière where the National Project Coordinator, Ing. Moussa Bouboucari, shared his extensive experience and knowledge on artisanal mining by explaining the benefits of the proposed mercury-free gold processing system. He revealed that the mercury-free gold processing unit will bring three main benefits to the miners and their communities: 1) It will increase miner’s income by increasing gold recovery rates compared to the current practices and tools used (so more gold from the same amount of rocks), 2) it will decrease health risks by reducing miners' exposure to chemical and physical hazards, and 3) it will eliminate the negative environmental impacts of using mercury for gold processing.
During the site visits, Adama Ouedraogo, an experienced geologist and the team’s Field Operations Coordinator, met with local miners and leaders to collectively discuss opportunities for introducing potential technology, providing an explanation with pictures on how the technology works and its potential positive impacts on the mining community. Active engagement of local miners in decision making is critical to ensuring their needs are addressed, and that the technology is adapted to the local conditions and culture, facilitating successful adoption. Adama also pointed out the importance of mining communities adopting the mercury free gold processing unit and continuing its operations beyond the completion of the project. Following the site visits, the project’s technical committee will evaluate the four mining sites and select the best site for introducing the mercury free technology.
Life at the mining site during the pandemic
When COVID-19 restrictions were imposed in Burkina Faso, movements to and from the mining sites were restricted. Those miners who chose to continue working at the mine sites were separated from their family members, as they were required to quarantine at the mine site and not return to their villages. Meanwhile, miners that were off-site were obliged to stay at home. Various measures on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have been introduced to miners during the quarantine. These preventive measures which include frequent hand washing with soap and water, wearing a face mask and social distancing were well respected and adhered by most miners at the sites. However, according to the miners, the local markets at the sites had trouble re-stocking commodities which increased the prices of the basic goods including fuel, fruits and vegetables. This was a difficult time for the miners, but they were resilient.
Zourata Nacanabo is the women’s representative at the Gnikpière mine who has been living at the site for almost four years. She said that “we are here with our husbands and youngest children. Our older children are in cities where they wait for schools to reopen.” Aboubakar Dabire, the representative of the Ioba Artisan Miners'Cooperative (SCOOP/AMI) who has been at the Gnikpière site since 2013, also acknowledged that miners and their communities adhered to COVID-19 preventive measures during the lockdown. However, he further stated that miners are now becoming more complacent with the preventive measures and social distancing rules. More information on the impacts of COVID-19 on artisanal mining communities around the globe can be found here: https://www.artisanalgold.org/agc-covid-19-portal/
The Burkina Faso team will be implementing the planetGOLD project over the next four years until its scheduled completion at the end of 2023.
Click to view the sites that were visited: