I visited Avocet’s Inata gold mine yesterday, and had the opportunity to ask in person some of the questions that have gone unanswered by email since the cyanide spill at Djibo dam back in July 2011. Some of the answers I received were very welcome, in particular the news that Avocet has begun the process of International Cyanide Management Certification, and that they have stopped using Samsung and Vehrad for their cyanide deliveries. We will have to wait and see whether the new suppliers Kamsak are any more professional, accountable and communicative than their accident-ridden predecessors, and whether one day Avocet might see fit to abandon the use of cyanide once and for all.
If you approach the village of Inata in the north of Burkina Faso on foot, you should be careful where you tread. The ground is pockmarked with deep dark shafts, evidence of small-scale artisanal gold mining. The miners, dust-covered teenage boys and their equally dust-covered fathers, are hauling buckets of rock and sand out of the makeshift mines. It is tiring work and they are glad to down tools for a chat.
‘Found any gold yet?’ When making small-talk with artisanal miners, this opening gambit is hard to resist.
‘May God provide.’
‘Where is the main Inata mine?’
‘The white man’s mine?’ A young man in a Bob Marley T-shirt gestures north. ‘Continue on this road and you will see it. The mine is very big.’
‘What has been the effect of the white man’s mine on your village?’ (This, after all, is what I am here to find out).
The young man shrugs. ‘It has been good for us.’
‘Did they force you to move off your land?’
‘They paid us very well to move. And now this place is our home.’
So far, so good. I continue up the road through a thick haze of harmattan dust. The young man was right – the Inata mine is unmissable even in a dust storm. Its stockpile pyramid, dark ramparts and brooding towers stand stark against the sky.
Richard Gray is Executive Vice President of Avocet’s West African operations. He spends half his time in Inata and half in Hampshire. ‘A lot of people don’t like miners,’ he says. ‘They rank mining right down there with prostitution as the oldest and most objectionable of mankind’s activities.’ Be that as it may, Gray makes a good case for raising his profession a few notches on the acceptability scale. He talks eloquently and earnestly about the things Avocet are doing to limit what he calls the ‘nuisance value’ of his mine and to benefit the communities around Inata. Gray is an engineer and a businessman, not a social justice activist, but his concern for the social impact of the mine seems sincere.
I meet Frans Gonsalves (maintenance manager), Andy Mortimore (processing manager) and Terry Wilhelm (security manager). Like Gray, they are expat miners with many years of experience in different parts of the world.
“Even as a ten year-old boy I had itchy feet,” says Andy Mortimore. “I would ride for miles on my bike and always wanted to know what was over the next hill.” He has worked in Kyrgyzstan, Zambia and the Congo, and took up his current position at Inata on 30 July 2011 – the day after the cyanide spill at Djibo dam.
I force my feet into a pair of tight steel-toed boots and set off on a drive-round of the Inata area with Andy, Philbert and André. Over the last twenty years André has worked for several mining companies in the north of Burkina Faso and now he is Avocet’s Manager of Community Relations. How is that going?
‘Relations are better than they used to be,’ André replies, smiling broadly, ‘but I still have to deal with almost daily complaints. Yesterday I was collared by a Fulani herder whose cow had got its hoof stuck in a borehole.’ He sighs at the memory. ‘The quality you most need in this job is patience.’
I cannot imagine how dazzled a Fulani herder must feel in the face of Inata’s recent development. In three years Avocet have invested one hundred and fifty million dollars into this ancient windblown moonscape – hardly your average development project. We drive past a sea of storage bins containing large steel balls, a labyrinth of hulking generators and two colossal vats with TOTAL emblazoned on the side. The Ministry of Mines in Ouagadougou would fit neatly into just one of those vats, were the vat not already full to the brim with diesel fuel for Inata’s generators. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. Around these colossal (yet temporary) structures, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.
‘Mining is not as glamorous as people think,’ says Andy as we drive out of the mining compound past a posse of neon-jacketed security men. ‘I start work at 6.30 every morning and spend most of my time in the office. Barring home leave, this is the first time I’ve been out the gate in six months.’
We’re off to see the Gomde dam, one of Avocet’s most ambitious projects since securing the mining and exploration rights in this part of the country. Philbert, who knows the area well, is invited to do some backseat driving: past the barracks (or the ‘junior camp’ as it is called), then left at the baobab, straight on at the acacia and right at the Zebu cow. We pass several villages, three solar pumps (installed by Avocet), and a security detachment from the Nassumbu gendarmerie.
Philbert gestures briefly towards the armed gendarmes. ‘If you take their photo,’ he whispers, ‘they will like it.’
Philbert tuts. Apparently I misheard him. What he actually said was, ‘they will not like it.’
Thankfully, the gendarmes are not interested in my Kodak moment. They are looking for bandits, smugglers, Tuareg rebels and presumably also Africa’s Most Wanted, AQIM. The Inata mine is only forty kilometres from the Mali border. Now more so than ever these vast remote regions must be policed.
As we drive on, we talk. Andy is extremely knowledgeable about chemistry, mining and physical geography – less so about the human geography and people groups of this region.
Is he optimistic about the future of the mine? ‘Yes, of course. We all are. But we are living in an age of armchair internet investing. We have to produce not just gold, but also investor value.’ (Economics is not my strong point, so I don’t see the distinction there. If you do, please avail yourself of the comments section below.)
Mining is a fascinating business – volatile, transient, financially risky, unendingly controversial, and suitable for those of a nomadic nature. ‘We don’t choose where we work,’ says Richard Gray. ‘We simply go wherever God puts the gold.’
Until, of course, the gold is gone. Twelve years from now the Inata generators will fall silent and the satellite internet connection will be switched off. All cranes, Landcruisers and rosy-cheeked steely-toed Englishmen will disappear. The open pits and the sealed tailings dam however will remain for ever. What are the long-term environmental and human consequences of a mine like Inata? I will be exploring these questions over the next few days. I blogged the 2011 cyanide spill in three parts and I hope to reflect on my Inata visit in three parts also: Environment, Employment and Community.