One wedding ring’s journey from makeshift mine to fiancée’s finger – by Marco Chown Oved (Toronto Star – August 9, 2014)


The Toronto Star has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on federal and Ontario politics as well as shaping public opinion.

A Star reporter follows gold from a makeshift mine shaft on the edge of the Sahara desert all the way to his wedding ceremony, showing how dangerous practices continue in West Africa.

When I walk down the aisle this month, as is tradition, I’ll slide a gold band around my bride’s finger and then she’ll put one on mine.

But we didn’t pick out prefabricated rings at a local jewelry shop. Instead, they’re made from gold hammered out of the rock by barefoot miners in northern Burkina Faso, melted down in a shack in western Ghana and fashioned by a local jeweller in Ottawa.

Yet the rings’ path is far from unique. Around the world, people toil for gold in dangerous, hand-dug gold mines and expose themselves to toxic chemicals during refining.

Estimates vary, but between 12 and 20 per cent of the world’s annual gold production comes from artisanal and small-scale mining. Once it’s melted down, it becomes indistinguishable from gold mined industrially.

This is the story of our wedding bands, but gold produced in this way makes it into rings and earrings, necklaces and bracelets everywhere.

FROM BURKINA FASO’S capital Ouagadougou, the drive to the edge of the Sahara Desert is surprisingly easy. It’s three hours along a new highway to Dori, where the running water and electricity ends. Then it’s a bumpy hour on a dusty road to Essakane, West Africa’s biggest open-pit gold mine.

I came to write a story about the mine’s development projects and had no idea that virtually everyone who lives here is involved in digging gold just outside the perimeter fence.

Only a few minutes from the private airstrip and air-conditioned gymnasium reserved for employees, hundreds of local diggers live in shacks made from blue tarps and millet stalks surrounded by heaps of dirt and rock. In the blistering heat of the desert sun, hundreds of people hurry about, hauling bags of rocks out of the hand-dug shafts nestled between the mounds.

Each hole can plunge 60 metres underground, and teams of young men descend with pick-axes and sledgehammers. After wriggling their way to the bottom, they whack the walls with ear-splitting blows, sending sparks flying. Little by little, they fill old flour sacks with rocks and drag them to the surface.

This is incredibly dangerous work. Artisanal mines frequently collapse, and eight people died in an accident only two weeks before my arrival. The government bans artisanal mining during the rainy season, which was only weeks away, because the water can drown miners and the soggy earth is more prone to give way.

But on that day this June, the parched heat had baked everything firm, and mining was in full swing. At the top of the shafts, older people crush the rocks into gravel-sized pieces, while younger ones run milling machines that grind them up into powder. The powder is then washed through sluice boxes and panned using water brought in on motorbikes.

All that’s left at the end is a fine gold dust, collected in pill bottles and kept under heavy guard.

AFTER SPENDING the afternoon with the miners, I offered one a ride back to town. I asked him where he sells his gold and he offered to take me to the man’s house.

Like some sort of Saharan drug dealer, the local buyer, Zacharia Amadou, was mistrustful at first and wouldn’t let me inside.

After I removed my shoes and took a seat on the prayer mat in his courtyard, he explained to me he wasn’t in the business of selling small quantities of gold. Normally, he bought from individual miners and drove down to Ouagadougou to sell in bulk.

I told him I wanted just enough for two bands for my wedding this summer. His expression softened.

“For that,” he said, “I can help you out.”

On the international market, gold hovers around $1,400 an ounce, which works out to about $45 a gram. He offered to sell me 10 grams for 200,000 West African francs, or about $440. After a quick calculation, I knew this was no bargain, but the price was more or less right.

“Don’t worry,” Amadou reassured me. “I will give you a good deal.”

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