This is the fourth and last article in my series on Avocet’s Inata gold mine. In case you missed them, here are the others.
‘Burkina Faso as a country does benefit from our presence here,’ says Richard Gray, Avocet’s Vice President of West Africa Operations. ‘Part of our job is to make sure that the social benefit of the mine outweighs its nuisance value, the increased traffic and the dust and so on.’
In the bad old days a gold mine could operate without much regard for the people on whose doorstep it was parked. But today such thoughtlessness earns companies disapproving glares and metaphorical parking tickets. Here are some of the areas in which Avocet try to sweeten the mining pill for the people of Inata and beyond.
1. The Djibo-Kongoussi road
The road from Djibo to Kongoussi (en route to the capital Ouagadougou) is in a terrible state. It is unsurfaced, rutted and potholed. People blame the President of Burkina Faso for breaking his 2006 election promise to tarmac the road, and they blame the mine lorries and tankers for their daily contribution to the road’s worsening state. In March last year they took direct action, blocking the road for two days and demanding that the government and the gold mine find immediate funding for a hundred kilometres of tarmac. It was an excellent non-violent protest, and I wrote about it at the time for the Guardian Weekly. Last week, twelve months after the original protest, the government announced that it had allocated funding for the new road. This is very good news.
2. The Gomde dam
The village of Gomde, 7 kilometres from Inata, used to have a pond. Then the Inata miners arrived. They built a dam at Gomde to contain rainy season rainfall and provide water for the mine. In the place of the old pond is a vast body of water which at full capacity measures a staggering 120 million cubic metres.
Half way through my visit to the Inata mine, we drive to Gomde to see the dam at close quarters. Its clever ‘spillway labyrinth’ and giant pump house are pointed out to me and I make appreciative noises. In the middle of the reservoir, the roof of a school and the minaret of a mosque can be seen poking above the water, and I cannot help wondering how the schoolteachers and the local imam felt about the construction of the dam. ‘They were fine about it,’ says André, Inata’s Community Relations manager. ‘We built them a new school and a new mosque on dry land.’
There is more water in the dam than is needed for the mine, so various irrigation projects are in view. Year-round market gardening is one idea. A three-hectare ‘forest’ of fruit trees is another. Banana trees in the desert – I can’t wait to see it.
So is anyone unhappy about the dam? ‘Some Fulani herders grumble,’ says André. ‘The never-ending water supply has attracted herders from miles around, so the locals have more neighbours now than they were previously used to.’ He shakes his head and chuckles. ‘Those people are never happy.’
Providing clean drinking water for communities is a sure-fire shortcut to White Knight status. Avocet have installed three pumps in Gomde, one in Sona and one in Inata. Four of the five are powered by solar panels, the last one is powered by teenage girls jumping up and down. Here is one of the solar ones.
4. The Foundation
Avocet’s charity work is organized by FAB – Fondation Avocet pour le Burkina Faso. For every ounce of gold that Avocet take out of the ground, they drop a dollar into the Foundation’s piggy bank. Last year they mined 160,000 ounces, so the Foundation had $160,000 to spend on philanthropy. They bought an ambulance for Aribinda hospital, refurbished a school in Filio and started planning a clinic for Gomde.
The committee which allocates Foundation cash is composed of miners and mayors – specifically the mayors of the three nearest towns, Aribinda, Koutougou and Tongomayel. They receive begging letters from all over the country, but prioritize local projects.
‘We are open to the advice and suggestions of local voices and local NGOs,’ says Richard Gray. ‘As for transparency, you are welcome to come and sit in on a meeting of the FAB committee, if you like.’
‘Alla andinaay gujjo de bangi munaafiki,’ goes the Fulani proverb. Literally, God did not warn the thief that he was marrying a gossip. It is a proverb about uneasy alliances, and alliances don’t come much uneasier than those between NGOs and mining companies. There is nothing like a marriage proposal from the corporate mining sector to make a development worker lose her sleep. ‘Is this an opportunity or a sellout?’ she mutters to herself as she turns her pillow once again onto its cool side. ‘Is this a new humanitarianism or an old heresy? Is this positive influence or probable influenza?’
Samantha Nutt poses the dilemma neatly in her article Should NGOs take the corporate bait? Here is a quote:
The central tension is whether NGOs are serving as bagmen, advancing Canadian mining interests by appeasing local communities with gifts of health care and education, or whether they are simply piloting a new model of co-operation that might positively influence corporate behaviour overseas while simultaneously addressing development gaps.
I tend towards pragmatism in such matters. As things stand, miners and mayors are meeting at Inata every six months to dispense hundreds of thousands of dollars in development aid. They (the miners) are ‘open to the advice and suggestions of local NGOs.’ So they should be. And for their part, experienced local NGOs should engage with this challenge rather than spurning it. Not because they need the cash, but because the cash in a funny sort of way needs them.
‘You can not antagonize and influence at the same time’ (John Knox). I hope that nothing I have written in these four articles has been unnecessarily antagonistic and I hope to keep channels of communication open to all those who live and work at the Inata gold mine. If they have any corrections or comments regarding any of these articles, I will weigh and update as necessary.
May God bless Inata and all who dig there. May God bless and protect the land, the birds, the wildlife and the water. His will be done, on earth as in heaven.