What Local Gold Extraction Tells Us about a Globalized Mining Economy
By Diana Ayeh
When I first came to Houndé (Province of Tuy) in November 2016, the town of 150,000 inhabitants in southwestern Burkina Faso already had a certain gold-rush atmosphere. Not only was the landscape in and around Houndé marked with indications for future extraction (e.g., flags and fences symbolizing corporate ‘possessions’). The construction of the first industrial gold mine in the urban municipality launched in April 2016 was also accompanied by the arrival of new actors and ideas that made extraction feasible on the one hand, but that also challenged extraction and made it subject to constant processes of (re-)negotiation. The changing labor relations due to high-tech and capital-intensive work in (the vicinity of) industrial gold mines are one example. Since no industrial mining site in Burkina Faso delivers direct employment for more than 1,000 people, only a small part of Houndé’s population eventually succeeded in finding employment as part of a ‘local workforce’ (Ayeh 2020, see Figure 1). In addition to the limited access to the formalized labor market, expropriation (of farmers, artisanal miners, etc.) and land grabbing have played a major role in contestations over large-scale extraction. Very similar questions regarding the access to and the distribution of Burkina Faso’s resource wealth have characterized extractive relations in the rural municipality of Bagassi, located in the neighboring province of Balé and host of a gold-producing underground mine since 2016.
Spaces of Responsibility examines the role of ethics in corporate capitalism by zooming in on some of the dominant topics of negotiation during Burkina Faso’s recent industrial gold mining boom from 2008 onwards. On national and local scales, the territorialization of mining investment finds expression in “uneven, variegated, and discontinuous spatial manifestations” with tangible social and environmental consequences in host countries of mining and areas of extraction (Himley 2019, p. 31). Although looking at the politics of space elucidates inequalities under the global condition (or what is called the mining-development-nexus), the book also aims to contribute to more recent debates on temporalities of extraction (see D’Angelo & Pijpers 2018; Fent & Kojola 2020). Through the prism of extraction as a complex set of multiple spatial and temporal processes, it challenges ideas of global mining capital simply hopping from one African mineral enclave to the next, bypassing any forms of socio-political regulation (cf. Ferguson 2005; 2006). Large-scale mining activities in Houndé and Bagassi are still exemplary of the speed of changing extractive relations on global and national scales and for the spatial modification of a local environment to extract materials for the global mining economy.
Burkina Faso as a “New Frontier” for the Global Gold Mining Industry?
Burkina Faso’s national mining boom serves as an example for geographic shifts in a globalized gold production system, where the importance of large-scale mining destinations is closely linked to demand for gold world-wide. Demand is not only rising and falling with consumer behavior in the jewelry industry (such as the regular increase in the price of gold during the Indian wedding season). Different moments of global economic crisis and uncertainty appear to be just as significant. After the abolishment of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s, the gold price reached its first peak in the 1980s following the global oil crisis. This triggered a gradual expansion of global gold production from its traditional core in South Africa, to Canada, Australia, the United States, Russia, and later to China. It was particularly during the second peak of the gold price in the late 2000s, after the global financial system had collapsed in 2007/8, that many investors and multinational companies were forced to look for new destinations in the Global South in order to satisfy the global demand for this precious metal (Geenen & Verbrugge 2020). In Burkina Faso, this trend manifested itself in a tenfold increase in industrial gold production between 2008 and 2018 when it reached an annual production of over 50 tons with 10 industrial gold mines in production and 5 in construction (ITIE 2020). Spaces of Responsibility describes major topics, actors, and forms of negotiation around the access to natural resources arising globally, nationally, and locally. Among many others, these involve various corporate citizenship initiatives of this globalized industry, the implementation of a national mining reform process since 2015, and civil unrest in the host municipalities of extraction.
How the Local Is (Made) Meaningful
As a finite resource, gold is bound to specific areas and fixed in space prior to extraction. Simultaneously, it fundamentally shapes and is shaped by the multiple movements (of people, things and ideas) and social relations enabling its extraction. The feasibility of extraction requires that particular places have to be (made) meaningful for the global mining industry. In a global sector in which different actors today increasingly commit themselves to ethical norms and principles of responsibility, sustainability, and transparency, feasibility is determined by both favorable geological conditions (i.e., deposits with both ore grades and quantities worth to be extracted), and national and socio-political conditions that are not found just anywhere and at any time around the globe. Although the first exploration activities of multinational corporations in the Houndé and Bagassi areas date back to the early 1990s, the rapid transformation of these municipalities to hosts of industrial mining sites occurred in a context of skyrocketing gold prices of almost 1,900 USD/oz in 2011, again topped in 2020 to more than 2,000 USD/oz during the global COVID-19 pandemic (and in the backdrop of the ongoing Russia – Ukraine war in 2022). In 2012, the Cayman-Island-based multinational company Endeavour Mining acquired the Canadian junior company Avion Gold and with it a land package of 1000 km² in West Africa’s Birimian Greenstone Belt, the latter being often compared to the Canadian Abitibi gold belt due to its resource abundance. After the opening of its first industrial mine site in 2017, the company gradually transformed several of its exploration concessions into places of mining operations (notably the Bouré and Dohoun deposits and the Kari Pump deposit extracted since 2019 and 2020, see Figure 2).
The book examines how the feasibility of extraction is negotiated from different places and angles (e.g., in the online space of investor conferences and the different arenas of “community consultation” in the mining areas of Burkina Faso). It examines how Houndé and Bagassi as specific places of extraction are imagined as “underexplored” in terms of resource extraction, while people in national policy forums and in the concessions challenge dominant imaginaries, narratives, and forms of extraction. This involves, for example, Endeavour Mining’s CEO Sébastian de Montessus’s dream of building “a mine every 50 kilometers or so” in the Birimian Greenstone Belt, as stated at the company’s capital markets event in June 2021 (EDV 2021). It also involves artisanal miners who have lost their livelihoods due to the spatial and temporal expansion of industrial gold mining and who sometimes ‘illegally’ enter the fenced-in area of Endeavour’s concessionary space in Houndé (NetAfrique.net 2021). However, both parties do not have the same bargaining power to determine the future role of mining in areas of extraction. How certain spatialities (and related temporalities) prevail over others, and who has the power to control, impose, or resist them, remain important prisms through which the (after-)lives of extraction should be studied.
Ayeh, D. (2020) “What’s ‘local’ labor in Burkina Faso’s mining sector?” Africa Is a Country. Accessed 08 December 2020.
D’Angelo, L. & Pijpers, R. J. (2018) “Mining Temporalities: An Overview”, The Extractive Industries and Society, 5(2), pp. 215-222.
EDV (2021) “Endeavour Capital Markets Event June 2021”, Endeavour Mining Corporation. Accessed August 30, 2021.
Fent, A. & Kojola, E. (2020) “Political Ecologies of Time and Temporality in Resource Extraction”, Journal of Political Ecology 27(1), pp. 819–829.
Ferguson, J. (2005) “Seeing Like an Oil Company: Space, Security, and Global Capital in Neoliberal Africa”, American Anthropologist 107 (3): 377–82,.
Ferguson, J. (2006) Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Geenen, S. & Verbrugge, B. (2020) “2. Theorizing the Global Gold Production System”, in: Global Gold Production Touching Ground: Expansion, Informalization, and Technological Innovation, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 17–52.
Himley, M. (2019) “Extractivist Geographies: Mining and Development in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth-Century Peru”, Latin American Perspectives 46 (2), pp. 27–46, .
ITIE (2020) “Rapport ITIE 2018”, Initiative pour la Transparence dans les Industries Extractives du Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. Accessed February 10, 2022.
NetAfrique.net (2021) “Houndé de Mine: Des personnes continuent de s’adonner à des intrusions par effraction sur le site d’exploitation”, NetAfrique.net. Accessed 12 March 2022.
Diana Ayeh is a Research Associate at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig (Germany) and currently a Research Fellow at the Merian Institute for Advanced Studies in Africa (MIASA) in Accra (Ghana). From 2016 to 2019, she was a member of the Collaborative Research Centre (SFB) 1199 “Processes of Spatialization under the Global Condition” at Leipzig University where she completed her PhD on industrial gold mining in Burkina Faso. Her current research focuses on company-state-community relations in West African and German (post-)mining regions. She is particularly interested in studying the enactments of global ideas of “responsible mining” from an ethnographic lens.
Citation: Diana Ayeh, What Local Gold Extraction Tells Us about a Globalized Mining Economy, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 07.04.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/34308