“Nowadays, Niger has become a desert,” said Sory Boubacar of the Confédération Nigérienne du Travail (CNT) at a press conference on artisanal mining organised by the civil society group Réseau des Organisations pour la transparence et l’analyse budgétaire (ROTAB), the Belgian trade union confederation ABV-CSC and CNT. “Food shortages and even famines are no longer an extraordinary natural catastrophe but a normal, recurring event.”
The cause is largely the result of human economic activities. And the biggest contributing factor to the desertifation of Niger is the mining sector, particularly gold mining.
As the world’s fourth biggest producer, uranium might be Niger’s biggest export product, but gold mining is its most detrimental industry.
Mainly taking place in the densely populated forests of Liptako-Gourma, gold mining exploded following the drought of 1974.
Informal towns sprung up almost overnight without basic amenities, housing thousands of men, women and children in shacks and tents.
Today, there are 69 artisanal gold mines across the country and 24 artisanal sites where gold is treated with potassium cyanide.
Only three of the above could be considered as having some form of “government control or supervision” whether by the presence of technical support, security guards or tax agents. Therefore, thousands of workers simply exist outside the law.
An estimated two tonnes of gold is produced every year by Niger’s artisanal gold mines.
With current gold prices at around US$35 million per ton, artisanal mining is an important economic activity but taxes aren’t being levied and so gold mining makes little contribution to the development of Niger, while huge profits are being made by mine owners and more so buyers further down the supply chain.
The environmental impact of these artisanal mines has been disastrous. With wood being used for the construction of the mines as well as for fuel for cooking in the mining villages, accelerated deforestation is a massive issue, as is water contamination, large-scale air and soil pollution.
Living conditions in the mining villages are poor. Health problems are rife, with miners suffering pulmonary and infectious diseases, as well as all members of the community being affected by alcoholism, drug addiction and theft.
On artisanal mining sites, various types of workers can be found. At the top of the food chain are the mine owners who usually get the largest share of the profit.
Then there are the diggers, usually young men, and sometimes boys, working six-hour shifts to get a small percentage of the mined or, more often than not, a salary from the proprietor who financed the building of the mine shaft.
Their tools are rudimentary – pickaxes, buckets and hammers. Safety equipment is non-existent and the work is unhealthy and dangerous.
Tens of artisanal miners die every year, but with wages as much as 110,000 CFA francs (approximately €150) per month (considerably more than the national minimum wage of 43,000 CFA francs, or €60) many are willing to take the risk.
Below the diggers are the transporters, and those who pulverize the gold rock to very small pieces. Amongst the latter category many children – up to 44 per cent – and women are found.
Then there are the those who operate the mills where the gold is crushed further. This is particularly dangerous work as the treatment of the small gold pieces requires toxic chemicals.
Creating decent work
Artisanal mining can hardly be considered as decent work but the Nigerien unions do not want these mines closed.
According to the United Nations Human Development Index, Niger is officially one of the two poorest countries in the world (the other being the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“Eradicating informal sector mining in a context of such extreme poverty is virtually impossible,” according to the secretary general of the CNT’s mining federation, Rabe Rabiatou.
CNT is calling for the recognition of informal mining sites and their gradual formalisation.
This begins by organising miners into cooperatives and providing access for all small mine owners to legal rights to the land and mines.
“The government should then put programs in place to further the access of the miners to credit and to better technical equipment and technical support,” says Rabiatou.
CNT’s biggest priority, however, remains advocating for the imposition of the rule of law and for the respect of human and social rights for all workers.
Niger was cited at the Committee for the Application of Standards (CAS) in June 2014 for violating the worst forms of Child Labour (Convention 182). According to a US Department of Labor report as many as half of all children in Niger aged between five and 14 work, many of them in dangerous conditions such as artisanal mining.
CNT is also calling for the government to put introduce systems of governance and regulation in the informal sector, for health and safety at work, cleaner and more sustainable working methods, and for fair taxation.
Working conditions in all Niger’s mines – both industrial and artisanal – are precarious, with a limited contribution to decent jobs.
Formal industrial mining provides no more than 5000 jobs – less than 10 per cent of the number of the estimated jobs in artisanal mines.
Therefore, it is crucial that the contribution of the extractive industry to the development of Niger through taxation is boosted.
Governance of extractive industries
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world with a 2013 state budget of US$2 billion.
The only way that Niger can decrease its dependency on foreign aid (which accounts for 40 per cent of its annual budget) is through increased mining taxes.
Uranium mining for instance, while accounting for 70 per cent of Niger’s exports, contributes no more than 5 per cent to the state budget.
CNT is part of a ROTAB-coordinated coalition which is advocating for the greater participation of Niger’s citizens in the governance of extractive industries.
This lack of transparency and accountability is frequent, in particular in the contracts that have taken place between Niger and the French nuclear giant AREVA over the last 50 years.
ROTAB and CNT have succeeded in mobilising citizens on the transparency of these contracts, as well as issue of good governance and respect of human and environmental rights in mining communities.
Thanks to these efforts ROTAB and its partners have been able to sway government policies in two key areas: the effective application of the 2006 Mining Law which stipulates the sharing of mining revenues between the state and local communities on a 85/15 per cent basis, as well as the compulsory publication of mining incomes and contracts.
Due to the strong pressure exerted by civil society, the trade unions and ordinary Nigeriens, the contract between the state and AREVA has been renegotiated, with a fairer share of profits for Niger (taxes are up from 5.5 per cent to 12 per cent).
More needs to be done but moving forward, CNT is planning to step up the organising of industrial mine workers and establish cooperations with informal miners to advocate for the respect of labor standards in all mines.
In time, it is hoped that these measures - and more – will help ordinary Nigeriens benefit from their abundant natural resources.
This is an edited version of a report produced by ACV-CSC, available on request in Dutch and French from KDebroey@acv-csc.be.