Dust-covered miners criss-cross Sudan’s Nubian Desert, absorbed by the drone of the pan-shaped metal detectors with which they scour the ground in search of gold.
The desert, about 500km north-east of Khartoum, draws thousands of fortune seekers, some of whom have arrived in their 4X4 vehicles and set up tents equipped with water barrels and enough food for weeks.
But it is also home to ancient relics from the Nubian kingdom, one of the earliest civilisations in the Nile valley, and archaeologists and officials fear that a crucial part of Sudan’s heritage is being effaced as the miners pillage or accidentally damage the sites.
Mukhtar Yussif, formerly a trader, pulled out a gold nugget from his truck’s glove compartment. “I’ve gathered gold for about four months and I’ve already paid for two used cars,” he said.
Family and friends he brought with him oscillated their detectors. Hatem unearthed a small nugget. “It must weigh a gram,” he said.
The rise in gold prices over the past two years and an influx of metal detectors, which sell for about $6 000 in Sudan, have spurred the gold rush.
“In Sudan we have at least 200 000 people working in this new activity. It’s a gold fever now, just like in the old American style of the 19th century when everybody was hunting for gold,” Mining Minister Abdelbaqi al-Jaylani said.
But he also highlighted the problems the gold rush has brought with it.
“The danger is that sometimes we have some archaeological gold. We have to be very careful not to spoil the history and the civilisation of Sudan.”
He said peasants have left their farm lands to hunt the desert for the precious metal, a gram of which fetches 90 Sudanese pounds ($35), about a week’s wages for a labourer.
At the end of a remote road, a tractor unearths a strip of red soil that is immediately pounced on by six miners.
“If we find gold, we will share the harvest with the driver,” said one of the miners.
Others lured by the desert’s riches use cheaper but more laborious technologies.
In al-Abidiya, a remote village near the Nile River, thousands of young men sift through tubs filled with mercury and ore ground by generator-powered mills.
The mercury envelops the gold, isolating it. It can also slowly poison the miners, damaging their nervous systems.
The UN’s Environment Programme said in a 2008 report that mercury used by small-scale miners, favoured because it is cheap and effective, was a major source of poisoning in the environment.
But for the young men it offers the tantalising chance to make a fortune.
“My brother and I came from the Gezira [Sudan’s agricultural heartland along the Nile] to try our luck with gold,” said 16-year-old Ibrahim.
Another danger linked to the exploitation of north Sudan’s new-found mineral riches was highlighted last week with the Interior Ministry’s announcement that 10 people had died when one of the makeshift gold mines collapsed.
‘They left in search of gold’
The government says it cannot stop the artisanal miners, even though they are increasingly drawing the ire of the few mining companies in the region.
“We cannot stop the diggers, but we will regulate them,” said Jaylani, acknowledging the difficult conditions for the workers and the threat of mercury pollution due to crude processing methods.
“The government has to intervene to regulate, and to help these people to make use of this fortune,” he said.
“We have to take care of the environment because they are using mercury sometimes, and we have to tell them that mercury is very poisonous.”
Meanwhile, the growing number of gold miners is a source of concern for archaeologists in Sudan which, though very much in Egypt’s shadow, holds great promise because it has been far less explored.
“It’s become a serious problem,” said the country’s deputy director of antiquities, Salah Mohammed Ahmed.
“They use their metal detectors and sometimes stumble across ancient artefacts in iron, like arrowheads, or bronze. Some miners hand them over to us, others keep them,” said Ahmed.
The archaeological missions, which usually dig in the cooler months between October and February, are already losing their workforce to the gold mining.
In one site north of the city of Atbara, Ahmed says the expedition has lost half its workforce. They “left in search of gold”, he said. — Sapa-AFP