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A tale of gold, pollution – and beauty

25 September 2018

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  • Webmaster MFC
  • 2018

A tale of gold, pollution – and beauty

The chairman of Mali Folkecenter Nyetaa speaks out about gold-digging, dreams and realities. Report from a trip through the green and lush Filamana Forest

By MFC reporter

“The state only gets around 20 per cent of the income from gold concessions given mainly to big foreign companies. In addition,  the health hazards to people and animals and the environmental destruction caused by gold digging, whether industrial or artisanal, are underestimated”.

Ibrahim Togola, chairman of the Mali Folkecenter Nyetaa, paints this gloomy picture of gold extraction in Mali, while we travel through the forest of Filamana in southwestern Mali.

We are in this part of the country on our way to visit MFC projects that are all designed to impede environmental degradation and help local vulnerable communities.

On a surprisingly smooth road through the forest we witness a scenery that at first glance seems to be is in stark contrast to Mr. Togolas’s remarks.

Filamana is natural beauty. It is the largest tree-covered area in Mali, and at this time of the year, trees, bush, flora present a lavish and mind-boggling variety of green colors.

But only on the surface. In the beautiful surroundings linger the effects of climate change that has hampered the otherwise fertile soil for years. Rainfall has decreased over decades. Rivers, creeks, lakes are running dry earlier than before. Fisherfolk cannot fish any longer. Trees are dying.

On top of it, the ground is now exposed to extensive pollution from the toxic mercury that is used for extraction by gold diggers without the needed precautions.

Gold and toxic mercury

It is in the earth crust under the forest that the immediate impression of beauty is conclusively shattered.

Holes are everywhere, in all sizes: 5, 10, 20 meters deep, dug up by youngsters searchifor the precious metal: gold.

The holes as such are not a menace to nature. What is dangerous is the mercury. It pollutes the environment and is a serious health hazard for humans if they touch and inhale it.

People from Bamako

We pull over and talk to a group of seven young men who are busy washing the soil to find the precious pieces of gold.

One of the washers explains that his group digs and washes from sunrise to sunset and sometimes score up to 20 grams of gold – on a good day. Other days they find nothing whatsoever.

The gold is sold to individual buyers, mostly “people from Bamako”, as one digger puts it secretively.

A gram of gold brings in 19-20,000 CFA (33-34 US dollars, ed.), and the seven diggers and washers in this group share the income in eight portions. The eight share is for the head of village as payment for permission to dig and use the spot to wash and sell the gold.

A deliberate policy?

Today there are no safeguards for the young diggers in the forest who come in their thousands with a dream of earning enough money to survive on and maybe one day find the big lump of gold that will make them rich.

Most leave empty-handed again with an inherent risk of a poisoned body.

Mr. Togola suspects that the state’s lack of policy and control is deliberate:

Chairman Ibrahim Togola in the Filamana forest

“While the youngsters dig in Filamana they do not make trouble in Bamako. If they were all in the capitol they might join forces and challenge the establishment, demanding jobs and a better life. Therefore, the state let it happen”, he says and underlines that Malian youth is the great majority of the population that bears the brunt of unemployment and lacking opportunities.

Mr. Togola estimates that the thousands of individual diggers in Mali dig up 10-15 tons a year while the large companies produce 50 tons, making gold the biggest income-earner for Mali.

But he emphasizes that there is an enormous gap between the financial gain for the state (20 percent) and the destruction and pollution of the Malian countryside.

Mercury, also called quicksilver: (abstract from Wikipedia and other online sources):

”The liquid form of mercury is especially dangerous because it vaporizes at room temperature. … If mercury vapor is inhaled, it is easily absorbed by the body, where it first gets into the lungs and from there into the blood and the brain”.

”Toxic effects include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs. Mercury poisoning can result in several diseases,….”

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This is the second article in a series from MFCs intervention zones in southwestern Mali. Read the first one about the Bozo fisherfolks’ struggle to survive here:

Read the third one about clashes between herders and farmeres here