Weaver Birds in Burkina Faso

This little fella is a weaver bird – one of my favourite sights in Africa.

Male village weaver also known as spotted-backed weaver or black-headed weaver in Burkina Faso

To be more exact, the bird pictured above is a male village weaver bird. Nest-building of any sort is an impressive skill, but imagine your nest is hanging upside-down from the end of a slender branch. And because its entrance is at the bottom rather than the top of the nest, the weaver needs to incorporate a cunning inner U-bend to stop the chicks falling out. Village weaver birds are sociable creatures and they usually build their nests close to each other, sometimes several nests to one branch.

This afternoon we had the good fortune to see a colony of five nests at different stages of completion. One of the finished nests looked to be occupied – there was a female going in and out. Another nest was in a very early stage of construction and a bright yellow male with a black face was flying to and fro with blades of grass and strips of leaf.

The male weaver bird uses the newly constructed nest as a form of display to attract a female. When the female arrives, she inspects the nest from the outside and then the inside. Local observers have told us that if she likes the nest she makes herself at home there – the birds will mate and the female will eventually lay two to three eggs. If, however, the female weaver does not approve of the nest, she will fly away. In that case, the irate male will destroy the nest (muttering irately, and who can blame him?) and start again from scratch.

The Goggle-Eyed Goats

the Goggle-Eyed Goats by Stephen Davies and Chris Corr picture book PB

I thought it would be interesting to do a blog series entitled The Making of a Picture Book, detailing the process we went through to create The Goggle-Eyed Goats. Here are the links:

The Making of a Picture Book Part One: Plot
The Making of a Picture Book Part Two: Character
The Making of a Picture Book Part Three: Language
The Making of a Picture Book Part Four: Illustration
The Making of a Picture Book Part Five: Synergy

These little piggies went to market

pigs in Djibo market

Muslims are not big fans of pigs. Pork is prohibited by the Qur’an and pigs themselves are seen as disgusting and dirty creatures. In a town like Djibo, there is good reason for this – Christian-owned pigs spend a lot of their time wallowing in the open sewers at the side of the road.

The Qur’an encourages Muslims to treat animals with compassion and not to abuse them. But occasionally the Fulani hatred of pigs boils over into violence. In the nearby town of Burow last month, hundreds of pigs were massacred by Fulani Muslims who were fed up of sharing their neighbourhood with such disgusting animals. This is a hard part of the world in which to be a pig.

Cyanide in the Reservoir – but who cares?

On 29 July a truck full of cyanide heading to the Inata gold mine in the north of Burkina Faso overturned at Djibo dam. The Inata mine is owned 90% by British gold mining company Avocet and 10% by the government of Burkina Faso. Simon Cross, Keith Smith, Greg Valerio and others continue to call Avocet and their contractors to account for the incident. But it’s not just Brits who are wanting answers and assurances from Avocet Mining. Many Burkinabe I have talked to are extremely uncomfortable that Avocet have swept this (and previous) incidents under their spun-gold carpet. Today it is my pleasure to introduce to you the Burkinabe writer Walid Hicham. Many thanks to Walid for responding to my invitation and writing the following article.

Here is Walid’s article in the original French, with my translation in English below.

Cyanure dans le barrage : mais qui s’en préoccupe !

Cyanide containers submerged in downstream flow from Djibo dam
Photo from Avocet


L’affaire du renversement du camion de cyanure n’est pas saisie à sa juste mesure par les différentes parties impliquées. L’État burkinabè a le regard tourné ailleurs. Stoïques, peu embarrassé, pris par leurs vacances, les ministres concernés ne semblent pas faire de cet événement, une occasion rêvée pour remettre à plat les exigences de sécurité envers les compagnies minières.

En dépit des relances (de bloggeurs notamment), Avocet Mining est aux abonnés absents. La société n’a jamais été prolixe en termes de communication. Pour un événement pareil, elle a préféré tiré le frein à main et ne pas nous répondre. Ce choix ne peut que la desservir. Que dire des organisations de la société civile ? Toutes en vacances ? A croire que cette catastrophe a fait exprès de choisir son calendrier. Pourquoi une ONG aussi active qu’Orcade ne se saisit pas du combat afin de faire bouger les lignes, elle qui justement est en tournée de formation des acteurs concernés sur le processus de l’ITEI ? A ce stade, c’est plus qu’une faute professionnelle.

Les médias, une fois l’événementiel passé, se sont tournés s’est tournée vers d’autres lucioles. Mention tout de même spéciale à l’hebdomadaire Bendré qui est longuement revenu sur ce sujet dans son dernier numéro. Enfin les populations sont prises par la torpeur du Ramadan et par le fatalisme si commun dans cette partie du Burkina. Ont-elles au final tort quand on voit le peu d’intérêt que leur cas suscite ?

L’indifférence qui se jumelle à l’incompétence devient un cocktail détonnant et dangereux. Nous avons dans le cas présent ces deux ingrédients. A force de flirter avec la ligne rouge, le moment se rapproche où les choses vont basculer du mauvais côté. Rien dans l’attitude d’Avocet ne nous permet de dire qu’elle a pris la mesure de son devoir de protection envers les populations riveraines. Avocet au Faso a une politique à très très court terme.

Par le passé, la solidité du barrage a déjà fait les gorges chaudes non seulement des techniciens mais aussi de toute personne passant par ce barrage en route à Inata. Le discours de la SMB s’est toujours voulu rassurant. Et pourtant ! Ce scepticisme environnant a malheureusement été probant sur le terrain quand une partie de la digue a subi des infiltrations majeures.

En septembre 2010, le barrage a également montré ses sérieuses limites. L’absence d’un déversoir en béton de même qu’une vanne permettant d’évacuer le plein d’eau ont entraîné le débordement du barrage. Comme mesure de protection, Avocet avait comme dispositif des amas de gros cailloux. Est-ce sérieux ?

Aujourd’hui, en dépit de toutes ces alertes, rien ne nous prouve que ce barrage ne sera pas un danger pour les populations. C’est également avec grande inquiétude que ces populations pensent au jour où l’exploitation (donc l’entretien) s’arrêtera.

A force de tout le temps écrire sur Avocet, celle-ci va se croire persécuter. Loin de là ! Il s’agit ici pour nous de rappeler encore et toujours qu’une compagnie minière a un devoir de responsabilité. Ce ne sont pas que des mots. Mais un engagement sans faille et des actes probants sur le terrain.

Cyanide in the Reservoir – but who cares?
by Walid Hicham

An accident involving the overturn of a cyanide truck has not been responded to properly by the various parties involved. The Burkinabè government has turned a blind eye. Stoically and unashamedly its ministers stayed on holiday rather than seizing on this incident as the perfect opportunity to overhaul security measures pertaining to mining companies.

And in spite of all the attention, particularly from bloggers, Avocet Mining is conspicuous by its absence. This company has never been a prolific communicator, but in this event it has battened down its hatches and sought refuge in silence – a decision which it presumes to be in its best interests. What about civil organizations? Are they on holiday as well? Anyone would have thought the timing of this disaster was intentional! Why is an active NGO like Orcade not taking up the fight and making a difference? Instead, it is on tour, training stakeholders in ITEI. That is worse than misconduct.

Now that the initial crisis has passed, the local media have turned their attention to prettier fireflies (with the exception of the weekly paper Bendré, which returned to the subject at length in its latest issue). As for local people, they have been felled by the torpor of Ramadan and the fatalism so common in this part of Burkina. Since their grievance has attracted so little interest, maybe they now feel that they themselves were in the wrong!

Indifference mixed with incompetence is a dangerously explosive cocktail. In this case, both ingredients are present. By flirting with the red line, we are in grave danger of crossing it. Nothing at all about the attitude of Avocet can reassure us that they fulfilled their basic responsibility to protect local people. Avocet’s policies are nothing if not short-term!

In years past the state of the Djibo dam has provided a good laugh not only for engineers but for anyone travelling in the direction of the Inata gold mine. SMB have always tried to make reassuring noises. Some use! The scepticism of locals was proved right when the dam began to suffer major leaks.

In September 2010 the dam displayed its serious limitations. The absence of a concrete spillway or a valve for letting water escape led to the overflow of the dam. As a protective measure, Avocet arranged for large rocks to be heaped up along the dam wall. Rocks! Surely they weren’t serious?

Today, in spite of all our warnings, the dam remains a clear and present danger. Local people look forward with genuine concern to the end of the mining project (and therefore the end of any dam maintenance).

If we go on writing about them all the time, Avocet will think they are being persecuted. Far from it! We simply want to remind them again and again that a mining company has a duty of responsibility, not just to talk the talk, but to engage in incisive and convincing action on the ground.


Many thanks to Walid for giving freely of his time and penmanship. If you would like to read more by Walid on the subject of Avocet, SMB and Inata, here are links to two articles on his blog.

  • Le blabla de la Société des mines de Bélahouro
  • SMB : Sortie de Piste à l’Horizon

Top 5 writing books – one writer’s recommendations

Whether you are an aspiring writer or a serial Newbery medal winner, the chances are that you are no stranger to the ‘How to Write’ manuals at your local library. ‘How to Write Fantastic Fiction’, ‘The Writer’s Life’, ‘The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing’, ‘How to Write a Thriller’, ‘How to Write for Children’, ‘Writing the Breakout Novel’, ‘This is the Year you Write your Novel’, ‘A Dummies Guide to Writing Dialogue’, these and other titles whisper seductively at you from the Writing shelf. And when you pick them up, you find their back cover blurbs simply bursting with promises. Follow the advice within and you will be churning out bestsellers before you know it.

Hardly any of the ‘How to write’ books on the library shelves are downright bad, although they often give me the impression that I’ve read them before – that is to say, they are useful precisely because they are recycling or rephrasing age-old advice.

A few, however, are both original and brilliant, and when people ask me for writing advice, I always end up scribbling the same five recommendations on the back of an envelope. They are all excellent books on the subject of writing, they are all uniquely helpful in some way and they are all widely quoted by teachers of creative writing.

Don’t waste time borrowing these five books from the library. Take it from me, once you’ve read them you’re going to want to buy them, so why not save yourself the time and bother? Borrow other writing books by all means. Borrow ‘This is the Year You Write Your Novel’ if you feel in need of a pep talk. Borrow ‘The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing’ if you like IKEA assembly guides. Borrow ‘How to Write a Thriller’ if you must (although reading five good thrillers will be just as helpful). But the five recommendations below are books you’re going to want to own.

Here they are, in no particular order

1. BECOMING A WRITER by Dorothea Brande

This was written in 1934 and is as relevant now as it was then. It is about the psychology of writing and it has changed the way I write forever. When it came to writing, I used to be my own worst enemy. I would write a sentence and immediately narrow my eyes and analyse it for flaws. I would write a chapter and then obsess over making it perfect. I dithered and procrastinated and head-butted doors. Thanks to Dorothea Brande, I do things differently now. I give my blithe bouncing creative self free rein to gibber out a first draft at the speed of knots, then pull the paper from the typewriter and fling it high into the air in imitation of Stephen J Cannell’s famous vanity plate. Only then do I take the padlock off the iron cage and release my slavering, red-fanged, red-pen-wielding pernickety editorial self.

Best advice:

“Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer-the craftsman and the critic in him- are actually hostile to the good of the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.”


This is not the James Frey who got into trouble over his fake ‘misery memoir’ A MILLION LITTLE PIECES. This is a much nobler James Frey, and his book is exactly what it says in the subtitle: a step-by-step no-nonsense guide to dramatic storytelling. It has great tips on how to define the premise of your novel, how to create three-dimensional characters and how to write sparkling dialogue. I read it in one sitting (or in one bath, if I remember correctly) and have gone back to it many times since. Frey’s writing voice is bolshy and funny but also sage.

Best advice: (This phrase might not be original to Frey, but it’s a good’un)

Chase your main character up a tree and then throw stones at him

By the way, James Frey wrote a sequel to this book (same title, volume 2), but it’s not as good.


This book has a permanent place on the bedside table and I love it. It took Christopher Booker 35 years to do the research, but in my opinion the result is a masterpiece. From Job to ET, from Romeo and Juliet to Neighbours, from Peter Rabbit to Peer Gynt, Booker makes the most unusual and delightful connections between seemingly disparate stories. Who would have thought that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is fundamentally the same story as Beowolf, or that Doctor No is basically a James Bond retelling of The Epic of Gilgamesh? What does the Rime of the Ancient Mariner have in common with the parable of the Prodigal Son? What does Pilgrim’s Progress have in common with Watership Down? Antony and Cleopatra with Star Wars?

This is an ambitious work, not just in its scope (essentially every story in the history of the world), but also in its depth. Booker gleefully pulls apart one story after another to reveal the nuts and bolts, and to trace the plot arcs through five well-defined stages. This book is for readers and movie-goers and anyone who likes a good yarn. It helps us understand what kinds of stories we tell ourselves and why. But its particular interest to writers is probably obvious by now. After all, the mechanics of good stories is what keeps writers awake at night.

Best bit: It seems unfair to pull one soundbite out of a work that was 35 years in the writing. So I’ll just say that the whole of part one (The Seven Gateways to the Underworld) is amazing.

4. ON WRITING by Stephen King

Half memoir, half how-to book, this is a great insight into a writer’s life. I admit I have never read a Stephen King novel – horror is not my thing – but I was deeply impressed by the clarity, cleverness and sheer good advice in this book. I’m not the only one, it seems. ON WRITING has for a long time been number one on Amazon in the ‘Authorship’ section.

Best bit: the muse in the basement – dispelling the romantic myth of the writer’s muse:

There is a muse but he is not going to come fluttering into writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He is a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretend to ignore you… He may not be much to look at that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he is on duty), but he’s got the inspiration.

5. THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE by Strunk and White

This book was given to me by some missionaries in Sebba in the north of Burkina Faso (Thanks, George and Kathy!) and is without doubt the best book on writing style I have ever met. Thirty-eight pages of terse, opinionated, brilliant advice – pure gold.

Best advice: EB White recounts in his introduction how Gordon Strunk used to pace up and down the classroom repeating the following timeless advice:

“Omit needless words!”

That mantra is the single best piece of writing advice I have ever heard or read, as well as the most concise.

So there you have them – the five best writing books of all time. Brackets in my opinion Close-brackets. And here’s a bonus, for when your manuscript is finished:


JK Rowling famously used the 1998 version of this book when she was trying to take Harry Potter to market. And authors great and small before and since have relied on it for the priceless insights it gives into the world of publishing, and for answers to questions like “Do I need a literary agent?” and “Should I approach publishers one at a time or all together?” Most importantly, this tome contains the addresses, telephone numbers and websites of every publisher, agent, book packager, magazine and newspaper you are ever likely to need.

Best bit: For me, the most wonderful entries turned out to be the ones for Klaus Flugge at Andersen Press and Julia Churchill at The Greenhouse Literary Agency.

You doubtless have your own list of recommended writing books. Why not take a moment to share your top 5 in the comments section below?

Local authorities in Djibo go on air to address Inata cyanide scandal

Yesterday afternoon local officials in Djibo talked on the radio about the recent cyanide spillage en route to Inata. The mayor and the vice-mayor visited the Voix du Soum radio station with three translators (French, Fulfulde, Moré) and they answered some probing questions about the cyanide accident. I have never heard the mayor of Djibo speaking live on the radio before.

The mayor said that there is now no danger to people or wildlife in and around Djibo. The vice-mayor read out the results of water testing downriver from the reservoir, showing negligible cyanide levels.

Then the mayor talked about the road between Ouagadougou and Inata. He said that the heavy vehicles going to the Inata gold mine have contributed to the degradation of the road. He also said that he had received assurances from the authorities at the gold mine that SMB would help to repair the road. He did not specify whether this will involve tarmacking the road, or simply patching it up – and he did not mention a timescale.

Meanwhile, my colleagues and I continue to await a response from Avocet to these still unanswered questions:

1. When, where and how did the two previous accidents en route to Inata happen?
2. Will Avocet make public their Environmental and Social Benefit document relating to Inata?
3. When will Avocet sign up to the Cyanide Code?

Back in the days when Avocet used to answer my emails, they wrote this:

With regard to the code, we believe that we are materially compliant with the key terms of the code; however we are not currently a signatory thereto.

Jeweller and campaigner Greg Valerio believes this statement from Avocet is meaningless – if they are serious about cyanide security they should prove it by signing the Cyanide Code. Greg has joined the growing number of people who are wanting to hold Avocet and the Burkina government to account for the environmental and social effects of their gold mining at Inata.

Cyanide accident at Djibo dam in Burkina Faso: will the gold mines kill us before they save us? (Part 3)

On 29 July 2011 a truck carrying 40 tonnes of cyanide heading for the Inata gold mine overturned at Djibo dam. Some of the cyanide got out. The only casualties so far have been fish, but my burning question is this: could it happen again? If Avocet Mining (London), Samsung (Korea) and Vehrad (Ghana) do not change their ways, then the answer to this is yes.

Thank you to all of you who have been tweeting, blogging and FB-ing about this incident. Please keep it up. Use the Share this buttons at the bottom of each post. I have to admit I had never used a Share button on a website until very recently – I did not know how, and was a little bit nervous of it. But it’s extremely easy: you just click on the button (either Facebook or Twitter), enter your FB or Twitter password (don’t worry, this part is secure) and you’re done.

Welcome to Part Three of my exposé of the recent cyanide spill at the Djibo dam. Here are Part One and Part Two in case you missed them: Part One is a news story explaining what happened when. Part Two is a little bit spicier.

I ended Part Two with an open letter to Brett Richards, CEO of Avocet Mining Ltd. I appealed to him to do four things:

  1. Take responsibility for the effects of his company’s activities
  2. Listen to the voices of local people
  3. Consider alternatives to cyanide
  4. Tarmac the road between Kongoussi and Djibo

Under the heading Listen to the voices of local people I supplied links to news forums in Burkina Faso where locals have been commenting on the cyanide scandal. I am sure that Mr Richards speaks French, but for the sake of those who don’t, I have translated a large selection of these comments into English and pasted them below. I agree with most but not all of the opinions expressed.

Comments posted at L’observateur

12 August 2011 06.14 by Ouedraogo Y
“The driver lost control of his vehicle whilst crossing the wall of the dam.”
In theory there are transport norms for these kinds of products; the lorry should not have crossed there. No prolongation of journey time is too much in this kind of transport.

12 August 2011 08.45 by Loroum
Hello everyone! It is regrettable, but it is a sad reality: faced with the crisis, the director of the mine drew back from his responsibility and accused the company Samsung, the manufacturer [Ed. Samsung was not the manufacturer but the courier] of the product. The latter is based in Korea, so what can they do for our poor ignorant population? Our people are left to pick up the bill for the [gold] exploitation; they have to collect the broken pots of Ghanaian transport company VEHRAD. In the end the containers were taken out of the water by a Burkinabe company BLMS. So why seek contractors outside of Burkina when we have the requisite professionals right here? The government does not seem well informed about this accident because it has still not reacted. Where is the Minister of the Environment?

12 August 2011, 09.27 , by Djelgoji
Certainly SMB is responsible for this catastrophic situation, but don’t let the tree hide the forest, I think that the Burkina Faso State has not played its role. It has not built proper roads in this part of Burkina, which is neglected in spite of the presence of the mine. It is up to local people to defend themselves, and why should we not make a complaint to the International Criminal Court against the Burkina government and SMB?

12 August 2011 10.20, by unouagalais
This reminds me of the theory of our ex-Prime Minister Mr Tertius Zongo who declared hand on heart that gold mining could not develop a country. Unfortunately he must since have been lured in by the corruption of those raptors who do not care at all about the development of Burkina! We are engaged in an exploitation of our gold in the worst possible way – it’s not surprising that our lakes are polluted.

12 August 2011 13.12, by Bari Leon
I think that the mining company of Belahouro (SMB) is most to blame, if we remember that it pretended not even to be using toxic products like cyanide. That is the truth but we always end up being taken in by lies. Meanwhile the local authorities surpassed themselves in their dereliction of their duty of information and awareness during the crisis which followed the events of 29 July 2011 at Djibo dam.

Comments posted at Lefaso.net

2 August 12:34 by Anon
If what is written here is true, the situation is too serious for our national authorities to remain silent. It is not enough to deplore or condemn; this situation deserves particular action, in order to save the courageous poor people, the animals and especially the environment which this generation must leave to the next. Meanwhile, people must mobilize themselves to make their complaint to the Djibo magistrate who must in turn order an inquiry to determine the responsibilities of each party.

2 August 10.55, by kab
If the people [of Djibo] themselves do not take action, no one will come to their aid, and both people and animals will die in silence. Everywhere in the country people are struggling for a better life, but in Djibo [they do] nothing! Even though it’s there that the worst problems exist, in my opinion, and this poison in the reservoir is just another consequence of the passivity of [Burkinabe] people who watch their local authorities doing what they want instead of [those authorities] working for the good of all.

2 August 11.01 by Guiti

This is really worrying. Yesterday I crossed the dam to go to Aribinda and I noticed a lot of dead fish. Something must be done to limit the damage.

2 August 11.38 by Bi Neere
This is negligence on the part of the authorities. In the face of these sad realities, it is our poor parents who will once again pay dearly. Do not fold your arms, sons and daughters of Soum and the Sahel, our parents are all going to die

2 August 13.00 by yeral dicko
Your article is spot on! I was in Djibo at that time and I took lots of photos. It is a real shame that people don’t wake up to the seriousness of the situation!!! It’s time the State did something about this part of the country.

2 August 14.25 by Eric
We should have expected this! All that is a problem with the regime! When you are drunk on the inside as well as the outside it becomes impossible to raise your head and say no to these rapacious westerners who treat us with less consideration than their dogs. Eat and drink, for tomorrow we will all die! Unless a little Jesus comes out of nowhere and saves us from our current leaders as quickly as possible. Oops, not just our own leaders but also those vultures of Western Presidents, from Sarko to Obama via David and Merkel… they are more terrorist than Al Quaida. Believe me: the end of the world is very close.

2 August 14.42 par Taretare

This is terrible news. Thank you for having brought it to the attention of the world. I hope that an immediate solution will be found before the worst happens. I do not think it is enough to write; the youth must once more mobilize, but this time our key demands must be satisfied. Our leaders always need a push in the right direction.

6 August 22.25 by Mariam SERI SIDIBE
Hello dear brothers and sisters. After the spill of toxic chemicals in Abidjan, where several thousand fell victim, the horror goes on…
I am a Sister of the Order of Guadeloupe living in France, but I once lived in Africa. I will share this article in ‘Africa’s Struggle’, an anti-capitalist newsletter, to raise awareness of this situation.

Comments posted at Lepays.bf

2 August 00.15 by Tapsoba
We are waiting for the reaction of the government – or will they react too late, like a doctor arriving after a death? They refused to take this danger seriously when we called them to action back in May. It’s so sad you could cry.

2 August 12.08 by Salowmoon
I almost have tears in my eyes! It’s just like in the Westerns:

They come and take your land by force ;
They remove gold and they make off with it ;
They corrupt your sons and daughters ;
They degrade the roads ;
They decimate cattle and wildlife, and all the while they are poisoning the land and the water for decades to come.
They don’t care about us locals who did not ask for anything and did not expect anything.

2 August 10.05 by I.SAD
Thank you, brother, for your update. If these miners get away with everything, it is for the simple reason that they have the blessing of our authorities, who ignore the interests of their people and the wellbeing of these poor areas in exchange for ‘envelopes’. I live in [Djibo] province and it makes my heart ache to see the discrimination in this place which has no tarmacked roads. The economic potential of Soum [Ed. Soum is the province of which Djibo is the capital] is enormous: just take the example of Soum’s cattle, which are Burkina Faso’s second biggest import.

When the gold mine at Belahouro [Inata] opened, the people of Soum saw this as another compelling reason for the road to be surfaced. Besides, back in 2005, Blaise had announced during his presidential campaign that the tarmacked road which stops at Kongoussi ‘is crazy to stop there.’ But alas, our hopes have been dashed once again by the irresponsibility and bad governance of our leaders. And not content with all that, they are poisoning us and consigning us to an inhabitable environment. Nevertheless, people are on high alert more than ever now and they will continue to organize themselves to show these demagogue leaders that they are not slaves.

Cyanide accident at Djibo dam in Burkina Faso: will the gold mines kill us before they save us (Part Two)

Welcome to part two of my exposé of the recent cyanide spill at the Djibo dam. Here’s Part One if you missed it.

Thank you to Simon Cross and Keith Smith for their excellent blog posts about this accident. Thanks also to those of you who have been tweeting and FBing your support. As you know, Google search rankings depend largely on incoming links. So simply linking to these articles will increase their page rank. Getting the word out is half the battle – Avocet may not respond to our calls for change but they may well respond to investor pressure. Just think of that – the 10 seconds you take to re-tweet a link to this article are 10 seconds that could change the world. Just use the Share Buttons at the bottom of this page.

The title of my series of articles is drawn from the title of Hyacinthe Sanou’s news report: Avant de nous sauver, l’or va nous tuer. (Before it saves us, gold will kill us). This may seem melodramatic but it accurately reflects the deep fear and unease with which the inhabitants of the Djibo region now view the Inata gold mine. What began as an enthusiastic scramble for jobs has turned to cynicism and resentment. Before the cyanide spill, relations between miners and locals were already at an all-time low, and now they have been thoroughly poisoned. More about that later.

Here’s a reminder of the accident we are talking about. The photograph is from Avocet’s official communique – it was taken just one hour after the incident occurred and shows the cyanide containers are partially submerged.

Cyanide containers submerged in downstream flow from Djibo dam
Photo from Avocet

In this article I will go all Erin Brockovich and tackle the question of corporate responsibility – in a word, blame. There is something not right about our blame culture, steeped as it is in litigation and finger-pointing. But in a case of near environmental disaster (or as we shall see, three near disasters) attributing blame is necessary and helpful. There is no use crying over spilled milk, but spilled cyanide is worth crying, tweeting, blogging and if necessary shouting from the rooftops about – if it means it doesn’t happen again.

In my correspondence with Angela Parr, Investor Relations Manager at Avocet Mining Ltd, she has been keen to stress that safe delivery of cyanide was part of Samsung’s contract and nothing to do with SMB (the Inata mining company, of which Avocet owns 90%). Here is her response to the article I posted yesterday about the accident.

Hi Steve.
Thanks for the opportunity to review.
I think the article is largely factually correct. However the one point that I think is ambiguous in the article is SMB’s level of responsibility relating to the incident. SMB is in no way contractually responsible for the delivery of cyanide. Delivery forms part of Samsung’s contract as SMB only take delivery of and responsibility for cyanide once it reaches the Inata mine site. SMB’s response to the situation was based on a sense of duty of civic care rather than on one of contractual responsibility. I hope you can appreciate the distinction.

I understand. SMB (the mining company) was in no way responsible for the cyanide whilst it was on the road, nor was it contractually obliged to go and investigate the cyanide spill. It sent a team to help with the damage assessment because it is a good corporate citizen, a veritable Ben and Jerry’s of the mining world.

It is good that SMB sent a team of specialists so quickly to the scene of the accident. It is commendable that they got the message out about the potential danger and embarked on water testing there and then. And that they lifted the cyanide containers out of the water before Vehrad even turned up. Gold star, SMB. Here is a picture they took on Sunday 31 July of one of the containers raised clear of the water on timber blocks.

Cyanide container at Djibo dam two days after the accident
Photo from Avocet

According to a narrow contractual definition of corporate responsibility, Avocet Mining (AVM) is in the clear. They probably can not be sued for any damage resulting from the Djibo cyanide spill, because safe delivery of the cyanide is Samsung’s job. But it is clear that Avocet Mining do have wider moral obligations to the people who live in the Djibo region. If Samsung’s delivery methods to Inata are (as we shall see) fundamentally unsafe, Avocet Mining will be keen to improve matters, as much as anything to avoid tarnishing the reputation of their company.

With this in mind, the CEO of Avocet Mining Brett Richards has initiated high-level discussions with his Samsung counterpart, and according to the official Avocet report on the Djibo dam debacle, these talks will address the need to:

  • Ensure that containers are improved in strength and rendered water-tight.
  • Improve the quality and training of drivers.
  • Establish emergency response measures in country to enable more rapid reaction and mobilization than occurred in this instance.

Let’s take those points one by one.

1. Ensure that containers are improved in strength and rendered water-tight

Shutting the container door after the cyanide has bolted. Still, this is the very least that is necessary in order to ensure that an accident of this kind doesn’t happen again.

I asked Paul Bateman, President of ICMI (International Cyanide Management Institute) about the strength of the containers used to transport cyanide to Inata:

We do not yet know the specific cause of the accident in Burkina Faso. Once that information is available, we will be in a better position to determine the extent to which non-compliance with the [Cyanide Code] and/or human error were contributing factors.

Avocet is not a Code signatory, and consequently the Inata Gold Mine is not subject to the Code. Therefore, the mine is not required to purchase cyanide from a Code-certified manufacturer, and ICMI has no information regarding the manufacturer of the cyanide used at the mine. Samsung is a sales agent for a number of cyanide manufacturers, and is considered under the Code as a “consignor/transporter” because it organizes and oversees supply chains consisting of contracted cyanide carriers. Since the packaging of cyanide is typically the responsibility of the manufacturer rather than the transporter, we are not able to comment further regarding its packaging.

The Cyanide Code an important initiative, especially when so much mining around the world uses cyanide in its treatment processes. But inevitably the effectiveness of such a code is dependent on the quality and thoroughness of its individual auditors.

2. Improve the quality and training of drivers

Anyone who knows Africa knows that this is an issue. I blogged some time ago about the dangers of bad roads and bad driving with particular reference to Burkinabe bus-drivers – many of whom have an inshallah attitude to risk. The same goes for truckers. With trucks carrying potentially lethal cargoes, you desperately need good, risk-averse drivers.

You also need good roads. The main problem with the Kongoussi to Djibo road is not the potholes. It is the deep horizontal ruts known here as ‘washboard’ or in French as escalier. The best driver in the world could lose control on the Kongoussi-Djibo road, and no amount of driver training can annul that basic fact.

I asked John Chung, the International Manager of Samsung, for a comment on the Djibo cyanide spill. Here is his reply:

As signatories of International Cyanide Management Code (“ICMC”), Samsung C&T and our service providers are committed to making our best efforts to ensure safe transportation of cyanide.

Samsung C&T and our inland logistics partners fully survey our transportation routes, and provide regular safety training to drivers. And while transporting cyanide, each consignment has an escort in the front and a convoy in the end for any emergency.

However, as can be seen in the recent incident, there are cases where we face unexpected road conditions.

Unexpected road conditions? Water flowing over the spillway of the north side of the Djibo dam? That is not unexpected. The dam overflows for three months of the year, every year, and has done since its construction. I am appalled that unexpected road conditions should be cited as a mitigating circumstance. If I had not already lost confidence in Samsung’s ability to safely manage the transportation of cyanide, that statement alone would do it.

But things are even worse than they appear. Near the end of the Inata mine director’s official report comes this particularly chilling statement:

Avocet Mining/SMB will be discussing [the Djibo accident] and two earlier incidents where cyanide trucks turned over due to driver error with SAMSUNG

When I first read that, it hit me like a Vehrad truck. This is not the first time that such an accident has happened. It is simply the first time that it has happened in water.

I emailed Angela Parr three times to ask about these earlier incidents, but at the time of posting this article she has not yet replied. As soon as she does, I will post her comment here.

3. Establish emergency response measures in country to enable more rapid reaction and mobilization than occurred in this instance.

One might have expected in-country emergency response measures to be in place already, particularly since both Samsung and Vehrad are signatories of the Cyanide Code which demands that just such measures be in place. Paul Bateman at the International Cyanide Management Institute has not yet received Vehrad’s detailed report on the accident, so he did not comment directly on their culpability. He did say this:

In recognition that even the best procedures and training cannot eliminate human error, equipment failures and other causes of accidents entirely, the Code has an extensive emergency response component that requires operations to have appropriate plans and capabilities to act in the event of a cyanide incident or accident. The additional information expected from Vehrad should help us determine if the response was consistent with its established procedures.

So we are waiting for Vehrad’s report of what caused the driver to crash his truck. I would advise them not to use Samsung’s phrase ‘unexpected road conditions’ in their report. There was nothing unexpected about the road conditions on the day of the accident, nothing at all. I wonder how fast the truck was going…

Notes and Recommendations

Brett Richards, CEO of Avocet Mining Ltd, is a former professional ice hockey player. He has the drive and bullishness that investors like, and his company has its sights firmly set on adding as many ounces as it can in West Africa. Here is my open letter to Mr Richards, representing the pleas of the people I meet on the streets of Djibo every day.

  1. Take responsibility for the effects of your company’s activities
  2. Fact: if there were no gold mine at Inata, there would be no cyanide trucks travelling on bad roads in the north-west of Burkina Faso. There would be no cyanide to spill on roads, no cyanide to spill in water, no cyanide to terrify local people and send them into a month-long psychosis. Please sign up as soon as possible to the Cyanide Code. It is the experience of ICMI that the Cyanide Code is most effective when all parties, including the mine, the transporter and the manufacturer, are certified in compliance with the Code.

  3. Listen to the voices of local people.
  4. You must be more relieved than anyone that nobody has died as a result of the cyanide spill. But please read the Burkinabe comments here and here and understand the depth of local ill-feeling against your mine.

  5. Consider alternatives to cyanide
  6. Your mine is the rising star of West African gold mining. Financially you are in for a stellar year. Your recent drilling results were fantastic and you are all set to double your production at Inata. The price of gold is high and set to rise even further. Why not celebrate all this by kicking the cyanide habit for good? Norman Haber of Haber, Inc. has developed a new method of mineral extraction using non-toxic, cost-effective alternatives. The Haber Gold Process (HGP) has undergone preliminary and follow-up testing by mining engineering groups, which have concluded that HGP results in more gold recovery over a shorter period of time than the cyanide leaching processes with a cost comparable to, or less than, cyanide leaching.

  7. Tarmac the road between Kongoussi and Djibo
  8. If you persist in using cyanide to extract your gold, please ensure that the road between Kongoussi and the gold mine is properly tarmacked before allowing cyanide deliveries to continue. Recently the people of Djibo staged a two-day road-block to protest against the condition of the Kongoussi-Djibo road. It is dangerous for donkey carts carrying firewood, let alone heavy goods vehicles carrying cyanide. Please read my article in the Guardian Weekly about the Djibo Road Protest.

    All good wishes to you and to your colleagues in London and Inata.

    Yours sincerely,

    Stephen Davies

    Continue to Part 3.