A reef of gold buried beneath this vast, parched grassland arcs across some of the world’s poorest countries. Where the ore is rich, industrial mines carve it out. Where it is not, the poor sift the earth.
These hard-working miners include many thousands of children. They work long hours at often dangerous jobs in hundreds of primitive mines scattered through the West African bush. Some are as young as 4 years old.
In a yearlong investigation, The Associated Press visited six of these bush mines in three West African countries and interviewed more than 150 child miners. The agency’s journalists watched as gold mined by children was bought by itinerant traders. And through interviews and customs documents, they tracked gold from these mines on a 4,800-kilometer, or 3,000-mile, journey to Mali’s capital city and then on to Switzerland, where it entered the world market.
Most bush mines are little more than holes in the ground, but there are thousands of them in Africa, South America and Asia. Together, they produce a fifth of the world’s gold, according to United Nations reports. And wherever you find bush mines, these reports and mine experts say, you also find child labor.
One of the miners is Saliou Diallo. He is 12 years old. Saliou and his friends, Hassane Diallo, 12 (no relation), and Momodou Ba, 13, dropped out of school about three years ago when the village’s only teacher left. They were living in mud huts with their families in Guinea and went to work in their fathers’ fields.
Last year, as the price of gold hit a 26-year high, a thin stranger approached. The boys say he offered to take them to a place across the border in Senegal, where money hid inside the ground.
The spike in gold prices over the past seven years has lured increasing numbers of poor people, including child recruits, to bush mines. The United Nations labor agency estimates there are now 100,000 to 250,000 child gold miners in West Africa alone.
Saliou and his friends say the recruiter promised them $2 a day. In a region where 4-year-olds haul water and tend goats, boys of Saliou’s age are expected to earn money for their families. Senegal prohibits anyone younger than 18 from doing hazardous work, but the laws are seldom enforced.
The recruiter led the three boys on a weeklong walk of more than 160 kilometers. The boys heard the mine before they saw it, the sound of hammers pounding rocks into dust. The tall grass had been cut away. In its place rose hundreds of cone-shaped huts with roofs of brown grass. Tenkoto, once a pinprick on the landscape, had grown into a mining village of 10,000. Boys there lived in huts where they slept squeezed between adults on bare mattresses.
Ten kilometers from the village, men and teenage boys, some as young as 14, clamber down mine shafts 30 to 50 meters, or 100 to 160 feet, deep. The shafts are as narrow as manholes. Younger teenagers yank the rocks up with a pulley. Saliou’s boss buys bags of dirt from these men. The men have already combed it for gold, but usually a few crumbs remain. Boys like Saliou and his friends take turns at different jobs to coax the crumbs out.
They pound the dirt with wooden posts for hours until it is as fine as flour. They wash the dirt in a large sieve-like box. Then they squat next to a plastic tub, pour mercury into their bare hands and rub it into the mud like a woman scrubbing laundry on rocks.
Mercury attracts gold. But it also attacks the brain and can cause tremors, speech impediments, retardation, kidney damage and blindness.
Saliou’s tub of dirt yields a silvery ball the size of an M&M candy. He hands it to his boss, who heats the ball over a charcoal fire to make the mercury evaporate, leaving behind a fleck of gold.
At mealtime, Saliou rinses his hands in water from a muddy pool where the mercury runoff was dumped. He scoops a mouthful of rice and licks his hand clean. In the evening, his boss weaves his way between huts where women boil cabbage and nurse sweaty babies. The speck of gold the boys squeezed from the dirt is in the pocket of his jeans.
A gold merchant waits in a dark shack, his metal scales propped on a wooden table. The buyers of bush gold are distinguishable from the miners by their tidy clothes and scales. Each one offers the same price for one gram of gold – about $19. There are 31 grams in a troy ounce.
The buyers lend the miners money to purchase tools and bags of untreated dirt. In return, they get first crack at the gold. Saliou’s boss says he is loyal to a merchant named Yacouba Doumbia, who gave him his start-up capital. Doumbia says it takes him more than a month to collect nearly one kilogram, about 32 ounces, of gold. He hides it in pockets sewn into his clothes.
The gold leaves at dawn on the back of a motorcycle. It travels four days through the grasslands to Bamako, the capital of Mali. Couriers say the journey is dangerous. Some carry guns. They take back roads, never the highway.
The motorcycles pour into the city from hundreds of bush mines along the crooked spine of the gold reef. Bush buyers like Doumbia say they are nearly all loyal to one of five Bamako gold barons. One of them is Fantamadi Traore.
Doumbia gets his buying money and his motorcycle from him. They come from the same Malian village, which means they are as good as family. Traore says he has recruited more than 70 buyers, most from his village. « All the gold that leaves our village is headed to Mali to this one man, » says Bambo Cissokho, the village chief of Tenkoto.
Traore’s buyers pull into his muddy alleyway in Bamako and hand over the gold, sealed in plastic bags. The weight of the gold and the name of each buyer is marked on a Post-It note. Then gold from various buyers is melted in an outdoor furnace and poured into a mold to form an uneven bar.
Traore’s men pay the buyers from a safe stacked with West African francs and U.S. dollars. The price for gold from Tenkoto is $22.40 a gram – about $3.40 more than the buyers paid the miners. A courier making a typical delivery of one kilogram receives $22,400, of which $3,400 is profit.
In Mali and Senegal, there are hundreds of itinerant gold buyers and five major gold traders. But there is only one man with the paperwork, money and connections to make a business of exporting bush gold to Europe. A review of five years of Malian customs documents confirms that only a man called Abou Ba regularly takes bush gold out of the country.
Taking gold out of Mali is expensive. Government monitors assay it and charge $11 per kilogram, and a 6 percent tax is added at the airport. From the bush to the world market, an ounce of pure gold increases in price by about $380.
In an interview, Ba acknowledged that all his gold comes from bush mines, including from the Tenkoto and Hamdalaye mines where Saliou and many other children were seen working.
Asked about child labor, Ba got testy. « We don’t live in the bush, so we have nothing to do with child labor, » the 50-year-old trader said, the comment translated from his native French. He has never visited the mines, he added. « We just buy gold. »
Since at least 2003, Ba and his associates have carried bush gold in suitcases and packages to Geneva on commercial flights from the Bamako airport, usually making the trip several times a month.
In Geneva, Ba said, he drops off the gold bars at a Swiss customs counter inside the international airport.
Once in Switzerland, Ba’s gold enters the nebulous world of Swiss banking and precious metals trading, where secrecy is enshrined in both tradition and law.
But customs records in Mali show that since 2003, 96 percent of Ba’s exports have been purchased by two small Geneva companies. Decafin SA bought nearly one-fifth of it, worth as much as $4 million at today’s prices. The rest, worth as much as $18 million, was bought by Monetary Institute, run by a former Decafin executive, Judah Leon Morali.
« I am just a little guy, » Morali said. « I buy some grams, some kilos, from here and there. » Everyone buys from Ba, he said, and if other company names do not appear, it is because some transactions are unrecorded.
Decafin, the second importer, is a family business on Geneva’s exclusive Rue du Rhone. Marc Arazi, its principal officer, first denied buying from Ba. But later, one of the company’s attorneys, Marc Oederlin, said Decafin’s business relationship with Ba was undeniable and that Arazi acknowledged it. The lawyer said Decafin was concerned about child labor but had no legal responsibility to investigate the mining. He added that Decafin trusted Ba and was certain his gold was not the product of child labor.
The Associated Press