Small-scale gold miners in Mauritania have been partaking in a lucrative side hustle - turning to Facebook to sell historical and archeological objects that they unearth while hunting for gold. As the gold rush continues, there are more and Facebook posts offering up old coins and small statues from the Middle Ages. Archeologists are calling on the authorities to preserve archaeological sites across the country from the mining threat.
About 16,000 individuals have licenses to carry out small-scale or artisanal mining legally in Mauritania, according to official figures. An increasing number of these miners are turning to a lucrative side hustle-- selling historical objects which they find while hunting for gold. The miners sell the historical objects-- including gold dinars, bronze coins and small statues from the Middle Ages-- on Facebook groups. Here’s one example.
According to Ahmed Maouloud Eida El-Hilal, who runs the Laboratory for Mauritanian History and Heritage at the University of Nouakchott, many of the gold pieces currently for sale on Facebook are from the Almoravid dynasty, which was created by an alliance of Berber tribes and spread across Mauritania, Morocco, part of Senegal and part of Andalusia in Spain during the 11th and 12th centuries.
A Facebook user who says he is a small-scale gold miner left the post below, offering up coins that he said he found in the southeast of the country.
El-Hilal sees this as a worrying sign that artisanal gold miners are digging closer and closer to important archeological sites in southeast Mauritania like Aoudaghost and Koumbi Saleh.
On January 12, an individual posted a series of bronze coins marked with a Star of David on the Etebtab Facebook group, where different goods are sold. El-Hilal thinks that "these coins are from the Banou Mérine Kingdom", which covered a large swathe of North Africa between the 13th and 15th centuries."The Star of David was one of the symbols used by the Muslim Arab culture at this time,” he said.
One of our journalists dialled the phone number on the post and spoke to a man who said that he had put these coins up for sale. He said he found them while looking for gold with a metal detector in Ain Bentili, which is in the far north of the country and that they were buried a metre underneath the ground. He offered to sell them to us for a million ouguiya each (equivalent to €2,500). He sent us additional photos to prove that he did really have the coins.
El-Hilal says he’s worried because there is no real security for the country’s most important archeological sites. He thinks that a more robust security presence would keep miners away from these areas:
I’ve been saying for years that the gold rush is having a negative impact on important archeological sites. But in Mauritania, there aren’t regional administrations to take care of heritage sites. For years, I’ve been seeing miners put historic pieces up for sale on social media. I am calling on the authorities to intensify their surveillance of mining activities and to arrest anyone who steals these archeological finds or who buys items sold on the black market.
The sale of these objects is a flagrant infraction of laws that have sought to protect our cultural heritage since 1972, but which are rarely applied. The government should work to locate these important pieces; their place is in the National Museum or in the hands of experts in cultural heritage.
Publication Eida alhilal
Small-scale mining spread to Mauritania after a boom in Sudan in 2012. After gold was discovered near the Tasiast mine and on the outskirts of the mining town of Zouerat, thousands of Mauritanians rushed to hunt for the precious metal themselves. Thousands of metal detectors have been sold since the gold rush began.
Several foreign mining companies, including the Canadian companies Kinross and Algold, run operations in Mauritania, most of them in the north of the country. These companies are supposed to turn over any archeological pieces they dig up to the relevant authorities.
Artisanal mining in Mauritania has been regulated since December 2016, with individual miners required to get a licence. Roughly 16,000 licences were handed out to miners in 2016, but RFI reported that at least 20,000 Mauritanians are currently partaking in the activity.
About half a ton of gold has been produced by artisanal miners, according to figures by the Mauritanian Central Bank, which has a monopoly on the purchase of this gold. Most of it hails from the Guelb N’Dour region, in the north of the country, where 4,000 miners have a licence to operate independently. In 2019, large mining companies in Mauritania produced around 7.6 tons of gold (Equivalent to 245,856.76 ounces).