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Senegal's gold rush: More wealth, but at what cost?

Maria Gerth-Niculescu | Marco Simoncelli
January 17, 2024

People from all over West Africa are working in gold mines along Senegal's border with Mali. The mining is a much-needed economic boon for the region, but mounting instability in Mali also makes it vulnerable.

A man squats on his haunches near a hole in the ground and trees
An artisanal gold miner prepares his metal detector in a forests of rural KedougouImage: Marco Simoncelli/DW

In the Kedougou region of southeastern Senegal, the gold rush starts just after dawn when the heat is still bearable and the sun is clement. Near the village of Samekouta, men with tired faces park their motorbikes on the edge of a vast, rocky plot of land surrounded by trees and high grass. Their clothes are covered in rust-colored dust. 

The artisanal mine comprises narrow black holes into which miners disappear with a swift hop. A permanent background noise of jackhammers and electricity generators covers their sparse conversations. The men are from Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

Most of the gold leaves Senegal

The latest report published by Senegal's statistics agency states that gold production amounted to 387.7 billion CFA francs in 2020 (€590 million), a figure likely greater if informal mining were considered. Estimates indicate that around 90% of the gold is taken abroad. 

"It's mostly Malians and Guineans who buy the gold," Aliou Cisse* told DW in Faranding, a village on the shores of the Faleme River. He used to search for gold in the fields surrounding his village. 

Kedougou, one of the poorest regions of Senegal, is home to over 20 nationalities. Foreigners, mainly from other countries in West Africa, come to Kedougou to try their luck in striking gold.

A group of people crowd a wooden boat
Gold miners on the Faleme River, which draws the border between Senegal and MaliImage: Marco Simoncelli/DW

Gold mining is not new in the region bordering Mali and Guinea. Farmers and villagers have practiced it on an artisanal level for decades, but since the 2010s, Senegal's gold mining sector has grown considerably.

Locals searching for higher incomes moved from agriculture to small-scale mining on their lands. Word of the gold later drew foreigners in large numbers, and foreign companies set up industrial and semi-mechanized mines.

A man looking at a body of water in the distance
Aliou Cisse* surveys the area where a Chinese gold mining company pumps water from the Faleme RiverImage: Marco Simoncelli/DW

Land grabs and pollution

The gold rush has come at the expense of the locals, some of whom have seen parts of their land grabbed and their environment polluted. 

Cisse told DW his village has lost considerable land since a Chinese company set up a semi-mechanized mine on its outskirts. Power shovels now tirelessly excavate mounds of orange sand in the area where Faranging residents used to grow cereals and vegetables or search for gold.

"For almost a century, our village has practiced agriculture, livestock farming and gold mining on this land. We were doing everything here, and the Chinese company came to occupy the space," Cisse says.

The Faleme River, which people in Faranding say used to be crystal clear, is now a muddy orange. The Malian shore is only a few hundred meters away. A small wooden boat carries passengers from one side to the other. On its way, it passes a metal structure reaching onto the water from the Malian side. There, men operate dredging machines to extract rocks from the riverbed — yet another way to search for gold. 

Groups of people on the banks of a muddy river
Gold miners dredging the sandy bottoms of the Faleme River on Mali's shoresImage: Marco Simoncelli/DW

Mining companies dump thousands of liters of wastewater, sometimes containing chemicals such as mercury, into the Faleme. As a result, people living along the river can no longer drink the water or use it for their livestock or vegetable crops.

Mine disputes and poverty

Residents say they get little compensation, and industrial mining companies don't offer enough jobs for locals. In a region where unemployment is rampant, gold mining has become an indispensable source of income. 

Amadou Sega Keita, vice president of Kedougou's departmental council, says around 300,000 people currently work in the mines, mostly on artisanal or clandestine sites. "You find people with master's degrees there," Keita told DW. 

A man standing next to a sign in French that translates as: "Republic of Senegal — Departmental Council of Kedougou"
Amadou Sega Keita pictured outside the office of the Departmental Council of KedougouImage: Marco Simoncelli/DW

In early September, two people were killed and eight injured in clashes at a protest after a dispute over recruitment at mines in Khossanto. The incident occurred near the Sabodala Gold Project, owned by the Canadian company Teranga Gold Corporation, which ranks as the largest industrial mine site in Kedougou.   

There have been other disputes, too. Even though the region is resource-rich, there is widespread poverty and a lack of basic infrastructure. "Only a few kilometers outside the town of Saraya, you won't see electricity," says Mahamadi Danfakha, the director of the community radio station in Saraya. "People have the impression that the state has closed its eyes to their demands."

Mahamadi Danfakh in front of a microphone
Mahamadi Danfakha heads a community station in Saraya along Senegal's Mali-Guinea borderImage: Marco Simoncelli/DW

A risk of radicalization?

Keita says the feeling of abandonment that people in the region have could make them prone to radicalization. "

The economic and social deficit could be a factor for jihadist groups to implement themselves," he warns. "Currently, there are no banks. The money goes from hand to hand."

Keita says this could lead to infiltration by religious extremists who could use gold to fund their activities.

Senegal and Mali share a border over some 250 kilometers (155 miles). The frontier is porous and difficult to police. In Mali, jihadi groups are currently confronting the army, which is backed by Russia's Wagner Group

"The pressures around Mali's Kayes zone, with a potential advance of groups in this town, would accentuate the threat in Senegal," says Paulin Maurice Toupane, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

Senegal has so far been spared terrorist attacks and is seen as one of the few stable countries in West Africa. But its gold rush and other trafficking networks — prostitution, arms or chemical products — make Kedougou vulnerable. 

Artisinal gold miners at a dig in Senegal
One of many artisanal gold mining sites in the area around the village of Samekouta in Kedougou region of SenegalImage: Marco Simoncelli/DW

Existing trafficking networks in Senegal could be why extremist groups have not orchestrated attacks in the country, according to Bakary Sambe, the Regional Director of Timbuktu Institute in Dakar.

"They [extremist groups] have spaces of tactical withdrawal, and Senegal represents a major interest for them. There is the flow of capital, the movement of arms, the access to the sea," Sambe says.

Anti-terror interventions 

Keita sees reasons for optimism, though. Senegalese culture and religious teachings, dominated mainly by very influential moderate Sufi brotherhoods, are incompatible with extremism, he says. "The terrorists will struggle to get the population on their side." 

The Senegalese government, alarmed at the situation in surrounding countries, has also taken several steps to prevent terrorism. In Kedougou, it increased the number of armed forces and launched infrastructure projects.

Keita believes that this approach is not sufficient. "We need a large military base at the border to show the enemy that we are constantly present," the Kedougou official says.

Senegal's Ministry of Defence and National Gendarmerie declined to answer DW's questions and multiple requests for comment. In areas along the Faleme River, police and armed forces bar foreign journalists, and only a few residents are willing to give interviews.

*Aliou Cisse is a modification of the actual name of DW's interview partner in Faranding, Kedougou, to protect him from reprisal. 

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen