Politics of Poverty

Burkina Faso’s Golden Dreams

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The Amara Mining gold mine as seen from the village of Tapre in northern Burkina Faso. Photo: Keith Slack / Oxfam America

How will natural resource wealth make its way back to communities?

I spent a Saturday hanging out in the village of Tapre in northern Burkina Faso a couple of weeks ago. Here you see mud-brick dwellings, women in brightly-colored clothing, men tending scrawny cattle, and brain-melting heat. It was 115 degrees F that day.

Here you also see an increasingly common feature of the modern African landscape: a large-scale natural resource extraction project, in this case a goldmine operated by UK company Amara Mining.

Can these two visions coexist and become mutually beneficial? In this light, Burkina Faso is an important test case for determining if a poor country can convert its resource wealth into benefits for people in places like Tapre.

Burkina Faso is among the poorest countries on earth. It ranks 183rd out of 186 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. With its neighbors Mali, Niger, and Chad, these are four of the world’s six poorest countries – all found in the Sahel region. With seemingly few other alternatives to address this poverty, and egged on by the World Bank, IMF and international donors, each of these countries has bet heavily on developing their oil and mineral resources.

Chad was supposed to be the country that beat Africa’s oil curse, but the results have been disastrous. The World Bank invested heavily in Chad in the early 2000s to help the government develop its oil sector. Chad’s president Idriss Deby has spent most of the oil money on arms and the country’s poverty indicators have barely budged. But the country is now a regional military power, having played key roles in recent conflicts in Mali and Central African Republic, where Chad’s “peacekeeping” forces were forced to leave after being accused of massacring civilians. Chad has also been accused of funneling arms across its eastern border to rebels in Darfur, Sudan.

Burkinabés hope that they can avoid a similar outcome in Burkina Faso as the country develops its gold-mining sector. The country is politically stable and has avoided the conflicts that have afflicted its neighbors. Corruption in Burkina is modest compared to other African countries, but the country is governed autocratically by president Blaise Compaore, a classic African “big man” who has ruled the country for nearly 30 years.

The country does have a small, but active civil society sector. Still, activists in Burkina’s capital, Ouagadougou, told me that there is a genuine fear of speaking out or directly challenging the government.

The capacity of government ministries and members of the national assembly to manage the mining industry effectively is weak. They lack the resources and know-how, though one promising initiative led by a Burkina national assembly member is a new Sahel regional network of parliamentarians seeking to promote good governance in the mining sector.

Mining companies themselves have a critical role to play in respecting human rights and promoting transparency in countries like Burkina. Unfortunately, current indications are not particularly encouraging. The industry is resisting efforts by Burkina’s government to implement a 1% tax on gross mining receipts to support a community development fund. This seems both absurd in a time of continued historically-high gold prices and morally offensive in a country as poor as Burkina Faso.

That 1% could go a long way in a place like Tapre, where villagers told my Oxfam colleagues and me about a litany of problems they’ve suffered from the mine’s presence: lack of adequate compensation for displacement from their land, water contamination, and few employment opportunities at the mine.

These problems are all too familiar in mining-affected communities around the world. I’ve heard them from Guatemala to Ghana to Cambodia. Of particular concern are the impacts of mining on agricultural land, as we demonstrated in a recent report. In neighboring Ghana, the overlaps between mining and oil concessions and agriculturally-productive areas are increasing significantly. This also appears to be the case in Burkina.

A new set of global tools should help countries like Burkina that are trying to take advantage of their natural resource wealth. These include global transparency standards such as section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act and increasing mining industry acceptance of mandatory disclosures of payments to governments, as well as the right of communities to participate meaningfully in project-related decision-making, i.e. respecting the right of free, prior and informed consent. All companies, even those operating in remote parts of Burkina Faso, should ensure that they are in full compliance with these standards.

Thus strengthening the role and voice of citizens in tracking public revenues is also critical. If people are afraid to speak out, then governmental accountability for everything breaks down. This is especially true when it comes to natural resources, where a lot of cold hard cash is at stake.

The people of Tapre face a long road ahead as the government of Burkina attempts to convert the gold beneath their feet into economic development for the community. It’s perhaps not the fate the villagers would have chosen, but it’s the one they face now. What happens in this remote part of rural Africa will have important implications for other communities in other countries facing the same circumstances.

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