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gold, Russians, Mauritania
gold, Russians, Mauritania

Artisanal Miners Find Themselves on Shaky Ground in Mauritania

Bandits and collapsing mines make mining in Mauritania a risky business.

Words: Wilson McMakin
Pictures: Wilson McMakin
Date:

“Welcome to Chegga,” says Ahmed. 

To an outsider, Chegga looks like nowhere. Piles of rocks lay scattered across the base of rolling gravel hills, and a line of large dunes a few kilometers away provides the only break in the landscape. But after an 800-kilometer (nearly 500-mile) journey across the pan-flat northern half of Mauritania, where sighting a rock is an event, it feels like an arrival. 

Chegga has become one of the central areas in a vast new gold rush that has spread across northern Mauritania since 2019. Similar scenes have played out across the Sahara in recent years as climate change fueled drought and instability has spread across the Sahel, forcing thousands of young men to search for work in the desert from Sudan to Mauritania. 

Ahmed, the teenage driver who has driven a group of 15 miners across the flat wastes, is exhausted. He has driven nonstop, offroad, for two days straight to get to this point and is ready to sleep despite the half dozen energy drinks he inhaled during the odyssey. But for the newly arrived miners, this is just the beginning. As the migrants from the top of the truck drop down, Ahmed starts walking into the distance, where a few ramshackle tents lay in the lee of a larger pile of excavated rocks: the bus station. Mohamed, who was lucky enough to secure a spot inside the battered Toyota Hilux, takes charge and begins to pull his equipment from the back of the truck with the help of his two helpers, Mohamed Eidi and Sidi Mohamed. 

The three Mohameds have traveled for nearly a week to arrive at this camp at the end of the world. Originally from a village east of the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, they are part of the latest in a series of Saharan gold rushes that have swept across the region in the past decade. Reliably dangerous and occasionally profitable, these camps have drawn thousands of young men to the desert to labor in hand-dug holes that reach nearly one hundred meters into the unstable ground in search of a few grams of gold. The gold is their literal ticket out of a cycle of poverty that has only been exacerbated by climate change in these extremely vulnerable countries. 

Collapses are common, and after his percentage is negotiated, Abdullah lists the latest collapses and deaths in their corner of the gold fields with the mechanical monotony of someone used to the news.

Chegga was once a frequent stopping place for trans-Saharan caravans before it was converted into a French colonial fort. More recently, the Mauritanian state used it as a launching point for border patrols before abandoning it when the security situation in neighboring Mali made further use untenable. In 2019, the new president of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, opened the former military exclusion zone up to Mauritanian prospectors and increased the security presence to ensure their relative safety. In theory, the region is still subject to the old rules that condone shooting any foreigners on sight, but in such a wide area, enforcement is nearly impossible.

Once the Mohameds arrive in Chegga, they are still nearly 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the actual fort. Instead, the small escarpment that marks the northern edge of Mali looms nearby, a far closer presence than any campaign promise of security.

“The bandits do occasionally come to buy water, and they sometimes come to mine gold nearby,” a bemused Mohamed answers as Eidi and Sidi work to dig their supplies out from a dune that has drifted over it in the two months they have been gone. “But there is no risk [from them] because they are scared we will report them to the police, and then they will not be allowed to come back […] so they leave their weapons.” They go on to explain that the weapons are left over the border a few kilometers away across the same featureless desert that surrounds the tents.

After the initial shock of being dropped into their new home for the next three months, Sidi and Eidi begin to build their tent, which the shifting dunes have covered. A single large open-sided tent and some reed mats form the kitchen and beds, with abandoned mines nearby functioning as the bathroom. As tea is prepared, a slow trickle of people begins to arrive out of the desert. This is a neighborhood but on a different scale. Sidewalks are kilometer-wide expanses, and streets are regions that can take an hour to walk across, but many people are willing to come visit because news from the outside world is worth it in this internet black hole. None of the major networks have service here, so people get their news from radios and word of mouth in the sporadic trucks that roll up, like that of the Mohameds.

Abdullah, a young man with a goatee and smiling eyes behind his traditional “houli” head covering, is the first to arrive, and he settles in with the ease of a friendship bonded by hardship. After the long Mauritanian greeting that ranges from questions about the health of your mother to the quality of the sandstorms on the trip, Abdullah asks if they are looking for extra help on this trip. His team is a group of young men, and they are returning to their home in the south soon. But he wants to stay a few more weeks to make a little more money. After some negotiations, Abdullah is added to the team, and all four walk over to inspect the mines.

25
Sidi Mohamad descends into the mines for the first shift of the night.

For those familiar with mines in Europe or North America, the image that comes to mind has little to do with the mines familiar to the Mauritanian workers. There are two types of mines in the gold fields: pits and canyons. 

Mohamed’s mine is a canyon, and he counts himself lucky that he was able to find a vein so close to the surface. Canyons are a hundred meters deep and maybe three meters wide, the result of a rich vein of gold close to the surface that slowly descends as it wanders underneath the landscape until it is too deep to mine safely. The pits are terrifying, fields of scattered-meter-wide holes that drop instantly down to unknown depths where miners dig laterally, creating a network of interconnected pits that zigzag under each other, slowly undermining the strength of the shallower mines and the ground above.

gold, Russians, Mauritania
Mohamad examines an injured worker after a fall into the mine.

Collapses are common, and after his percentage is negotiated, Abdullah lists the latest collapses and deaths in their corner of the gold fields with the mechanical monotony of someone used to the news. The risks are obvious. In order to enter the mines, the miner must climb down a series of hand-cut ledges with only an old rope to grab if they fall. Once down there, they will work four-hour shifts, and then tired and dusty, they climb back out the same way they went in, hand over hand. 

A Brutal History and Environment

Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery — in 1981 — and by some estimates, over 20% of the population is still enslaved in practice. The country is split into thirds between “white” Arabs or beydan, “Black” Arabized Africans or haratin, and sub-Saharan Africans from the south. The haratin, the “former” slaves, are still openly discriminated against and form the main body of the 20% of the population still allegedly enslaved. 

Mohamed’s haratin workers are home for Ramadan and won’t be back until the start of the brutal summer mining season when they will take over from Eidi and Sidi in the pits.

gold, Russians, Mauritania
Mohamad Eidi gets an early start breaking ore before the sun sets.

While the summers are worse, even springtime is not easy in one of the most brutal environments on the planet. Daily sandstorms rove across the landscape lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Averages are around 45 Celsius (mid-110s Fahrenheit) in the spring and climb to 50 Celsius (into the high 120s Fahrenheit) as the weather warms up. The total lack of natural water means there is nothing outside what the miners bring, and what they do bring is the absolute minimum for the three months. 

The only solution to the heat? Work at night. Starting at sunset, the heat begins to dissipate, and the miners start their days. A few hours of breaking the rocks from the night before is followed by an extremely late breakfast at 9 pm. Then they begin two four-hour shifts in the mines with a break for another meal in between. At the end of this “day,” the sun rises, and the miners fix any tools that have broken down during the night and then sleep until the sun sets and the work day starts again. Three days of this are followed by a night of just breaking the ore out of its rocky coating with homemade hammers and bits of pipe. For three months, they will continue this routine without breaks until they have gotten enough ore to make the trip profitable or they have run out of food. 

gold, Russians, Mauritania
The whole team breaks the ore out of its rocky casing.

A night of mining can generate around 50 kg of raw ore, but the ore comes out of the pits in a sandwich. Stuck between two layers of rock is the quartz that holds the actual gold. So the nights of breaking the centers out are demoralizing as a 50 kg load can be reduced to 10 kg of useable ore. This ore is loaded into 200-liter bags and stored outside as there is no chance anyone is going to steal a 100 kg bag of rocks worth around $20. Mohamed’s goal for this trip is 25 sacks, but he admits that might be hard unless they strike a richer vein early. 

gold, Russians, Mauritania
Mohamad rests while his workers prepare the evening meal.
An Abrupt End

A month after the reporting of this story, Mohamad reached out to tell Inkstick that he and his team had been forced to leave two months early. A close call with a near-collapse had made Mohamad rethink the benefits of risking his life and the lives of his two workers — who were both newly married and had already sustained injuries during a fall into the mine a week earlier.

Mohamad’s decision to leave early is unique and influenced by his privileged position in Mauritanian society. For the rest of the miners, this often isn’t an option, a young man leaving after his three-month work session confides that he and his team of five men from Mali only got around 30 grams of gold in their entire time up in the mines. “For such risk, I can’t continue this work,” he says. He is returning to Mali to try and find safer work in the southern gold fields, but for the rest of his team, the summer brings another three-month season and another chance to strike it rich or die trying.

Photos taken by Wilson McMakin on Mar. 26-31, 2023, in Chegga, Mauritania.

Editor’s Note 8/07/23: We are sorry to say that this piece, as originally published, did not live up to our editorial standards. It has been updated and the names of Emiral Resources and Boris Ivanov have been removed.

Wilson McMakin

Wilson McMakin is a freelance journalist based out of Dakar, Senegal, focusing on international politics in West and Central Africa.

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