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Striking Gold Is No Bonanza for Small Mali Town

The majority of the world's gold comes from some of the poorest countries, but local mining communities often reap just a fraction of the riches that lie beneath their soils. Mali is no exception. The West African nation ranks near the bottom of just about every U.N. development indicator, even though its the world's ninth-largest gold producer. The southern village of Sanso struggles to capitalize on Mali's gold rush.

On a sweltering morning, a parade of local dignitaries praised the rickety foundation of a new primary school, as village women sang in celebration. Five years ago, this village of 7,000 inhabitants deep in the scrub lands of southern Mali, literally struck gold when a pair of South African companies opened the nearby Morila mine.

The school is not being built with dollars from the mine's nuggets, but with financial donations from Europe and the labor of African youth volunteers.

Sanso's Mayor Dioting Mariko says the Morila mine has brought little to the village.

With the mine's opening, Mr. Mariko said, people thought Sanso would be able to develop.

But now, he doubts that will happen. The mine has paid for the construction of one mosque and 12 school classes in four villages. That is all, he said.

Dirt-poor Mali is among the low- and middle-income countries that extract two-thirds of the planet's gold. During the past decade gold has replaced cotton as Mali's top export.

But rural communities like Sanso are beginning to negotiate for a fairer share of the country's gold wealth and to make foreign mining companies accountable for potentially devastating, long-term health and environmental damages from their operations.

The Morila gold mine also offers a cautionary tale for villages once united in poverty, and now divided by wealth. Foreign miners and prostitutes lured by new job opportunities have more than tripled Sanso's population in five years, and local officials say likely brought HIV/AIDS to the village for the first time as well.

Mohamed Togola is a former school teacher from Sanso who works as Morila Mine's community relations liaison. Mr. Togola says the mine has created jealousy and enormous divisions among villagers who have profited from the mine and those who have not.

"This is so much expectation from the community side but for the case of Morila for instance, there's a kind of source in the painting between the community and the mine. They have different views of things. The mine would like to make much more benefits possible and the community would like to profit from that benefit," he said.

Morila is jointly operated by two South African companies, Randgold Resources and AngloGold Ashanti. Since it opened in October, 2000, the mine has generated nearly $180 million in profits. Each of the two companies has a 40 percent stake in the mine. The Malian government owns the rest.

Morila's acting manager, Samba Toure, takes a visitor on a tour of Morila's open pit mine, which looks like a big red crater amid this region of tall grasses and trees. "We are in front of the main pit. Which is 1.20 kilometer by 800 meters. And the final depth will be 200 meters. We start exploitation with pit one, in the southwest corner. And it was about 300,000 tons of oxide...mainly the ore is pyrite an arsenopyrite," he said.

Cyanide, a poison used to extract the ore, is detoxified in a fenced-off pond and recycled for further use. As a result, Mr. Toure said, there is no chance of cyanide contamination, a major worry with gold mines.

And during an earlier PowerPoint presentation at Morila's air-conditioned headquarters, Mr. Toure said the mine has already invested $1.2 million in a hodgepodge of development projects. Besides the schools and mosque cited by mayor Mariko, he said the money has been spent to upgrade a local health center, and build community gardens and a rice paddy.

"Before the mine was established here, did you assess the level of poverty of this community? I invite you to come and do a socioeconomic review...before, during and after. And you will [think about whether the mine enhances the well being of this community.]

Mr. Mariko says he thinks it does enhance the community. "Yes, 100 percent," he said.

While Morila and its miners' quarters are lit up at night, Sanso, about seven miles away, has no electricity or paved roads.

And while some villagers, like Chary Mariko, 27, have found well-paying jobs at the mine, many others have not.

Mr. Mariko said working in the mine is very difficult. He works a 16-hour shift and then gets two days off. He says he has not suffered any health problems mining at Morila. And his $300 monthly salary represents a small fortune in Mali, where the average per-capita income is $250 a year.

But Josson Mariko, a bony, middle-aged woman on her way to work in the fields with a friend, and no direct relation to Mariko the miner, said Morila has offered nothing but broken promises. Ms. Mariko said she used to work at the mine washing the miners clothes. But the work is finished now. None of her children have been able to find work at the mine either. So what interest, she asks, should she have in this mine?

Across the globe, communities are taking a growing interest in local gold mines. In Peru, Indonesia, Ghana, and elsewhere, they are demanding better pay and better environmental and health standards, although not always successfully.

Striking miners at Morila last year got the mine to establish a $500,000 community development fund to be tapped after the mine closes in 2011.

At Morila, manager Toure describes the mine as a Rolls Royce in environmental safety. He says its South African owners will comply with international standards when they close the mine, six years from now.

The World Bank, which has established a set of benchmarks on good mining practices, says large trans-national companies like those operating Morila largely adhere to them.

But activists like Mr. Sangare, of the Sahel Foundation, warn Morila may still be breeding a host of potentially devastating long-term problems, from sulfuric acid leakage to accidental cyanide contamination.

He says the community fund is a drop in the bucket to clean up such disasters.

Mr. Togola, Morila's community relations man, has other worries. If no long-term economic development projects are put in place, he says people will leave this area after the mine shuts down in search of work elsewhere. And Sanso the village of his birth, and the village he loves, will become a ghost town, with only old people remaining.