Known as ‘The Dark Continent’, there are many dangers lurking in Africa – especially in the dark recesses of illegal mines. As more and more mines and mining facilities are closing in Africa, there is a growing concern with illegal miners taking over operations. Known in South Africa as Zama Zamas these miners are often unemployed, and nearly always desperate and hungry.
Abandoned mine shafts are no longer maintained and start deteriorating fast. Miners venture deep underground and stay there for several days in harrowing conditions in the hope of finding riches. Sometimes tunnels collapse and workers are trapped. Required safety precautions are not taken and in many mines workers suffer from the poisonous by-products of mining. Not only the workers are poisoned, even their families suffer when they go home with contaminated clothing. The Nigerian Minister of Mines & Steel Development Musa Sada speaks about being deeply touched by a woman in the Northern Nigerian outpost of Bagega who continues mining, despite having lost eight children to lead poisoning brought home through her activities. With such extreme consequences, for what reason do these miners carry on mining?
When the recession plunged the world into economic crisis in 2008 African villagers without tarred roads, cars or electricity had no idea what happened – and yet were still very much affected by it, albeit in a different way. Farmers had a lull in business as exports and imports decreased but at the same time the turmoil of the Western financial markets sent gold prices sky high. Instead of trucks picking up fresh produce, the dusty roads of African villages started becoming fuller with fortune seekers ready to mine what’s left of the lead-filled goldmines, and farmers soon joined. A gram of gold could bring in the equivalent of around US$45, which is a fortune in an area where over 70% of households survive on less than US$2 a day. The benefits were obvious, but these mining operations had a devastating downside – small children started becoming gravely ill and dying. Despite the illnesses and deaths, villagers made ten times more money from mining than what they ever did from farming, and like the woman who lost eight children – they continue mining and making money.
The Chamber of Mines of South Africa reports that illegal mining in Africa in South Africa alone is an industry worth around ZAR6 billion annually, and that many illegal miners are leaving their jobs to earn more to support their families working underground. For many of the illegal miners it is not only about earning more money, it is about basic survival. Miners risk arrest or death because without this work, their families will starve.
It’s estimated that as much as 14,000 individuals are involved in illegal mining in Africa. The arrest rate is high at around 70%, but the desperation of abject poverty, slack border control and corrupt officials are contributing to illegal miners continuing with their activities. The illegal mining system is also surprisingly well organised. Miners are often armed and booby traps are set up to deter rival groups and the authorities. According to the South African Chamber of Mines the only way forward is to change legislation in African countries. While some artisanal mining can be beneficial to local communities it has to be regulated and corruption has to be eliminated. Only through major socio-economic and legislative change can the issue of illegal mining in Africa be properly tackled.