Despite the dangers, small-scale unregulated mines continue to flourish and attract thousands of gold miners.
More than 70 people have died in southwest Mali after an artisanal gold mine collapsed last week, officials have said, the latest disaster in a region prone to mining accidents.
Karim Bethe, a senior National Geology and Mining Directorate official, shared the details with The Associated Press on Wednesday, calling it an accident.
Oumar Sidibe, an official for gold miners in the southwestern town of Kangaba, as well as a local councillor, confirmed the death toll to the AFP news agency.
“It started with a noise. The earth started to shake,” Sidibe said. “There were over 200 gold miners in the field.”
While it was not clear what caused the mine collapse that occurred on Friday, the Ministry of Mines said in a statement on Tuesday that it estimated “several” miners had been killed in the Kangaba district in southwestern Koulikoro region.
The ministry said it “deeply regretted” the collapse and urged miners and communities in the area to “comply with safety requirements”.
A spokesperson for the ministry, Baye Coulibaly, also told the Reuters news agency on Wednesday that the gold panners dug galleries “without complying with the required standards”.
“We have advised them against it on several occasions in vain,” Coulibaly said.
Mali’s government offered its “deepest condolences to the grieving families and to the Malian people”.
It also called on “communities living near mining sites and gold miners to scrupulously respect safety requirements and to work only within the perimeters dedicated to gold panning”.
Small-scale, informal artisanal miners are often accused of ignoring safety measures, especially in remote areas, and accidents like these are common in Mali, Africa’s third-largest gold producer.
“The state must bring order to this artisanal mining sector to avoid these kinds of accidents in the future,” Berthe told AP.
While Mali’s mining sector is dominated by foreign groups, including Canada’s Barrick Gold and B2Gold, Australia’s Resolute Mining and Britain’s Hummingbird Resources, artisanal mines continue to flourish and attract thousands of gold miners.
“Gold is by far Mali’s most important export, comprising more than 80 percent of total exports in 2021,” according to the International Trade Administration within the US Department of Commerce.
It added that more than two million people, or over 10 percent of Mali’s population, depend on the mining sector for income.
Mali produced 72.2 tonnes of gold in 2022 and the metal contributed 25 percent of the national budget, 75 percent of export earnings and 10 percent of gross domestic product, former Minister of Mines Lamine Seydou Traore said last year.
But gold mining in the Sahel region is dangerous, and human rights organisations have repeatedly condemned the use of child labour in artisanal mining operations.