by Martine Parry, Media and PR Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation
The hot, dry air and golden African light envelopes us as we begin our winding journey around Lake Victoria to Migori, a small Kenyan community close to the Tanzanian border.
Small-scale gold miners have taken over old colonial pits which were originally sunk in the 1920s by the British. Bismarck Onyando, our host and Chairman of the MICODEPRO mining co-operative, gives us a proud welcome in bleak surroundings.
He tells us that the old colonials did a great deal of research nearly 100 years ago. He and his fellow miners believe that by following the direction of the veins worked by their forefathers, they are following a golden seam.
He has other reasons for optimism. His co-operative is part of a pilot project to formalise and support artisanal miners from East Africa – miners who work in small groups or by themselves with minimal or no machinery. Nine co-operatives across Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have been funded by Comic Relief to learn new techniques, safer practice and more efficient means of extracting gold. Eventually they will apply for Fairtrade certification and the first four members of this groundbreaking pilot programme will be audited this month.
Photos by James Robinson
As well as MICODEPRO there are some 10,000 informal gold mines in Migori county alone, a small proportion of the vast numbers of people scratching a similar, meagre living across the African continent, taking a chance that they too might strike gold.
Mining for gold in this way is a dollar a day existence. It can occasionally be relatively lucrative if the miners hit a good seam of gold ore. However the price paid for a few grams of gold that has been extracted from a pit over one kilometre deep in the African soil; where the ore has been crushed by hand; then mixed with toxic liquid mercury with the bare hands of women and children, is high, and not just in health terms.
Most of these miners are tied into confusing cycles of debt. They are indebted to the owner of the land on which the pit is situated. MICODEPRO, for instance, has to pay a 40 percent cut of the miners’ earnings to the landlord. Miners are also indebted to middlemen who loan them money to buy mercury and equipment. They then have to sell the gold back to the middlemen for whatever money they can get. And they are indebted to money lenders who they turn to at times of desperation. Typically miners will work one shift to repay each of their debtors, then a final shift for themselves.
Currently Bismarck’s group are not mining but preparing a new pit. They had to leave their old pit behind after the landowner decided not to extend their lease. This has meant a whole year of work, digging and timbering a huge hole in the ground in raging temperatures.
With no income from the main mine they are working on, they burrow into less safe pits after their official work finishes to make money to allow them to live.
This could all be demoralising. Bismarck and his group are surrounded by those who are making money by not bothering with the timber and other safety requirements which Fairtrade enforces. But they know that the others are not using any protective gear. The others mine bareheaded wearing broken shoes, ripped vests and shorts. They descend on manmade wooden ladders into complete darkness with the smallest of torches tied to their heads with an elastic band. Terrifying. Fairtrade has brought with it the first real protection and they have taken these changes to their hearts.
Outside, the women of the wider community use hammers to crush the rocks brought out from the mines, pounding them into smaller pieces; one sack after another. Another group of women uses mercury to extract the gold from the rubble by swirling it with water in bowls with their bare hands. It’s a clear sign to the co-operative of the size of the amount of change that needs to happen.
The miners talk of their regret about not knowing mercury is poisonous. “We are so sorry,” says one. “We used to do panning using our bare hands. We used to burn and inhale the air. So many people have been affected for life in this area. Their hands shake. Their lungs have been ruined. We are explaining to other miners in the region about the dangers of mercury.”
They talk about animals drinking river water polluted with mercury and dying; the same river where local people wash their gold and the children and clothes. Fairtrade regulations ensures that mercury does not run into the local water supply.
Once the gold has left the miner’s hands, they never see it again. According to jeweller and Fairtrade gold pioneer Greg Valerio, most of the gold makes its way across the border to Uganda, then to Dubai for refining and then on to China. China and India are currently the biggest gold markets in the word. Demand for gold is growing in these countries. Where it comes from and the grief it leaves behind are not part of this agenda.
Next year America’s Dodd Frank Act comes into force. This requires US companies to provide information identifying the source of their gold to prove they have addressed the risks that their gold might be ‘conflict minerals’ (traded by armed groups; the gold equivalent of ‘blood diamonds’). One unfortunate side effect of this legislation has been that American companies have avoided buying gold from unregulated, informal miners in the Great Lakes region of East Africa as they will not have the paperwork and be able to get these official guarantees.
This makes the work that Fairtrade is doing in Kenya even more vital. Fairtrade offers a small but potentially ground breaking supply chain that is fully transparent. US buyers can come back to the region, together with all others who want ethics with their sparkle.
The present looks grim, but there is a true hope here. Soon the miners will be able to start extracting ore from the new pit. They are already talking about the plans they have for spending their Fairtrade Premium, the extra money which comes with Fairtrade sales. There are beginnings of a loan fund for individual members so they won’t get indebted to middle men. They have a dream of building their own office, and of investing in secondary schools and clean water. They want equipment to make mining easier and safer. They want to work to help some of the problems of the region – many people here are HIV positive and there are large numbers of HIV orphans. There is other bereavement too: when mines collapse and men die, children lose their parents.
One miner Johannes Ojowi tells me of his dream that future generations will not just mine, but also diversify into other ways of making a living for the benefit of the coming generations. “Maybe they will keep cows, sheep, goats and fish and the environment will be protected,” he says. “Fairtrade has enlightened us here. It has taught us how to mine, to be safe.”
These are small steps, but for this small group of miners the future does seem different. MICODEPRO members are clear. History is being made.