An artisanal gold mine in Mali collapsed late last week, killing now more than 70 people. The collapse took place in Mali’s Kangaba district of the Koulikoro region in the southwest of the country.
Mali’s Ministry of Mines first reported the collapse on Tuesday when it said in a statement that “several” miners had died in the collapse. Since then, however, subsequent reports have raised the death toll to where it now sits, above 70. According to mining authorities, over 100 people were in the mine at the time of collapse, and the death toll could likely rise as rescue efforts are ongoing.
Artisanal Mining and Mali’s Gold Industry
Artisanal mines are small-scale mines using rudimentary methods for gold extraction. The mines are operated locally. While Mali legally allows for artisanal mines, they technically are supposed to adhere to a series of safety regulations.
The problem is, however, that the majority of them don’t. Mali is no stranger to collapses like this, with the artisanal gold mines in Mali being unregulated by the government, many of them operate unsafely. Additionally, Mali’s artisanal mines have attracted repeated accusations of using child labour.
Mali is Africa’s third largest gold producer. As such, over 2 million people are involved in Mali’s gold mining industry. The majority of these people work in one of Mali’s around 300 artisanal mining sites, which represent just 6% of Mali’s annual gold production, at about 30 tons per year.
The rest of Mali’s gold industry is made up of industrial mines, primarily in the southern regions of the country. Mali’s gold mining industry is particularly unique in where it is primarily comprised of surface mines. This make’s Mali’s gold cheaper to extract, making it more profitable for companies. Consequently, labour costs in Mali are lower than in other neighbouring countries.
In 2021, the three largest gold mining companies in Mali were B2Gold and Barrick Gold, two Canadian companies, followed by Anglogold Ashanti, a South African company.
Karim Berthe, a senior official at the Malian governments National Geology and Mining Directorate, has called upon the government to do more in order to prevent tragedies like this in the future.
“The state must bring order to this artisanal mining sector to avoid these kinds of accidents in the future” -Karim Berthe
It is unclear if the government plans to take any action against the artisanal mining industry in order to ensure compliance with safety regulations.
The Dark Side of the Industry
Mali is a particular hotspot for a growing gold smuggling industry within Western Africa, and even Africa in general. Recently in 2021, a UN study examined Malian exports of gold to the UAE. Mali reported exporting 22,000kg of artisanal gold to the UAE, however the UAE reported importing 174,000kg of artisanal gold from Mali, representing a massive disparity between what the government was reporting, and what was actually being exported.
Additionally, Mali has distinctly low taxes on gold exports. While they have the same 3% export tax that their neighbours do, they only tax the first 50kg exported in a month, representing the opportunity for a massive tax break from anyone seeking to export gold from Africa. As such, many traders will smuggle gold into Mali, and then export it from Mali in order to avoid the higher taxes of other nations.
Mali, along with several regions of Africa, also witnesses the issue of gold mines and other mineral mines assisting to fund militant groups. While the bulk of Mali’s gold mines are located in southern regions, militant groups still manage to reap benefits from those located in the north, particularly in Kidal. Oftentimes militant groups will attack and either take control of, or inflict taxes upon mines within their zones of control. Mines not only represent significant economic opportunities for militant groups who use them as a primary source of income, but also typically hold within them explosives that these groups can utilize in operations.
Across Africa, gold smuggling remains a key funding source for a number of different groups. In Sudan, where approximately 80% of gold exports are smuggled, gold smuggling is a primary source of income for the Rapid Support Forces, who are fighting against the government.
Russia’s Wagner Group PMC has also benefited greatly from gold smuggling in Africa, having generated over 2.5 billion dollars in African gold for Russia since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.