The following is an article written for a mining publication of which I am particularly proud, being a preliminary report on the mining industry in the nation of Mali.
In 1324, Musa I of the Mali Empire decided to undertake his hajj to Mecca, traveling across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Mali was a flourishing state, and the pilgrimage was as much an opportunity to showcase its wealth as it was a religious undertaking.
The event was so well known as to become legendary and accumulated the regular amount of vagueness of myth. It is said that he went out with 60,000 people in his procession, and a mass of animals including 80 camels. What was most memorable was, however, what they brought with them – supposedly over 20,000 kg of gold bars, and over 100 kg of gold dust carried by those same camels. Musa spent this wealth freely, supposedly funding a new mosque on every Friday, wherever they found themselves on their journey.
If the idea was to make people remember his passing, it worked, if maybe for not the right reasons. So much gold was given out in donations and gifts that it created a massive ten year gold recession. In cities like Cairo, Medina and Mecca, prices of goods massively inflated. (Musa reportedly realized his mistake and tried to borrow as much gold as he could carry on his way back at high interest).
The continuing popularity of this story serves to underline the connection that Mali has always had with gold, back from the medieval era. From Europe to the Middle East, it was a land associated with fantastical amounts of wealth. Time has not entirely reduced the glimmer of Mali, which is still the 3rd largest producer of gold in Africa.
The Mali Empire would fall to the Songhai, which itself would implode after defeat by Morocco, but the rumours of gold fascinated the French, who would colonize the area as French Soudan, gold heavy on their minds. France however, reached Mali relatively late, at the end of the 19th century. Its inland isolation meant that mining was often still done as “artisanal” or “traditional” mining, using very basic tools and methods.
Mali would join with Senegal to become independent of France in 1960, quickly splitting from that other country. One dictatorship was overthrown by another, and Mali was a difficult place for foreign investment up until 1991, when the March Revolution ousted Moussa Traoré. For the next 20 years, Mali stabilized somewhat. In 1991 a new Mining Code was also established to try and attract foreign investment. The mid-90s and early 2000s saw the opening of many new mines in the area. Between 1994 and 2007, national and foreign companies were granted around 150 operating licenses. Mining revenue would increase by about thirty times in this period. This increasing gold market was key in stabilizing Mali’s economy, which used to rely heavily on an unstable agricultural market, particularly cotton, and the government has a vested interest in promoting the industry.
One of the most important companies to first enter the opened Mali was a Canadian one, IAMGOLD (most famous for the Rosabel gold mine in Suriname), which went public the same year it opened the Sadiola mine in west Mali in 1996. IAMGOLD would later partner in the area with AngloGold Ashanti, a merger of Ghanaian and South African mining companies. IAMGOLD (The IAM being short for International African Mining) would later establish the nearby Yatela in 2001. Sadiola continues to be the most productive mine in Mali.
Other companies would follow along in western Mali. Barrick would permit their Loulo-Gounkoto project in 1996, another large producer. B2Gold would also partner with AngloGold Ashanti to open Fekolo in the same area – in 2006, Endeavour would open the Tabako mine.
While the western border with Senegal is the site of many major mines, southern Mali also had some development. Barrick and Ashanti worked on the Morila mine which opened in 2000 and recently closed. One of the newest and most talked about mines in this area is Syama, operated by Resolute. Syama is touted as the first purpose built fully automated mine in the world. The land itself was acquired in 2004, with first development ore being delivered recently.
Mali is a country clearly divided by geography, with savanna in the southwest along the Niger river, and desert in the northeast. In the southwest the people often belong to one of the many Mande ethnicities (like the Bambara) and are generally sedentary farmers. In the northeast there are more nomadic groups like the Taureg. In the area in between there are also pastoralist groups such as the Fula.
In 2012 and 2015 respectively the Tauregs and Fula both began armed insurgencies against the government. These intertwining conflicts are complicated by the actions of Bambara militias who have escalated the violence. Jihadist actors from outside of Mali have attempted to use the chaos to further their own goals – however, the Bambara militias are accused of often fabricated the presence of jihadists to justify their own violent reprisals.
The conflict is highly complex and beyond the scope of an easy explanation. The upshot was that in 2012 the military ousted the President, displeased with how he was handling the crisis. During this instability, the Tauregs seized historical cities like Timbukto and Gao in the northeast and declared the creation of a new state, Azawad. The French military eventually got involved and forced the Tauregs to give up their new state and sign a peace with the government. This mostly served to turn the conflict from open warfare to acts of terrorism. While most of the terrorist acts are targeted at Malian military personnel in the northeast, in 2017 Islamic terrorists would attack a resort in the capital of Bamako, killing 5 people.
The main mining production in the affected areas are salt and maybe oil, not gold, and it is tempting to view the conflict as entirely separated from the border mining in the south and west, in the Kayes and Sikasso regions. This discussion of the conflict is more to demonstrate how Mali could still be vulnerable to unforeseen and rapidly emerging risk factors such as coups, ethnic disputes and terrorist attacks. Foreigners in the capital city are in danger of kidnappings or attacks despite its distance from the main areas of conflict.
Mali is a country that is defined by the Niger river which runs west to east through the nation. The country is also divided into east and west by geography, geology and culture. Eastern Mali is what springs to the popular imagination when one thinks of the country – desert, Tauregs and the famed ancient cities of Timbuktu and Gao. In this dry area, the main mineral wealth has been in the form of salt. Current conflicts, however, mean there is little in the way of development. Salt production has also generally decreased from the 70s. (The salt mines of Mali were notorious as being a place for political dissidents to be sent for forced labour).
Western Mali is often of greater interest from a geological standpoint. The south and west of this area, along the borders of Côte D’Ivoire and Senegal respectively, lie on the West African shield – a contiguous part of the famous Guiana shield on the other side of the Atlantic. This ancient Paleoproterozoic rock is the source of the mythical wealth in gold discussed earlier. As mentioned, Mali is only behind South African and Ghana in terms of African gold production (though Sudan is catching up).
Mali does have other mineral industries, such as kaolin, phosphate and limestone, but these are tiny industries compared to gold, which accounts for about 80% of mining revenue in the country. The government is eager to start up a petroleum industry in the old salt fields of the Taoudeni basin in the far north, with Algeria, Italy, France, Australia and China having all done exploration in the area. However, the remoteness of this location, harsh environment and recent conflict have all put a damper on the prospective oil industry.
While a gamut of other minerals has been found in Mali, there have been little dedicated attempts to survey for them or extract them, and more information would be needed before pursuing any of these potential industries. In particular, the government of Mali is interested in exploring mining of bauxite, manganese, lithium and uranium.
Mining Industry in Mali
Despite all this talk of fabled lands of gold, today Mali is mostly an agricultural nation. It exports fruit and sesame seeds, but its king crop is cotton, which accounts for about a third of all exports in the country.
As mentioned, however, the Malian economy suffered heavily due to fluctuations in the international cotton market, which sparked an interest in gold and the entrance of foreign companies. Gold is also important to Mali because it has an international market, whereas much of its agriculture is destined for its African neighbours. Conflicts in these countries can hurt the agricultural sector, in a way that the international gold market is more immune to. Gold makes up about a fifth of the Malian export economy – no other mining sector can compare. The only other mineral that even comes close is the mining of phosphates for fertilizers. The once vast Malian salt mining industry has mostly dried up by the current day. If you are going to Mali for any mineral, its gold.
Gold mining in Mali is divided into the small unregulated local industries and the larger foreign backed projects. The gold in the unregulated system often goes out on the black market. The unregulated gold mining industry in Mali has been a source of constant criticism for its use of child labour. The government struggles to properly measure and tax this “artisanal” mining.
The more established legitimate mining operations have a better reputation. The area where gold is mined in Mali is far from the conflicts that would threaten other mineral industries. Most of these companies are currently well regarded for their compliance with international mining standards in transparency and best practices. However, there has been some criticism that these mining companies do not produce enough local jobs, relying on foreign personnel, and have not done enough to compensate displaced locals. While Canadian companies like IAMGOLD tend to have good reputations, their local African partners like AngloGold-Ashanti often have black spots on their human rights records. (About a decade back, AngloGold came under heavy criticism when it was revealed just how many workers died in their South African mines).
Finding trained local personnel is difficult, however, due to the struggles Mali has in providing consistent education beyond a primary level. The country is also noted for not serving women very well in terms of education or employment rights, further limiting the talent pool.
The government of Mali is a mixed bag on reputation. They are invested in trying to grow the mining market in Mali due to how vulnerable their agricultural sector can be, as mentioned before. They are considered to be transparent when it comes to recorded mining revenues, apart from the difficulty in tracking artisanal mines. However, they have come under some criticism for not making the process of distributing licences transparent enough, and for not being as honest as they could be about how their mining revenues are spent – the people of Mali are often sold on mining by promises that the revenue will go to funding for healthcare and education, which the country is in desperate need of.
Despite a long history of gold production, most mining experts agree that the gold potential in Mali has only been barely tapped. Gold was so easy to get in Mali that only the most basic processes were needed, reflected in the continued artisanal mining industry. However, with more modern drilling and surveying techniques, a tremendous amount of gold could be accessed. A 2017 review estimated that of 133 potentially gold-rich reserves, only six had been fully mapped out.
Mali’s mining industry presents an interesting combination of challenges and opportunities, both for its people and foreign investors. The fabled cities of Timbuktu and Goa in the east have unfortunately fallen into disrepair and danger. However, in the west, the potential for greatness still lies buried. The legends of Mali as a land of fabulous amounts of gold proved to be a rare case where the myths were absolutely true.