Cameroon pays the price of gold rush

Reinnier Kaze in Bétaré-Oya

For a time, the land around the village of Longa Mali in eastern Cameroon was one of the most prized in Africa, and powerful machines gnawed greedily into its soil to extract precious gold.

Today, abandoned with almost the same speed as it was coveted, the landscape is as dangerous as it is damaged, say campaigners.

About 100 deep holes are scattered around the village. Many of them are filled with water, making them a deadly risk for youngsters. In other locations, subsistence miners run the risk of being buried alive as they delve in deep, narrow holes for a few flecks of gold. Longa Mali is one of dozens of places in Cameroon that are grappling with “open tombs” — the legacy left by mining companies.

Last year, at least 47 people died on former mining sites in the East Region, according to the nongovernmental organisation Foder, a French acronym for Forests and Rural Development.

In late December, nine people were killed in a landslide in the village of Ngoe Ngoe while they searched for gold.

Eugene Phausard, an official for the district of Bétaré-Oya, graphically described the peril of “death lakes” — gaping holes that swiftly fill with water after the mining pumps are switched off and hauled away: “Children regularly go to swim there, ignoring the danger of playing in water that is up to 30m deep.”

‘We live with the risk’

The problem results from a raw-edged cost-benefit analysis, when mining companies see that the extraction costs exceed their profits and move elsewhere.

Failure to fill in abandoned sites is “one of the major issues we face”, said Gabriel Yadji, the regional head of the mines ministry.

At the beginning of April, four companies were banned from mining in eastern Cameroon, according to Foder. During a peak in activity between 2011 and 2014, more than 100 international mining companies were present in the region.

Officially 285kg of gold was extracted in eastern Cameroon in 2017 by licensed companies.

The Kaye mine in Bétaré-Oya, begun by a Chinese firm, has temporarily stopped operations while the company brings in bigger machines to exploit poorer seams. But women with babies on their backs are sifting through the red soil while a young man down a narrow hole strikes the earth with a pickaxe.

“They don’t think about the risk of an accident,” says a security guard astride a motorbike. A policeman by training, the guard has been hired to disperse the amateur gold diggers.

“If there are accidents, they’ll blame the Chinese,” he said. “Even when someone is buried when their hole collapses, people come back the following day.”

“We live with the risk,” said Daoudou Denis dismissively, as he scoured the earth.

‘Environment also pays’

As well as the human cost, the gold rush has been “an ecological disaster” for the region, said Foder spokesman Justin Chekoua.

Degraded soil, deforestation and altered watercourses have swept away important parts of the ecological mix.

“People did a lot of fishing on mining territory, but there are no fish left. The waterways have silted up,” Chekoua said.

“There is no more arable land,” said Michel Pilo, head of Mali village. Tomatoes, plantain and cassava that used to be grown locally now come from far away.

“The companies have built no school, no health centre, no roads. They just exploited us,” said Pilo.

Phausard said the Bétaré-Oya district should have collected more than 850-million CFA francs ($1.6-million) in mining royalties since 2014 but had received nothing to date. — AFP

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