Reporter’s notebook: Man vs machines in the gold mines of Cameroon
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In eastern Cameroon, local people have for years mined for gold on their ancestral lands, using spades, buckets and hard work. Now Chinese companies have arrived with excavators and powerful pumps – and the locals say they’ve received no compensation. Derek Thomson went to meet them for The Observers Direct.
The Rafa Mine is deep in the forests of eastern Cameroon, 12 hours’ drive from the capital Yaoundé – nine hours on the highway, then three hours on a winding dirt road.
The Observers Direct report on Cameroon's artisanal miners.
It’s called The Rafa Mine locally because "Rafa" – Raphaël Hamada – inherited it with his sister Calice when their father died, in accordance with local traditional law (droit coutumier). For more than 20 years, the family has mined the land for the gold ore that’s mixed in with the red clay. Lacking the resources to mine the whole area themselves, they sold ‘licences’ to other locals, plot by plot.
But in November, Chinese workers arrived, built a camp on the Hamadas’ land, and started mining with mechanical excavators to move the earth and with diesel-powered sluice boxes to separate the gold from the sand.
'No one came to see me'
"No one came to see me to tell me what I was facing,” Calice told us. “I went up to where my mine was, and it was like I wasn’t even on my own land anymore."
It turned out the Chinese workers’ bosses had bought a concession from a Cameroonian who had secured exploration rights for the whole region. Calice and Rafa had no formal title to the land, and no paperwork for the deals they made with other local miners.
Under Cameroonian law, minerals in the ground belong to the state. The state grants concessions to mining companies in return for 15 percent of the gold they extract. The companies are supposed to pay compensation to local people who owned or were making a living on the land; the state is supposed to funnel part of the revenue it receives back to local communities. But village chiefs in the area told us they haven’t seen any compensation from the companies, and have not received any payments from the central government for the last five years.
Calice Hamada, centre, says she and her brother inherited a gold-mining site from their father when he died. She says Chinese workers are now mining the site without paying compensation.
Chinese mines guarded by the army
At the mines in the region, interpreters – Cameroonians who have learned Chinese – act as intermediaries between the locals and the Chinese companies. Cameroonian soldiers are also present, to guard the Chinese mines against theft and make sure there’s no trouble with the locals.
On November 15, 2017, there was a confrontation between locals and Chinese miners near a village called Longa Mali, further north. A Chinese worker pulled out a gun and shot a local Cameroonian. The locals then beat the Chinese man to death with stones. When we visit the village, people show us photos of the two bodies on their phones.
The two Chinese men we see at the Rafa Mine don’t want to talk to us. Their interpreter tells us we need to talk to the company’s head office in Yaoundé, but when we get back to mobilephone cover the office does not return our calls. At other sites in the area, people have been told by local officials not to talk to us.
Local miners work by hand – digging, crushing and then panning the gold to separate it from the sand.
Despite the threats, many of the local miners we meet are determined to pursue their claims. One young miner urges us to take him to see the local representative of the Mining Ministry.
After a frustrating week – witnesses dropping out after receiving threats, soldiers threatening to confiscate our camera, companies and officials not returning our phone calls, and an unexplained 45-minute stop by police – we are anxious to talk to the central government about the local miners’ concerns, and about any plans the ministry has to support and develop the local mining industry.
We’re glad when the press office at the Mining Ministry tells us we have an interview with the minister later in the morning – and disappointed when we arrive and are told he’s not in fact available. The press officer, along with the director of mines and five other ministry officials, listen to our questions and promise to provide answers. As of this writing, two weeks later, they have not responded. If they do get back to us, we will publish their response on this page. We’ll also send it to the local miners at Rafa’s Mine who are still camped at the entrance, watching the Chinese excavators work.