To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story.
--Barbara Kingsolover, The Poisonwood Bible

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Price of Gold

The landscape of south-eastern Senegal, both geographic and social, has changed drastically in the past ten years as a gold rush has brought an influx of people, money, and health and social issues to the area.  Since arriving in my site in May, I have noticed a tendency of many conversations and interactions to turn to the subject of gold, and to that of the djouras. 

When land was opened up for leasing to Western mining companies in the early 2000s and the mining explorations proved successful, the eyes of would-be gold miners across West Africa turned to Senegal.  Things really got going as the price of gold rose, turning what were once tiny unknown villages into boomtowns next to djouras, illegal small-scale mining sites.  Sambrambougou, the most well-known of these villages, has become a sprawling shanty town, where Africa meets the Wild West.  Gold mining has brought amazing economic opportunities for a largely agricultural population and infrastructure that benefits many but is accompanied by social phenomena typical of gold rushes throughout history. Bandits on motorcycles hold up passing cars on the barely passable road leading in and out, trafficked Nigerian prostitutes roam the dusty streets, bamboo shacks serve as motorcycle dealerships where lucky miners can blow their fortune.  Open consumption of alcohol defies norms of rural life in this Muslim country.  And mercury is released into the atmosphere at a rate one thousand times the safety threshold set by OSHA.

Small-scale artisanal gold mining has become the world’s largest emitter of mercury, posing health dangers on a global level.  At the local level, however, these health dangers are intensely magnified.  The local practices for the processing of gold are demonstrated in the following photos, courtesy of David Puhl and Martin Van den Berghe.

After the ore is dug from a well-like hole, the rock is pounded into small pieces and then milled to create a fine stone powder.  

The miners then use a gravity table, to separate heavier metals, including gold, from the lighter silica. 
The gravity table carpet is then washed in a basin and silt is released; this silt is then mixed with mercury. Gold and mercury bind together to form an amalgam that separates from the rest of the silt. 
The mercury is then burned off, leaving the gold, which is sold to a gold buyer and oftentimes exported to Mali.  
The burned-off mercury gas, meanwhile, is inhaled by both miners and other community members and also settles on the ground and in the water, creating more pathways for human exposure.

Long-term exposure to methyl mercury can cause issues with fetal and child development, both mentally and physically.  Mercury attacks the nerves, thus damaging sight, sensation, hearing, and coordination.  The lungs, kidneys, and GI tract are also vulnerable, particularly in children and pregnant women. 

Children playing near a gravity table and pile of tailings which likely contain mercury.

Soon after Patrick and I installed in our site, a Peace Corps Response Volunteer who had served in our site came back to work specifically on this issue, having designed an educational program that received funding from the US Department of State.  His timeframe was limited, and as brand new volunteers, we found ourselves in a whirlwind of managing what, by Peace Corps standards, is a very big project. 
Our teammate and neighbor, Martin, demonstrates to community  health workers how to use a retort, to which they gave the Malinke name "sannijannilango", (literal translation: gold burning thing).
The project, which has come to be known in Peace Corps Senegal as “The Mercury Project”, has a goal of reducing the potential harm of mercury in gold mining communities through both formal and informal education about the dangers of mercury and the introduction of retorts.   Retorts are an appropriate technology that can be produced here in the region of Kedougou that recaptures the mercury vapor during burning.  This greatly reduces the exposure to methyl mercury and provides an economic benefit as well.  Mercury is expensive (and illegal) to buy, so the potential for its reuse is a great incentive to use this technology and benefit the community’s health in the process.  

Because of the transient nature of the population in the mining communities, two baseline surveys that assess the community’s knowledge and behaviors surrounding mercury will be conducted for the project.  The first survey was completed in August 2012, at the height of the rainy season when many part time miners were farming in their home villages, and the second survey will be conducted in the height of the cold, dry mining season, just prior to the full-scale implementation of the educational project.  Following the baseline survey, our team implemented a pilot educational project, in three villages, and we are very encouraged by the preliminary results.

Our initial baseline found that 64% of the population in the mining villages handles mercury and that 64% of these handlers actually burn mercury.  (Practically all gold in Senegal that is artisanally mined uses mercury in its processing, however, so these figures are indicative of the percent of community members actually engaged in gold processing rather than the percentage of gold processing using mercury.)  96% of burning is done using an open bowl, allowing all of the vapors to be released.  31.5% of burning takes place inside a hut, which is the most dangerous practice.  (Another 46.5% of burning occurs in the courtyards of domestic compounds.)  81.9% burn in the presence of others.  This high prevalence of what the United Nations Environmental Program deems “worst practices” exists even though 90.3% of respondents said that they thought that mercury was dangerous.  This may indicate a desire to protect oneself and one’s community if the means of doing so become available. 

Our educational project is designed to train one Community Health Worker (CHW) from each village on the dangers of mercury and the use of retorts as well as other harm-reductive practices.  The CHW in turn chooses peer educators from the village who are trained on these same subjects and how to conduct informal education.  During the three week program, the CHW gives three health talks and acts as a team leader for the peer educators, who are each given retorts and instructed to have at least one conversation about mercury or retorts each day of the program and to act as a steward of the retorts, making them freely available for use by community members.  

This video shows community health workers role playing an educational exchange regarding mercury and retorts.  They were getting into it and taking on different roles, trying to make it more difficult for the person playing the health worker.  In this clip, one is deaf and one is a woman.  It's a good chance to hear what Malinke sounds like!

During the evaluation meeting for the pilot project, the peer educators reported that they had in fact  typically conducted a higher number of informal exchanges each day than what was requested of them, and some had used their retort with community members up to ten times each day.  Throughout the three week program, 199 community members were reached through health talks by the Community Health Workers, 4133 informal educational interactions were initiated by peer-to-peer educators, and retorts provided by our project were used 756 times to burn amalgam.  The biggest reported challenge was that the retorts did not cool off fast enough to be able to open the crucible and remove the gold in time to prevent a queue forming; this was a problem because the large numbers of people who had come to use the retort did not want to wait.  (If that’s the biggest issue with our program, I’ll take it!) Health workers recounted several anecdotes of behavior change surrounding the use of mercury, as a result of both the economic and health benefits of the retort technology.  The positivity of this meeting showed great promise for the full scale project, which will take place in January and February in eight mining villages. 

After rolling out the full-scale educational project, our next steps as a team are to work to develop both the supply and demand of the retort technology in order to support a sustainable market-driven supply chain.  Additionally, we are hoping to engage volunteers in the Community Economic Development sector to work with miners to form associations that will legitimize miners’ work and help to regulate the activities in the mining sites, creating healthier communities and empowering them to really benefit from the economic opportunities available through mining.  Since nearly all of the health issues in Senegal are exacerbated in the mining areas, there is much work to be done here in Wild West Africa.  
Another thing we worked on while Chris Brown (real name), the Peace Corps  Response Volunteer was here, was a mural project done in cooperation with the local high school as part of what will eventually be a broader campaign to encourage students to stay in school rather than dropping out to mine.

"My future shines brighter than gold".  I had come up with that slogan for this mural project but hadn't pursued it since i have zero artistic ability.  And then Chris came for the mercury project and turned out to be a great artist as well!

We worked with school administration to design this part of the mural, which shows students faced with two choices: the mines or other career opportunities available through education.

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