TENGRELA, 25 January 2012 (IRIN) - Local authorities across eight out of 81 districts in northern Côte d'Ivoire have announced they are banning artisanal gold-mining in a bid to try to regulate the informal industry, and stop the encroachment of gold-miners on precious farmland.
The departments in question are Korhogo, Ouangolo, dikodougou, Boundiali, Ferkesse Dougou and Sienematiali.
Artisanal mining has grown over recent years and farmers are having more and more difficulty securing their land to plant crops, according to farmers and several high-level officials - including Zakade Antoine, agriculture director of Tengrela in the Savanes region of northern Côte d'Ivoire, and Aly Koné, regional director of the Ministry of Mines, Petrol and Energy.
Artisanal miners dig holes in the ground up to 20 metres deep, and often do not fill them in afterwards, said Koné Namakoro, 63, village chief of Tengrela.
"Today we are having trouble growing rice and millet as our fields have been taken over by miners who are operating in cahoots with certain chiefs and landowners," he said.
According to Antoine, millet and rice production in Savanes has declined over the past few years as artisanal miners expanded their operations; in some communes of Tengrela and the sub-prefecture of M'bengué in Korhogo region food security is worsening as a result.
The World Food Programme could not confirm this trend, though Deputy Country Director Ellen Kramer, said the practice can cause food prices to rise.
Alongside industrial-scale mining, artisanal gold-mining has been steadily expanding across Côte d'Ivoire over recent years, local officials told IRIN, mainly because of the sums involved.
"People can expect up to 20,000 CFA (US$40) for one gram of gold, so that creates a passion for gold exploration," an expert of the industry in the commercial capital, Abidjan, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN.
"It's quite amazing: a camp can be set up quite fast. it's like a village rising from the ground," the expert continued.
However, the vast majority of artisanal mining is illegal: miners must apply for a license to mine from the local authorities before they start digging, but the industry expert estimates 95 percent of artisanal mining goes ahead without such regulation.
Ex-Forces Nouvelles rebels dominated the artisanal mining industry for years, an international mining expert who asked to remain unnamed, told IRIN. According to Ouattara Daouda, prefect of Savanes Region, when rebels took control of northern Côte d'Ivoire many of them colluded with village chiefs and landowners to exploit it for gold.
The mining expert backed this up: "In the north, rebels and people with money were ruling everything from the top. There is always a way to "arrange" things.. When the rebels were involved nobody could really say no to them."
Despite new leadership structures in the north, with some ex-rebels being absorbed into the national military, Forces Républicaines de Côte d'Ivoire (FRCI - now known as the Forces Armées Nationales de Côte d'Ivoire or FANCI) and ex- rebel representatives still control the bulk of the sector, said the mining expert.
But former rebel leaders IRIN spoke to in Savanes, said lots of "bandits" claim to be with FRCI in order to gain a claim on the industry - and this lies out of their hands.
On 11 January, eight departmental heads said they would crack down on the sector - banning all unregistered mining enterprises.
This comes in the middle of an exercise that government authorities are doing to consult local chiefs, miners, farmers and others on how best to regulate the sector at the local level, with a view to improving the impact on local populations and on the environment.
The national government is also working to reform the national mining code, which addresses both industrial and artisanal mining.
Regulation, rather than banning artisanal mining altogether is the only sustainable solution, said Abidjan-based mining expert. "To be honest, they won't be able to prevent people from looking for gold. People are hungry and unemployed.The government can't stop them," he told IRIN.
In the 1990s, liberalization of the gold-mining industry meant a downward shift in terms of environmental, human rights and transparency standards in many West African states as each tried to lure foreign investors, said Moussa Ba, West Africa coordinator for the extractive industries programme at NGO Oxfam America. Now governments need to come together to harmonize these standards upwards, he said.
There has been some progress: The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is working on a new mining code to apply to all its members; it hopes it will be passed in 2014. In 2009 heads of state passed a directive on mining, which shows high-level commitment, said Ba.
In the meantime, civil society networks in Côte d'Ivoire need to work hard to keep tabs on the industry at all levels, said Ba. With artisanal mining growing steadily, and industrial-scale mining set to significantly increase between now and 2020, according to statements by President Alassane Ouattara, there is no time to lose.