‘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.
This is the third of four articles about the Inata gold mine in the north of Burkina Faso. I visited the mine last Saturday.
‘Rich people care about the environment. Poor people care about jobs. Rich people look at big industrial developments and are squeamish about the grass that will be dug up. These people are the NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard!). Poor people on the other hand look at the same industrial developments and are glad of the jobs that will be provided.’ Andy Mortimore is talking about a copper mine in Canada, not a gold mine in Burkina Faso, but his inference is clear. Those namby-pamby Nimbys need to wake up and smell the employment quotas.
Employment at the Inata gold mine is a complex business. The vast majority of men in Burkina Faso have ‘cultivateur’ in the profession box on their ID card. But dependence on farming means dependence on good rainy seasons, which the Sahel is not famous for. It is rare for a farmer in the north of Burkina Faso to gain enough food from his harvest to feed his family for the whole year.
This year the harvest was especially poor. Men who got nothing from their fields are picking up their spades and leaving home in droves. ‘O yehi kange’ is what the left-behind mothers say about their prodigal sons. ‘He went gold.’
Most of these men will end up doing unofficial small-scale mining. They will drug themselves with ‘bleu-bleu’ tablets to give themselves the courage to go down to the bottom of a pitch-black hand-dug fifty-metre shaft, and if they find even a speck of gold they will start to dig a horizontal tunnel. Collapses are common. ‘O yehi kange wartaay’ say the mothers. He went gold and didn’t come back.
A small proportion of fortune-seekers are lucky enough to find an Inata job at the end of their rainbow. A truck-driver at the Inata gold mine gets 300,000 CFA a month. Bear in mind that unskilled manual labour in Ouagadougou pays 30,000 CFA a month, and you will understand how coveted these Inata jobs are. All my friends here filled out applications to become drivers, machine-operators, security guards, boondoggles, whatever they could wangle.
You would think that those lucky few who found a golden ticket in their Inata chocolate bar would be skipping euphorically around their workplace from one fat paycheck to the next. Not so, apparently. Local newspapers occasionally carry ominous mutterings from anonymous sources claiming that all is not well at Inata. In April last year relations between the mine directors and their workers reached an all-time low, with strife and strikes the order of the month. I did not have the opportunity to speak to any of the junior staff on my visit to Inata last weekend, so I do not know the reasons for this low morale. Could it be that the golden Wonka-Wega tickets were landed by a rabble of dollar-eyed ingrates – the African equivalents of Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and Violet Beauregarde? Or could it be instead that the tickets were never quite as golden as they first appeared?
I asked Andy Mortimore, Processing Manager at Inata, what he thought about the labour unrest last year. ‘Mining is a risk,’ he says, ‘and it is only fair that those taking the risk (i.e the directors and investors) should reap the rewards. When gold prices are high, everybody requests a pay rise. But when gold prices drop, you can’t lay anyone off.’
I have sympathy with both sides. I know all too well how a small interpersonal problem can explode into overt hostility when the thermometer tips forty degrees centigrade. I know how culture-shock can make people say – even think – things that they don’t really mean. How isolation can breed selfishness, how ignorance can breed contempt, how paranoia can breed fear, how a couple bottles of Castel can breed aggression, how jealousy can breed hatred and how internet share-price tickers can breed obsession.
It’s not just the European and Canadian miners who are culture-shocked, it’s the Africans too. You see, Inata is not Burkina Faso. Inata is Inata. It has its own atmosphere and its own strange gravitational pull. Inata is its own tiny planet, spinning in a golden void.
In this article I will be reflecting on cyanide and safety measures at Avocet’s Inata gold mine in the north of Burkina Faso. This is the second article in a series of four. If you missed the first one, here it is: A Visit to Avocet’s Inata Gold Mine
1. The tailings dam
Critics of mining activity usually end up talking about tailings dams sooner or later, so let’s get it out of the way. A tailings dam is where the mine’s contaminated sludge ends up, a veritable Gehenna of toxic waste. The reason environmentalists get upset about tailings dams is that if ever they spill, leak or otherwise fail, environmental catastrophe ensues. On average worldwide there is one big accident involving a tailings dam each year.
The best case scenario, of course, is that a mine’s tailings dam be so well designed that the cyanide, pyrites, xanthates and other miscellaneous nasties be confined in one place for all eternity. What is needed is the mining equivalent of Azkaban, a maximum security prison from which no dangerous prisoner will ever escape.
The tailings dam will outlast the mine. No one at Inata knows the day or the hour that the mine will cease to be profitable, but they already have a plan for when the End is near. ‘The sealing of the tailings dam is an important element of the mine’s closure plan,’ says Andy Mortimore, processing manager (and chief eschatologist) at Inata. ‘This closure plan was presented to the government as part of our application for the mining license.’
We drive up onto the top of the tailings dam. At first sight it reminds me of a meteorite crater in Arizona more than of anything manmade, but as we get closer I see giant water pipes running around the lip of the crater and plunging down its steep sides into an evil glistening slurry. Engineering Muggle though I am, I can appreciate that this thing is more than just a giant potty. ‘A tailings dam like this costs millions of dollars to build,’ says Andy. ‘It is designed to self-seal as it fills.’ Clever.
Could this tailings dam fail? Avocet’s vice-president Richard Gray for one has seen it happen before, not in Burkina Faso but in Ghana. He was at Goldenstar’s Bogoso mine in 2004 when their tailings dam leaked cyanide into the river Aprepre, killing hundreds of fish, crabs and shrimps and poisoning (but not killing) 30 people. ‘That was not a weakness in the dam itself,’ Gray explains. ‘It was a simple case of human error. A valve which should have been closed was left open. Contaminated water escaped.’
So in principle could the same thing happen at Inata?
‘No’ says Gray firmly. ‘The tailings dam at Inata does not have valves like the one at Bogoso. It’s a completely different system. And we have a backup system in the case of emergency. Say we have a catastrophic failure in our tailings pipeline for half an hour or an hour. The contaminated water will flow back down into our “event dam”, a smaller dam lined with a high density polymer. The problem will be contained until the pipeline is fixed.’
So there you have it. Even if the unthinkable happens at Inata, the truly unthinkable will not.
‘Having a tailings dam at all is something,’ muses Andy. ‘I spent a couple months at a mine in the Congo where they simply released the tailings into a local lake.’
TMI? At least Andy said ‘they’ and not ‘we’.
2. Delivery of cyanide to the mine
Ever since the July 2011 cyanide spill at Djibo dam, I have been communicating with Avocet about the safety of their cyanide deliveries. Legally, Avocet have always been in the clear. In 2011 Samsung was responsible for the safe transport of cyanide all the way from Korea to Inata. On 29 July they failed in this responsibility.
Morally, you might argue, Avocet are less in the clear, and in our meeting Richard Gray admits this possibility before I even suggest it. ‘Legal obligation is one thing,’ he says. ‘Moral obligation is another.’ That, presumably, is why Avocet dispatched its damage-limitation team to the scene of the accident as soon as they got the news.
And that is also why, more recently, they have changed suppliers. Samsung were spectacularly non-communicative after the accident, not just towards nosy English missionaries, but also, it now transpires, towards Avocet. Perhaps Samsung were worried about being sued for damages. Either way, they’re fired.
‘It is in our interests to ensure that our contractors are legitimate and professional,’ says Gray.
‘That’s right,’ says Andy. ‘We don’t want the Cohen Brothers Ltd delivering our cyanide or Basil Fawlty Inc delivering our caustic soda.’
‘Bit strange having Samsung delivering cyanide in the first place,’ says Gray. ‘They make TVs, don’t they?’
‘Who’s the new supplier?’
‘Sony,’ says Andy.
We all laugh.
Avocet’s new cyanide supplier is not in fact Sony. It is a Ghanaian company called Kamsak who supply mining chemicals across West Africa. And if first appearances count, Kamsak do not seem to be cowboys.
Transition was relatively smooth. Two of Samsung’s deliveries were cancelled and the first Kamsak delivery took place in February. The containers were brand new, according to Avocet’s maintenance manager, and the packaging on the cyanide was better than anything he had seen with Samsung.
A pickup truck travels ahead of the cyanide truck and acts as an escort, clearing the road of donkeys, children and other potential obstacles. A maintenance crew follows the cyanide truck in case of breakdown or emergency. There will be a dozen deliveries a year but Kamsak aim to deliver as much cyanide as possible during hot season so as to limit (if not eliminate) the rainy season deliveries. Less cyanide travelling across dodgy cement spillways in full flood has got to be a good thing.
The chances of another accident are very small. But I have to wonder if very small is good enough where cyanide is concerned.
Andy is keen to reassure. ‘People hear the word cyanide and it scares them, but you would have to spill a lot in the lake for it to have an effect on anything but fish. It takes a lot to kill a goat let alone a person. And it breaks down quickly in sunlight.’
‘What about cyanates?’ I ask. ‘I have read that cyanide reacts with other chemicals to create cyanates which are highly toxic and can hang around for a very long time in plant and animal tissues.’
‘Cyanates are present in nature already,’ says Andy. ‘People inhale cyanates every time they puff on a cigarette. Besides, we use plenty of other dangerous chemicals here. Caustic soda, sulphamic acid, sodium bicarbonate, hydrochloric acid, diesel fuel, you don’t hear people making a fuss about those, do you?’
Hmm. Not yet you don’t.
3. International Cyanide Management Certification
Okay, so this is a piece of good news which I have reported already. But it bears repeating. Avocet have set in motion the longish process towards signing up to the Cyanide Code, which is an internationally approved way of promising to play nice with their cyanide. The Code covers transport, handling, usage and disposal of cyanide. It is a significant hassle because all documents need to be presented in a very particular style and format – lots of procedure checking and box ticking involved. Well done Avocet for initiating this process. Andy is hiring a consultant from South Africa to come and advise him how best to prepare for their 2015 Cyanide Code audit. The consultant will visit later this year to point out any weaknesses in Inata’s current systems.
4. Are there viable alternatives to cyanide?
‘I haven’t looked into it,’ says Andy. ‘But if there were a powerful laundry detergent that could do the same job as cyanide at a quarter of the price, don’t you think we would have heard about it and be using it already?’
Fair point, but I can’t help thinking about the Haber Gold Process, which claims to extract gold just as efficiently as cyanide leaching. I did not raise this question during my visit (because I forgot Haber’s name) but have since emailed Andy to ask for his thoughts about the Haber Process. I’ll post his response as an update here asap.
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.’ Click.
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 inthreeparts and I hope to reflect on my Inata visit in three parts also: Environment, Employment and Community.
Some good news from ICMI today – Avocet Gold Mining company have signed up to the Cyanide Code: Avocet Mining PLC Becomes a Signatory to International Cyanide Management Code.
This is good news whichever way you look at it. Well done, Avocet. (If you don’t know who Avocet are, or what this story is about, click on the Cyanide article under ‘Popular Posts’ on the right there).
I hope to see practical changes happening as a result of this move. At present, Samsung continues to deliver cyanide to Avocet’s Inata mine under precisely the same conditions as it always has done. I asked Brett Richards, Avocet CEO, a few questions last month, which he kindly answered to the best of his ability.
Back in August Avocet pledged to conduct meetings with their contracters “at the highest level” in order to address issues of container strength, driver training and emergency response procedures. Did this meeting ever happen? Brett Richards: No – it did not, Samsung refused to correspond after several attempts on our behalf.
What changes have been made to the containers? Brett Richards: None that I know of – the strength / quality of the containers are not the issue here.
What changes have been made to the quality and training of drivers? Brett Richards: Samsung have not responded to my correspondence of what education / training they were going enforce on their sub-contracts. I am still awaiting a response.
What changes have been made to your emergency response measures? Brett Richards: I am still awaiting a response.
Your mine director’s report refers to two previous incidents regarding the overturn of cyanide trucks. When did the ‘two previous incidents’ happen, and where? Brett Richards: I have copied Richard Gray on this email, as I do not know the details – all I know is that they were close calls and were not elevated to my level, and managed locally.
It seems bizarre that Samsung and Avocet have such bad relations with each other and yet continue to do business. Could it be that there is no other option for the delivery of cyanide in Burkina Faso? Could it be that Samsung is the best of a bad lot? I approached Samsung for a comment regarding their ‘refusal to correspond’ with Avocet about safety. I received no response.
So whilst I welcome Avocet’s signing of the Cyanide Code, there are still many questions to be answered.
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 !
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.
That extract was from my novel Outlaw, published almost three months before the cyanide spillage at Djibo reservoir en route to Inata gold mine. The gold mining industry is disappointingly predictable.
Anyone got a water sprite costume you can lend me?
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.
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:
Take responsibility for the effects of his company’s activities
Listen to the voices of local people
Consider alternatives to cyanide
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Take responsibility for the effects of your company’s activities
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.
Listen to the voices of local people.
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.
Consider alternatives to cyanide
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.
Tarmac the road between Kongoussi and Djibo
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.