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Gold is not forever: Ivorian boom towns worry for future

A gold necklace on display/FILE

A gold necklace on display/FILE

Tongon, Mar 4 – Once a poor rural community, the village of Tongon in the northern Ivory Coast now glows with well-being since becoming a regional gold mining hub five years ago.

Electricity and clean water flows to all the homes, brick and mortar houses have replaced many huts, and new schools and a maternity clinic have sprung up.

Many of the new buildings bear a prominent plaque reading “Donated by Randgold” — the Jersey-based British company that says it has spent almost $5 million (4.4 million euros) on helping local people.

“The village is becoming a fine place,” boasts school headmaster Antoine Yapo Boni.

Randgold has also financed a high-voltage power line linking the Tongon mine to the regional capital Korhogo, 60 kilometres (35 miles) away, for which it is negotiating repayment terms with the Ivorian government.

Overall, Randgold says it has invested $500 million dollars (440 million euros) in the giant open-cast mine, but the firm declined to tell AFP how much it makes in return. On its Internet site, it reported a profit of $134 million in 2013.

But what is now a win-win situation for both the company and the community can last only until the gold runs out — in five or six years at the latest, according to Randgold CEO Mark Bristow of South Africa.

In the meantime, the mine and Randgold’s largesse have combined to breed a culture of dependency.

“The village chief asked for a water tower. I turned to the CEO of Randgold and he told me, ‘No problem, that will be done’,” Prime Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan revealed on a visit to the area last month.

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About 2,500 workers were hired to build the mine, in which Randgold has a stake of 89 percent, with 10 percent held by the Ivorian government and one percent by a local company.

Of the some 1,600 people employed at the mine today, about 80 percent come from nearby villages.

Inevitably, the new wealth creates jealousies.

“Two other villages have power, but we don’t,” said village chief Soro Gafona in nearby Sekonkaha.

Prime Minister Duncan warned: “Tongon must not be an oasis of prosperity in a desert of poverty.”

Randgold official Oumar Denise N’Gom also acknowledged the problem, saying: “The more people have, the more they ask for. People should not expect everything of the mine.”

– ‘We’re miners, not farmers’ –

And all too soon, the gold will be gone, with the mine at about its half-way point.

From initial reserves estimated at 90 tonnes, 7.3 tonnes should be produced in 2015, eight tonnes in 2016 and 8.5 tonnes over each of the next three years.

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Then the mine will shut down, abandoning villagers who have turned away from their traditional livelihoods, including even farming, since Randgold arrived.

“We need to train young people in different skills, such as crop-growing, stock-breeding and fishing. Randgold should take initiatives before they leave so that we will survive,” said Sekongo, a farmer.

Randgold’s N’Gom agreed, saying: “We should make them self-reliant, because otherwise times will be very hard once the mining has stopped.”

Randgold sees a potential future in fish farming and agro-industry, having built a dam to channel water to the mine. The artificial lake could spawn new projects, but Randgold draws the line at how much it will do.

“We have brought electricity and water, so what more do you want us to do to encourage agriculture?” Bristow asked. “We’re miners, not farmers!”

The Randgold boss called on the Ivorian government to ensure that the country’s gold resources provide “sustainable benefits for the population”.

Meanwhile Randgold has more plans for Ivory Coast once it ups sticks from Tongon.

It has requested 10 new mining permits across the country and anticipates investing $6.0 million in prospecting.

A few sites that have been discovered not far from Tongon are promising, which is news that might ease the villagers’ misgivings for a while.

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