Terror attacks on gold mining operations in Burkina Faso are becoming a regular occurrence. For VOA, reporter Henry Wilkins looks at the impact the attacks are having on the lives of survivors and what it could mean if extracting gold, the country's primary source of income, becomes too dangerous.
“Boukare,” whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is a survivor of the Yirgou massacre.
The attack by an unknown terror group in June this year targeted a small informal gold mining site, like this one, and killed at least 160 people, mostly mine workers.
Boukare was hiding on the roof of a building, from where he could see women and children moving around. At first, he thought they were being kidnapped by the attackers and then realized they were carrying out the attack themselves. “When they finished shooting, it was around 4:30 a.m. and then they started to burn [buildings and vehicles],” he said.
Burkina Faso is the fastest growing producer of gold in Africa. While informal mining is estimated to employ and indirectly support about 3 million people, large-scale commercial mining by foreign companies brought in $300 million of revenue for the government in 2018.
But as groups linked to Islamic State, al-Qaida and bandits have stepped up attacks on miners, extracting gold is seen as increasingly dangerous.
Since August, there have been two attacks on convoys belonging to iamgold, a company headquartered in Canada, and another one on a convoy owned by Endeavour Mining, headquartered in the Cayman Islands. The attacks left six dead.
‘Salam,’ whose identity we also have protected, survived an assault on a mining convoy on the same route in 2019. He played dead as terrorists killed 40 of his colleagues.
He now works for a different company, but said that many of his colleagues are wary of the mines.
They no longer want to take the convoys along the road to the mine, because it has become too dangerous. He says that after the last attack military police were able to kill two terrorists. “The terrorists are going to want revenge. They are going to want revenge,” he said.
In recent weeks, mining companies in Burkina Faso have begun transporting local employees to mines by air instead of by road. Previously, only foreign staff flew to the mines.
But some logistics still must be done by road.
Liam Morrissey, CEO of MS risk, a security consultant that works with mining companies operating in Burkina Faso, said the attacks could spell trouble for the industry.
“The producing mines have regular convoy activity to keep their mines supplied: crew rotations, consumables, parts, plant and equipment and so on. So, we have seen, correspondingly, with this spike of incidents through the wet season, incidents involving convoys. Now, they haven't been devastating, not yet,” he said.
Asked if deteriorating security might force some companies to pull out of Burkina Faso, Paul Melly of London-based Chatham House said no – at least for the time being.
“Burkina Faso is now one of the most important gold producing countries in Africa, and the large number of investors who’ve come in over recent years and the large number of mines that have opened up, point to the economic attractions, so I don’t imagine that companies would take a decision to pull out very easily,” said Melly.
Analysts say major disruption to the gold mining industry could have far-reaching impacts for the already fragile state.