Mali’s Morila gold mine: “not everything glitters”

November 18, 2019

Morila gold mine in Mali, West Africa, 2002. Photo: Joan Baxter

This book chapter is the result of a visit to the Morila gold mine in Mali nearly 18 years ago, and is excerpted from my 2010 book, “Dust from our eyes – an unblinkered look at Africa,” published by Wolsak & Wynn in Canada and worldwide by Fahamu Books, which was shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2009. I decided to republish it here because I regret to say that based on the extensive research I’ve been doing on the gold mining industry in the past few years, it looks as if not much (if anything) has improved since then. I first wrote this story for the BBC, following a visit to the Morila gold mine when it was operated by South Africa’s AngloGold and Randgold. Today, the Morila gold mine is operated by Canada’s Barrick Gold, and is a “joint venture company held by Barrick (40%), AngloGold Ashanti (40%), and the State of Mali (20%).” The economic disparities, and the environmental, social and political havoc that such gold mines cause, are all contributing factors to the horrendous insecurity that now prevails in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger (where Canadian gold mining companies are so prevalent), causing widespread suffering – and death. If I were writing it today, I would probably entitle it, “Gold: all that glitters causes death and devastation.”

All that glitters … is taken away

… the very term investment badly distorts what’s really going on. Plundering, looting and exploiting the non-renewable resources of Africa is a far more accurate description. Gerald Caplan

In my fifth year in Mali, in late 2002, I finally obtained an invitation to accompany the country’s new minister of mines and a team of Malian journalists on a day trip from Mali’s capital Bamako to Morila, the country’s newest big gold mine.

On the short flight to the mine, I found myself seated beside a South African employee of the South African mining giant Randgold, who told me he and his wife had recently applied for Canadian citizenship and that he now lived in Toronto – when he wasn’t in Mali. He said things were deteriorating in South Africa, “if you know what I mean,” and that he and his wife, as white South Africans, felt their futures were in Canada.

He went on to tell me about the wonders I was about to experience at Morila, especially the man-made lake that was filled with water pumped 40 kilometres from a small river, a tributary to the River Niger. And as for the clubhouse, that was something to behold; he was very proud of it because he helped to design it. He called it the “Sahelian Club Med.” There were pleasure craft and a wharf on the man-made lake, he said, and lovely watered gardens, a fine bar and restaurant, with food, wine and other drinks flown in from South Africa. He said he often drove down from Bamako in his Land Cruiser to spend weekends there.

Google map satellite map and image of Morila gold mine in Mali, 2019


“You will be very impressed with our Club Med,” he said. “It takes a white man to create something like this in Africa. Africans just don’t know how to make the most of their environment.”

We were starting our descent in the little prop plane, coming to the end of the flight from Bamako. By looking over my neighbour’s shoulder and through the large oval window of the plane, I caught my first glimpse of the Morila mine and the vast mine crater: a gaping brown wound in the pale green tapestry of the landscape below.

The more typical green mosaic of small farm fields dotted with trees is known as the “parklands,” the name given to the traditional farming system of agroforestry in Africa’s Sahel. I have always thought the Sahelian landscape subtly and hauntingly beautiful. Over many centuries, it has been sculpted by Sahelian farmers with their digging sticks and by their ploughs pulled by oxen across fields, to create farms where trees and annual crops complement each other. Sahelian farmers nurture and protect a range of trees valuable to them for food (fruit, leaves, spices), medicinal and wood products on their land. Interspersed with the trees and neat patterns of crop fields are intricate arrangements of wattle and daub dwellings with thatch or, increasingly, with tin roofs.

Sahelian landscape with cropland dotted with valuable trees. Photo: Joan Baxter

Next to the picturesque and gentle landscape that the African villagers had made, the Morila mine crater below us looked cataclysmic, like something wreaked by a nuclear bomb or falling asteroid.

“You will be very impressed with our Club Med”

We landed on the dusty airstrip. Public relations people were there to welcome arriving passengers in the two small planes: one carrying the minister and government officials and the other mainly for journalists. We were given Morila Mine baseball caps and led to the clubhouse next to the man-made lake for refreshments and a pep talk from our hosts, before heading out in buses to be shown the mine – or at least the parts of the mine that the executives of the South African companies wished us to see.

First, we made a quick stop at the edge of the immense crater; about one and a half kilometres long, nearly a kilometre wide and over 100 metres deep. The trucks that looked like playthings so far below us, I was told, were mighty giants carrying 80 tonnes of rock and moving about on tires that would dwarf a very tall man.

Our South African guides, including the mine director, gave us a quick rundown of the mine’s vital statistics. It had been in operation almost two years, and over the next ten they planned to extract gold worth more than 1.5 billion US dollars, for a projected profit of close to a billion (much more, as gold prices rise). They would be blasting 30 million tonnes of rock out of the earth in explosions that would be felt many kilometres away.

Producing gold in Morila, a water- and energy-intensive process in Mali, a country with a shortage of both water and energy. Photo: Joan Baxter

Next stop was the explosives centre, where experts combined commercial fertilizer with diesel to produce the materials they needed to blast their way into the bowels of the earth. They used one kilogram of explosive per square metre of rock, 300 tonnes of explosives each month, at a cost of 300 million US dollars over the lifetime of the mine.

Gold mining, it appeared, is about as gentle and environmentally compassionate as the international financial system that so values it. It’s also very dirty: the production of one gold ring can generate 20 tonnes of mine waste.

Still, it was “safe, very safe,” according to the congenial and candid South African technical expert at the end of my microphone. He laughed off my suggestion that the explosives centre could be a prime target for disenchanted persons looking for the ammunition to bomb their cause into headlines.

“The dangerous things are accessories, your detonators and your boosters, your cortex,” he said. “And that we guard 24 hours a day.”

And did the daily explosions bother the villagers in outlying hamlets?

“No, no,” he said. “They’re about three kilometres away, so they will just hear the rumbling effect in the background. We actually went and did tests to show them there’s no problem; we had a lot of spectators, so they wouldn’t be scared of the whole system. So they have no problems with that.”

I asked him if open pit mines that tear into the earth’s surface were really preferable to the underground mines that his company operated in South Africa.

“Preferable for the miners themselves,” he said, with a laugh. “But not for the landscape.”

Surface mines like the one in Morila, he explained, were cheaper.

After that it was back to the clubhouse for an executive lunch in an executive dining room. I had seen the likes of this facility before in Mali, but only in the five-star Hotel Salam, where World Bank and IMF personnel, diplomats, business people and conference-going development experts generally stayed while in Bamako. Apart from some beautifully tooled leather on its walls and intricate African motifs in the gleaming tiles on its floors, the Salam and hotels like it are designed to allow their mostly foreign guests to forget which continent they are on. The Salam dresses up its Malian waiters and doormen in burgundy livery, making them look like purple penguins, and it hermetically shuts out heat, dust and the vast majority of Malians.

One of the most profitable gold mines on the planet

Morila’s clubhouse was much the same. From inside, the impression I had was that everything glittered at the Morila gold mine. The man-made lake glinted in the sun, offering vague dreams of a seaside resort rather than dry Sahelian poverty. The official Morila PowerPoint presentation painted a wonderful picture of this lucrative gem of a mine in Mali’s hinterland. With recent production being what it had been, we learned it had become one of the most profitable gold mines on the planet.

Morila mine director Johan Botha (right) and Malian minister of mines in 2002, Hamed Diane Semega, looking into the massive open pit of the gold mine. Photo: Joan Baxter

Johan Botha, director of the mine, told me that in the third quarter of 2002, they had extracted triple the expected amount of gold from the mine. He figured Morila to be “one of the world’s top ten operations.” In his 30-year career in gold mining, he had “never seen anything like it.”

Apart from the rich seams of gold in the earth, I wanted to know whether there were other particular advantages to working in Mali – low labour costs, flexible environmental rules, tax breaks and other incentives, which made gold mining here particularly profitable?

“I can say that the current convention texts in Mali are extremely favourable,” Botha replied. “They must be among the most favourable in the world and I think this is what’s bringing some of the big gold mining companies into Mali at the moment; it’s very favourable.”

I asked if there were any downsides – environmental damage, that sort of thing.

Mali’s Morila gold mine in the semi-arid Sahel of West Africa. Photo: Joan Baxter

For an answer, Botha directed me outside, where he said I would find the company’s on-site environmental director, flown in from the North American division. Indeed, there he was, relaxing lakeside in a deck chair in the shaded garden bar, staring off into the distance.

Morila gold mine environmental director in 2002. Photo: Joan Baxter

I asked him if he had any concerns at all about blasting a hole that size into the fragile Sahelian landscape, where vegetation and arable land, not to mention water, were already in such short and precarious supply.

He dismissed the suggestion that the Sahelian environment was more fragile than others, ignoring the rapid rate at which it had been turning to desert or the spectre of famine that was always just one failed crop away. He observed that during the rainy season vegetation grew quite quickly.

“And the lake?” I said. “Has anyone looked at what has happened to the Bagoé River from which all this water is pumped?” The Bagoé is a tributary of the River Niger. The Niger was silting up because of sluggish flow and it was running lower each year, no longer irrigating vast stretches of crucial rice fields in Mali’s north, causing food shortages there. I wondered if he was concerned about siphoning off precious river water for the lake at Morila.

He replied that he hadn’t yet got to that issue because he’d been there only two months. But he thought the lake itself was an important reservoir, holding enough water to keep the mining operation going for four months, so that when the river was low, no water needed to be pumped from it.

I glanced at the small wharf, recalling that the man on the plane spoke of pleasure-craft and weekends he spent in them, fishing in the man-made lake. There wasn’t a boat in sight. It looked as if the mining company had decided to remove them for the occasion of the visit of the Malian minister and journalists.

“So it’s not just a recreational lake for fishing and boating?”

“The recreational pursuits come afterwards,” he replied quickly. Our tour carefully sidestepped the area where waste was stored behind a large dam, so I asked him about it, requesting details on what substances the mine did discharge. He said there were some “water surface discharges” in the wet season but that the mine complied with “World Bank guidelines” and national standards for any releases, and that they monitored the groundwater carefully.

I pressed for details on the substances they were monitoring, what risks were involved.

Here is his exact reply, word-for-waffling-word:

Cyanide is one of the parameters that we carefully monitor. We are blessed to a certain degree that cyanide is an artificial compound composed of carbon and nitrogen. When properly treated it decomposes back into carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide and therefore as long as we watch it while we have control over it and decrease that concentration, we’re not typically going to run into problems with it. We’re going to, again, meet World Bank standards which have, for all species, cyanide standards and we would not release if we didn’t meet those. It’s basically very, very difficult to detect with even the best of methods and not toxic to drinking water purposes or for the most sensitive species, which are usually aquatic life species. The underlying concern we have is when you dig up rock you make that rock more susceptible to dissolving certain minerals into basically the groundwater system. We have a slight potential here, as does any mine, for the generation of a small amount of acid from the sulphide minerals that accompany the ore. In the process we could dissolve a few metals and therefore many of the metals, iron, copper or manganese or conceivably a little bit of arsenic, we will monitor for those on surface water and groundwater to ensure that we’re meeting the World Bank standards and the World Health Organization standards for potable water supplies.

It wasn’t clear on what exactly he was trying so hard not to say about real risks of acid leaching of mine tailings.

So I moved on to my next question, wondering aloud what would happen when the mine was closed down – what the mining companies intended to do with the mountains of rubble, the crater in the earth, how they would heal the wound. He said they had a “closure plan” that was “refined on a daily basis.”

For the record, for the day that Morila mine closes and Malians wish to know what the environmental director said the South African mining companies pledge to do, here it is: “reclaim that land with vegetation for wildlife, using adapted species of grasses and trees;” and “the hole itself can become a lake, which local communities will maintain.” (Turns out the South African mining companies won’t do any such thing, as Canada’s Barrick Gold later bought into the mine along with AngloGold Ashanti, and then sold their 80% shares of it in 2020 to Firefinch Limited that will continue to mine for another ten years.)

But, back in 2002, we were being told all was well at Morila. We had had a splendid gourmet lunch and been on a tour that showed us the impressive parts of the mine that the foreign personnel inhabited and ran. There were spotless and cool offices, the clubhouse and restaurant. It was a very profitable and lavish operation. There had been start-up loans from a consortium of banks, dealt out by the World Bank: 150 million US dollars to get the mine into the ground. The mining companies had given back to neighbouring communities – about 100 thousand US dollars – worth of school rooms and roads.

After lunch, it was the turn of some Malian mine workers to speak their minds to their government minister, without the mining executives on hand to eavesdrop. The workers had not had the benefit of the sumptuous lunch to which the visiting politicians and journalists had been treated. They weren’t feeling magnanimous towards the mining companies.

Fousseini Touré, secretary general of Mali’s mining union, said there was a serious problem of racism. “It’s like Apartheid,” he told me. “That is why we were on strike in October.”

“It’s like Apartheid”

In one of the three mines in operation in the country, all three run by the same South African mining companies, he said, some of the South Africans spat in the faces of Malian workers and tore up official documents, and then refused summons from Malian gendarmes. The Malian miners went on strike; the South Africans in question were expelled. Touré said that was not enough.

“We are the third biggest producer of gold in Africa, but it’s pathetic that we don’t profit at all from what we produce,” said a Malian mining technician. “We read on the Internet that AngloGold has pronounced Morila the most profitable gold mine in the world, and yet most workers here get no lodging or training, or even health care. In South Africa, AngloGold is paying for anti-retrovirals for its staff that are HIV-positive, and here they take all our medical costs off our salaries.”

Furthermore, the mining company provided housing for only its professional Malian workers – 90 of the 440 men employed there. The rest had to seek a tin or thatch roof over their heads in the neighbouring village of Sanso.

That was where we headed next, leaving behind the luxury of air conditioning in the mine headquarters to travel 13 rough and dusty kilometres to the village of Sanso.

We might as well have travelled 13 thousand kilometres.

Sanso was, to put it mildly, a sorry place: a collection of crumbling dwellings along a rural path in Mali’s hinterland. It looked like thousands of other villages in the country, except that its social equilibrium and cohesion had been decimated. Sanso had been invaded by hundreds of male workers seeking rooms, water and female consorts. It was now beset by new ills, ones it had never known and had no means to cure. The only sign that we were anywhere near Morila gold were the signs indicating transport pick-up points for Malian mine workers.

The village of Sanso adjacent to the one of the most profitable gold mines in the world. Photo: Joan Baxter

First to speak to me there was Sounkalo Togola, mayor of the rural commune – municipal division – of Sanso in which Morila was found on Mali’s newly decentralized political landscape, as it had been mapped out by foreign development experts. Togola didn’t give me a chance to ask him a question before he started his lament.

“Of all the 702 mayors in Mali, I am the one with the most problems,” he began in his halting French. “And all of those problems are because of that gold mine. We now have all kinds of people coming to Sanso so we have all kinds of problems we didn’t know before. We have prostitution, hundreds of Ghanaian and Nigerian girls have come here. Local girls are leaving their husbands who might have only 500 CFA francs [about one US dollar] in a week, to go with the mine workers who might have 10 thousand CFA [about 20 dollars] on hand. Sanso has become a republic apart. The mine imports all its food from outside. Very little trickles down to us in the community.”

Where the mine now sat, he said, people once farmed. When their land was expropriated, the compensation was not enough for all they lost, according to the mayor. He also complained bitterly about the daily explosions that shook homes and rattled lives. He said very few local people were hired to work in the mine because they were told they were “not qualified” and the mining company didn’t want to spend any money to train them.

“And what will happen when this mine is gone?” he continued. “We are afraid of what will become of it. The landscape is ruined. What will become of us?”

The mining minister had arranged a meeting in Sanso, to be held in front of the mayor’s office, a ramshackle old structure dating back to colonial times. At the meeting, villagers, traditional chiefs and local officials were to talk openly about the effects of the mine on their communities and lives. The minister, the mine director and a few of his officials had all made their way to Sanso for this ‘roundtable’ meeting. The meeting took place not around a table, but under a tree outside the mayor’s office. The tree offered a bit of shade and some respite from the ferocious sun. It did nothing to cool the tempers of the villagers who came to speak their minds.

I had the impression, confirmed by the villagers I asked, that the mining executives seldom ventured beyond the fence that separates their mining enclave from, well, Mali. So this was the first time the people of Sanso and most of the mine workers had the chance to confront, face to face, the executives of the mine that the mayor said had made their lives in Sanso a living hell.

It was an unusual display of hostility in polite Mali, but I was not sure that any of the mining officials quite grasped the extent of it. They sat in their white plastic garden chairs looking uncomfortable or even bored while one after the other, local people shouted angrily. Only one of the mining executives present for the meeting, a Canadian originally from Québec, spoke Mali’s official language, French. None of them could understand the heated accusations being hurled at them in Bamanankan that afternoon.

Chief of Sanso in 2002, Tsi Mariko. Photo: Joan Baxter

Most animated in his condemnation of the mine and the foreigners who ran it was the elderly chief of Sanso, Tsi Mariko. He cut a dramatic figure of authority in his blue woollen toque, his magnificent turquoise boubou robe heavy with intricate embroidery, and plastic flip-flops on his weathered feet. The chief clutched a long spear pointed skyward, which he pounded on the ground to punctuate a shouted list of wrongs he felt the mine had caused in his community. He said the prices of the most basic foodstuffs and even water from a few ailing local wells had been driven up by shortages caused by the influx of workers. His village had no decent road, no good water supply, no electric power. All it had was the fallout of the gold mine – dust, noise and social upheaval.

Even if mine director Botha looked blithely unaware of, or unconcerned by the litany of complaints, Mali’s minister of mines, Hamed Diane Semega, was absorbing every damning word.

He was caught in the middle. Minister Semega was painfully aware of the need for such mines if Mali were to conform to the demands of the international donor/creditor community and the World Bank and IMF, and attract foreign investment to increase its economic output. So, on the one hand, he had to appease the foreign investors wishing to get at Mali’s gold and take it out of the ground, because this is the reality of governing in a young, independent African country for which economic independence remains elusive.

On the other hand, as a Malian and a government minister, he knew he was supposed to defend the rights of his own people. And they were telling him in no uncertain terms that afternoon that they were fed up with the gold mine that was bringing them grief.

A high-ranking official from the minister’s office hinted to me, when we were out of earshot of the crowds, that one of the reasons the minister had made the trip to Morila was because there was deep suspicion – not just among the public but also in the minister’s office – about the way gold mining companies worked in the country. He pointed out that elections in May 2002 had brought a new president, Amadou Toumani Touré, to power in Mali. Touré had just formed his new government, and there was no way of knowing what gentlemen’s agreements may have existed between foreign investors and the former government. In whispers, the official told me that the mining companies had begun to report the remarkable production at the Morila mine in June 2002. He said this coincided with the inauguration of the new president and government, and the naming of the new mining minister. He alleged that the mine could have been producing record amounts of gold all along under the noses of former ministers, with or without their complicity.

The mining technocrat said that unlike previous ministers, Minister Semega had worked extensively with Canadian gold exploration companies in Mali – numbering in the dozens – and thus he knew how the mining sector worked. He alleged that perhaps it was the arrival of a new and savvy minister that had spurred the mining companies to begin announcing high production levels, out of fear that the new minister would catch on. Another possibility, he suggested, was that the mining companies were pushing to get as much gold out of the ground as they possibly could in the first five years of the mine’s operations, before their generous tax exemption expired and they had to start paying a corporate tax of 35 per cent to the Malian government.

It was impossible to tell how much substance there was to these allegations without a full-blown investigation by professional and independent auditors. The director of the mine denied them categorically when I put them to him. He said that every single bar of gold that left the mine was accounted for by the consortium of banks that financed the mine in the first place.

But at the end of the tour, when I had a chance to speak to the minister and to voice the suspicions that came from his own staff, he told me this kind of conspiracy theory and suspicion underlying gold mining in his country was the reason he had arranged for the tour of the mine in the presence of Mali’s press corps.

The author interviews Mali minister of mines, Hamed Diane Semega, in 2002 at the Morila gold mine. Photo: Sadio Kante

“Not everything glitters in Morila”

“Gold mining is not an exact science,” he said. “We have to be transparent. I need the co-operation of the gold mining companies. I tell them to help me make them visible and transparent. When I came to the office and had a chance to talk to the mining companies, I told them to ‘help me help you guys, because visibility is the key. You’re dealing with gold in a poor country, you know what that means: it’s a sensitive issue. So you have to open up, make yourself available to people and let people know what kind of business you’re engaged in because it’s a complex business.’ Gold mining in an industrial way is difficult, complex, and it requires a lot of expertise and money.”

Semega said Mali needed the huge foreign companies to develop its mines, to develop its economy. The gold mined by large conglomerates was exported from the country as gold bars. Local goldsmiths in Mali had told me they had to get the small amounts of gold they need to fashion jewellery from artisanal mines in the country, local men working with shovels and buckets. Artisanal mines can also be very hard on soils and the landscape, destroying valuable farming land, and they tend to operate beyond the reach of any regulatory body or revenue agency. But they are local and so are any profits.

The minister of mines defended the attractive tax breaks and terms Mali offered the mining giants, saying it took an enormous amount of investment for gold exploration and exploitation. Investors, he said, “have to know that their investments will bring profits.”

“Mali is a rich country but without money,” he said without a smile, while noting the one that I was unable to suppress. “That might make you laugh. You have gold everywhere, and gold is a sign of wealth, but you have to go down deep to get that gold out and that requires a lot of money. We don’t have that kind of money in Africa, let alone Mali. So we appeal to foreign companies to come and develop the mines, and we benefit from that.” He said the Malian government had a 20 per cent share of Morila, while the two South African companies owned the other 80 per cent, and the mine would generate for Mali about 70 million US dollars over its ten years of operation.

Mali’s minister of mines in 2002, Hamed Diane Semega, on an official visit to the Morila gold mine. Photo: Joan Baxter

What about the five-year tax exemption, I wanted to know, which meant that all the windfall profits from the tonnes of gold being mined in the first years were not taxed? Was it fair that the mining companies should be given such generous tax breaks in such a desperately poor country?

“You have to be attractive if you don’t have the money to do the mining yourself,” he replied. “So in order for others to come and put their money in here, and not in neighbouring countries where there is also potential, you have to open up. It’s the dilemma of a monetarily poor country: we’re not a poor country when it comes to resources, but poor when it comes to access to financial markets, and that puts limitations.”

I countered that the South African mining giants had actually invested 150 million dollars loaned to them by a consortium including the World Bank, wondering aloud why such loans could not be made available to African investors or consortia.

“I’m a Malian,” replied the minister. “I’m dedicated to my country and if I could generate the finances to mine our gold and make it stay here in Mali that would be nice. But unfortunately, to be realistic, that is not possible here.”

“I can see,” he said despondently, “that not everything glitters in Morila.”


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