NANAKANAK, SOUTH SUDAN — South Sudan won independence and vast oil reserves in 2011, when it split from civil war foe Sudan. As the rocky relationship with its northern neighbor jeopardizes oil exports, however, the new nation hopes a new mining law will attract foreign companies to unearth its mineral treasures and secure its future fortune. In the country’s “wild east,” thousands of people armed only with picks and pans are hunting for gold.
This “gold mine” in Nanakanak, Eastern Equatoria state, is just one of many spots across South Sudan’s east where a gold rush has hit.
Adele Natogo said that like countless others, she left her nine children and village - an eight-hour walk from Nanakanak - a month ago to sift through the endless piles of terracotta rubble for gold.
“There are so many people that have come here. They are all over the bush, everyone looking for gold. This is a big place,” said Natogo.
But many of the miners say the golden era of finding nuggets is over.
Now they squint at their plastic basins for the tiniest speck of gold and hope machines will arrive soon to help their hunt.
Trader Samuel Kivuva in the nearest town, Kapoeta, said that when foreigners gave metal detectors to artisanal miners last year, their yield more than doubled from 5 kilograms of gold per week.
“Per week they were collecting 12 kilograms of this gold and at least they were performing, not in the way of these people that use basins and whatever,” said Kivuva.
At the Ministry of Mines in Juba, undersecretary of mining Andu Ezbon Adde said the government suspended previous small-scale mining licenses while putting the finishing touches to a mining law aimed at pulling in big investors - and big money - to extract the gold, copper, iron ore and other metals thought to lie under the earth.
“Coming out of war, things were not well organized. Giving out the licenses was not well organized, so the government decided to stop any exploration work until the law has been signed. Now the law has been signed we are working on now what they call regulations, which may not be clear to the common man. So I’m sure that this year, we will be giving out licenses,” said Adde.
But until machines arrive to replace the picks and pans, farmers-turned-panners in this impoverished and drought-stricken region are tasked with uncovering the minerals that in years to come could wean the new nation off its dependency on oil revenue.