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Gold rush in the Desert

The desert city of Agadez in central Niger, once infamous as an entrepot for migrants and refugees making their way north toward Libya and the dream of a new life in Europe, has now become the centre of a gold rush sweeping the Sahara.

Itinerant miners from all over the region started to converge on the Djado valley in northern Niger around 7 years ago when, according to a local legend, a Toubou herder discovered a large nugget of gold. Informal camps quickly grew into a buzzing makeshift town with services ranging from grocery shops and barbers to hospitals and water tanks springing up to cover the needs of the miners.

By 2017 the scramble for gold had got out of control and criminal gangs and arms traffickers were mingling with gold miners, bribing corrupt local officials and smuggling gold across Niger's porous borders. France's operation Barkhane which since 2014 has been fighting various Islamist insurgencies in the Sahel, was also being undermined by Nigerien gold that is thought to finance terrorism.

A government clampdown in Djado shifted the centre of artisanal gold mining to Taghabara, close to the Algerian border, where thousands of miners have dug shafts into the ground, using the simplest of wooden winches to tunnel up to a hundred metres into the sandy soil in search of gold. Above ground, the mined rocks are crushed and ground down in search of gold traces.

The miners' camps are little more than heaps of tarpaulins which are used as improvised tents in the chilly desert nights. The camp in Tagharaba is commonly known as "Guantanamo" due to the almost unbearable conditions the miners have to endure. Adding to the precariousness of their existence, some miners cross over into Algeria to follow seams of gold that extend beyond Taghabara, risking their lives with Algerian border guards who operate on a shoot first, ask questions later policy. Many miners spend up to three months camped out in this inhospitable environment to make enough money to feed their families.

At the bottom of the food chain in this gold industry are workers, many from Burkina Faso, who bag up the waste that is brought in from the gold mines and use a hazardous process involving sodium cyanide and nitric and sulphuric acid to extract the precious metal. Shovelled into basins dug out of the sand and lined with plastic sheets, the slag is mixed into a chemical cocktail in which chips of zinc attract and draw out the gold residue. The work is backbreaking, poorly paid and dangerous.

Back in Agadez, the extracted gold goes through a regimented hierarchy of traders and merchants with Nigerian Hausa traders at the top of the pyramid, controlling the long distance trade to the Gulf and beyond. Some of the gold is made into jewellery locally but most of it is shipped abroad to buyers that do not require an official hallmark.

The gold rush has been a mixed blessing for Agadez. Until 2015 it was the undisputed centre of migration across the Sahara and the point of departure for the majority of sub-Saharan Africans heading to Europe. Having spawned a criminal underworld, Niger's government decided to stem the flow of illegal migrants by clamping down on the activities of people smugglers. This left thousands of mainly young men at a lose end, in search of new work.

For Mohamed Anacko, the president of Agadez's regional council, the gold rush has come at just the right time to ensure that there is plenty of legal and semi-legal work in this remote part of the country. However, little if any of this gold trade benefits the central government. The industry operates according to its own rules, with corrupt officials facilitating the smooth running of local trade and export routes. Anacko worries about the environmental impact of gold mining and the huge amounts of water that are pumped out of the ground to extract the gold. For now, however, gold is a vital part of local life and a steady source of employment.
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