Kharakena is a tiny village in south-eastern Senegal just a few kilometres from the Mali border. When villagers discovered gold in 2008, the town changed from a small agricultural community to an overpopulated cluster of trucks, motorbikes and mercury. When a village discovers gold in the Birimian rocks of West Africa, it undergoes a rapid transformation. Numbers often swell as men, women and boys flock to the region from neighbouring countries like Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Ghana, and as far afield as Nigeria. The multinational companies come too, often causing conflict with local land holders.
In a country where hundreds of thousands are at risk of going hungry due to a lack of grass to feed their cattle, the lure of earning hundreds of dollars a day hacking at the earth is too great for many to ignore. For those living in poverty; stopping to consider the damage to their health, the risk to their lives and the irrevocable destruction of their land is a luxury they simply cannot afford.
At first glance the Kharakena mines look like a refugee camp. Tarp-covered shacks dot the hills while dead trees and craters punctuate the disfigured landscape. While the wooden shacks look like they could be housing displaced victims of war; they’re actually providing shelter for groups of men huddled around small, deep holes. And the scorched earth they occupy has not been bombed, it’s been mined. The scene reeks of death and destruction, but this is not a war-zone, it’s an artisanal mining site.
While Senegal contains several large, heavily regulated mining sites, complete with sophisticated machinery, guards and workplace health and safety laws, artisanal mines are where people risk their lives in unimaginable conditions in order to feed their families. In the summer months of south-eastern Senegal, the temperature regularly exceeds 40 degrees. Meanwhile, the unrelenting tropical rains soften the soil, increasing the risk of everything from slipping down a hole to a landslide.
The men huddled around each hole are supporting a young man who risks his life up to 30 metres underground to dig for the gold hidden within. He’ll remain underground for up to an hour, funnelling bags of dirt up to his fellow workers who use mercury to discover if today is their lucky day. The mercury, while toxic and dangerous, is the cheapest way they can inspect the soil. They do this for up to 10 hours a day, without any safety equipment (or shoes). They earn no fixed wage or salary; if they don’t find gold they don’t get paid. If they should happen to suffer a workplace injury, there’s no WorkCover or insurance. Workers being exposed to gaseous mercury as it burns off is just one of many health hazards in the job description. Mercury poisoning can cause tremors, muscle weakness, vision and hearing impairments, and loss of coordination and balance. It’s a hazard for the surrounding environment too, mercury being spilled into nearby soils and waters pollutes the community’s air, water and soil.
When workers have exhausted a patch of earth, they move their tools to the next area, often just metres away. The 30 metre hole from their previous excavation is abandoned, resulting in hectares of natural landscape being hollowed out with deep, empty holes. Thus, walking through an artisanal mining site presents any visitor with any number of ways to die. If there were health and safety signs, they would emphasise the importance of sticking to paths, walking with care and seeking shelter when it rains. It’s also worth remembering that workers aren’t the only ones exposed to hazardous workplace conditions; photographers are too. Lack of Workcover protection, appropriate insurance or any safety gear were things we all had in common. Unlike the workers, I had the luxury of choice (and shoes).
As each day draws to a close, thousands of workers leave the mines transporting the soil in rice sacks to their shantytown homes a few kilometres away. Every single worker is drenched, either from sweat or rain; or both.
In these situations, I’m always amazed by two things. One: the lengths people are prepared to go in order to access the very things I take for granted. And two, even in the face of unimaginable hardship, every single person – man, woman and child – greets me with a smile. Every single person wants to stop what they are doing, chat and pose for a photo. And if anything were to befall me, every single person would have come to my aid.
When we read about local villages being infected with mercury, when we see the irrevocable damage done to arable land, and when we already know about the long-term consequences of short-term mining bonanzas, we should question the priorities of our species. But when we see the poverty and desperation to work, coupled with the reality that a single day of work in the mines can potentially provide more income than months of farming, we might also question how any worker in a developing country could possibly ignore this pathway out of poverty.