Sudan: Mine collapse highlights challenges in quest to become leading gold producer

Gold has taken on new importance in Sudan since its oil-rich southern region became an independent country in 2011.

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
A worker pans for gold at the Wad Bushara gold mine near Abu Delelq in Gadarif State, Sudan, Saturday.

Dozens died in the collapse of an unlicensed gold mine in the Sudanese region of Darfur this week, underlining the vast infrastructural challenges that face the country as it attempts to transform itself into one of the world’s leading gold producers.

The collapse apparently occurred Monday, though reports of the disaster did not reach the capital city of Khartoum – 500 miles to the east – until Thursday. As of Friday morning close to 100 miners remain unaccounted for, along with nine first responders sent in to rescue them, according to SkyNews. Local officials have estimated at least 60 deaths. 

Gold has taken on particular importance in Sudan over the past two years as the country scrambles to replace the massive oil revenues it lost when the southern region of the country became independent in 2011. When Sudan lost its oil fields, most of its export earnings disappeared overnight, Agence France-Presse reports. This forced the government to quickly negotiate new sources of cash.

That year, Sudan exported 22.5 tons of gold. In 2012, that figure nearly doubled, to 41 tons, catapulting the country into the ranks of the top 20 gold producers worldwide. It is on track to become Africa’s third-leading gold exporter this year, reports.

But the demand for gold has also fueled dangerous working conditions in the remote, deeply impoverished regions where it is mined. Most of the country’s gold comes from so-called “artisanal mines,” informal, unregulated operations that are often little more than an open pit in the ground.

Miners climb down the holes and chip away at the rock below, often using their bare hands to mix mercury and ore together to separate the gold.

The mine disaster Monday was reportedly triggered when one of these small operations collapsed, setting off a chain reaction through other mines nearby. In 2011, the Sudanese government estimated there were 200,000 unlicensed gold producers in the country. Worldwide, they account for a quarter of global gold production, reports The Financial Times.

The gold supply chain is complicated and opaque, with plenty of weak points where illegal metal can leak into the system. Local dealers pick up scraps of gold from artisanal mines, sell them to other dealers until they end up in the nearest big city. From there, the gold makes its way to a smelter, then a refiner and then into Europe or Asia. All the Asian and European refiners get their gold from the same sources, so dirty gold reaches all markets equally.

In Sudan, as elsewhere in the region, illegal gold mining is also a prime source of funding for militia groups.

In January, Reuters reported heavy fighting between two Arab groups vying for control of a gold mine in the area around Monday’s mine collapse. An estimated 500 people were killed.

For a decade, Darfur has been the site of intense sectarian fighting between local rebel groups and government-sponsored militias. More than two million Darfuris are still in internal refugee or displacement camps, and for those who have returned home, economic prospects are often grim.

Close to 70,000 people allegedly work in artisanal mines in the Jebel Amir district, where the accident occurred.

"Nobody takes the names of those who go inside,” one miner told AFP. “Only their colleagues or their relatives know where they are.” 

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