Mali is Africa's third largest exporter of gold but it still ranks among the poorest countries in the world. A report released Thursday by the non-governmental organization Oxfam America, calls for Mali's government to simplify its mining laws and disclose more information about the amount of money coming into the country and where it is going. Naomi Schwarz reports from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

Mali has been famous for its gold since the days of ancient Timbuktu. But in the last few years, gold has begun to play an even bigger role in the country as international mining companies started making major investments.

"Gold has recently overtaken cotton as Mali's number one export," said Ian Gary.

Ian Gary is a senior policy adviser at Oxfam America. Its report, released Thursday, says mining laws are too complex and people have too little access to information about gold revenues and where that money goes.

"If the mayor of Sadiola does not understand how much money should be coming in to his township, then you have a problem there," he said.

Sadiola is the location of one of Mali's major gold mines.

The Malian government is working with the World Bank and others to revise the laws regulating the mining industry. An earlier revision was criticized by some international observers as being too sensitive to the needs of international investors at the expense of the Malian people.

Though the country's mining revenues tripled between 1998 and 2002, 80 percent of Malians continue to live below the poverty line.

Nikki Reisch is the Africa Program manager of the Bank Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors the activities of the World Bank and other financial institutions.

She says Oxfam's demand for more transparency represents an essential first step, but does not go far enough.

"I would go a bit further than just calling for the transparency of revenue payments and expenditures, and I would call for the transparency of the contracts, of the deals done with companies investing in Mali," said Nikki Reisch. "Because the terms of those contracts reveal very much about what a government can expect to gain and what a people can expect to benefit, and all too often actually contain very dangerous or disturbing clauses."

Reisch says she is especially concerned about contracts that do not require mining companies to pay for long-term costs associated with mining, such as environmental damage.

Malian officials cooperated with Oxfam on producing the report but refused to comment to VOA on it.