Small Scale Artisanal Gold Mining in West Africa

Many people, including the foreigners have now taken to the illegal mining in West Africa and it has a negative impact on the registered miners.


The small-scale mining actually has become quite synonymous with galamsey.

In many villages of some areas of Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Guinea, all you can find are children, women, and old people. Many young men now have gone to pursue a job in the artisanal gold mining.


Whereas this type of mining can be seen as the new, equitable and decentralized type of wealth accumulation, but it’s the risky endeavor, which is crippling to the small-scale agriculture, unsustainable, conducive to many health risks and bad for our environment.

Gold mining isn’t new to West Africa and actually, goes back over a millennium.


A series of empires thrived in West Africa from 9th - 15th centuries because they have controlled the trans-Saharan trade of gold & slaves flowing towards the north in return for cloth, textiles, and salt coming south. The empires rose and fell, and based on their capability of controlling where the gold was mined in contemporary Ghana, Guinea, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

Gold mines of the ancient African empires were tapped out and highly fell dormant for many centuries.


The large-scale mining returned to this area in the 1980s, when the new gold mining processes, like cyanide leaching, made their operations viable again.


The regional gold formation has surged in the current years and now is the leading income source for Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ghana.

Artisanal Mining Risks 

Artisanal mining isn’t risk-free.

While visiting villages in southern Mali, it will get clear that the small-scale mining in this "peasant agriculture" faces some unprecedented labor shortages.


Many young men leaving their village and working in other region isn’t a new phenomenon. Traditionally, they will leave to farm peanuts, cotton, and other crops in the areas where prices and conditions were better. But, in these cases, they will still farm the food crops alongside the cash crops, it means that the national or the regional level food formation remained robust.


On the other hand, they will leave for work in the city during this unproductive dry season.

New labor migration for artisanal gold mines appears to be very intense given the attraction of the wealth driven by the high international gold rates.


Young men also are not returning to their home during the rainy season for working on their own farm, like they earlier used to do before taking other types of the outside labor. Moreover, their exodus from the agriculture has some important implications for the food production on a national scale in a few countries and generally in an area. The over-reliance on the excessive levels of the food imports is problematic. For instance, when the global food rates spiked in 2007 to 2008, the food riots broke in many African cities.

The question is: what may happen to younger men when gold runs out and international rates drop back to the point where this activity is not viable? Will, they then return to farming and become the new proletariat chasing the limited number of the wage paying work?

Environmental & health consequences of the artisanal gold mining also aren’t insignificant. Big tracks of the land are excavated and rendered unfeasible for farming, forestry, and pasture.


Some stretches of the Niger River & tributaries have been highly disturbed following the artisanal mining activities. The mercury poisoning among the miners is common and a number of accidents in mining are growing and large. Lastly, the level of HIV and AIDS is known to be one major problem in West African mining areas.

Problems that arise from Artisanal Mining

Addressing this problem

Policy options for the governments and the development advocates of West Africa might be limited. At the minimum, organizations have to be very cognizant of their labor constraints that face many families farming in this region. Whereas labor has been the bottleneck in the African farming systems, and this is a significant problem. The technologies and approaches that are cognizant of such constraint are possible to be successful.

For instance, whereas micro-dosing of the fertilizer is economical, environmentally friendly and effective, than the conventional fertilizer methods, its ore labor intensive. By using the improved inter-cropping, and crop associations can be the alternative and the underexplored labor to maintain the soil fertility.

Africa examines - Ghana Gold

Another important issue is to reform the mining sector. This can be better in a long run to rigorously regulate or formalize the gold mining in West African countries. However, this can only be meaningful when most of the profits stay in this country and are well spent on the public goods like education and health care. West African governments actually have a very poor record in this regard. The donors and the governments must look to the example of Botswana that has the admirable record of managing their diamond industry to benefit of their people.

However, artisanal gold mining in Africa can represent the new type of the resource curse as it outbids farming economically in short-term & leads to a fast exodus of the labor from this agricultural sector. The artisanal miners might return to agriculture, however, they might not, after the significant and the sustained break in farming. Whereas others might have the different vision of West Africa's future, but it definitely needs the vibrant and the sustainable farming sector.