Rapidly Changing Environment

Today I sat down and met with a friend and colleague who is an expert in the field of rural sociology and regional planning.  Amadou has spent over 40 years studying and practicing in this field and is absolutely a wealth of knowledge. He works closely with the FAO, ecologists, agriculturalists and villagers to help organize community forest projects, unions for pastoralists, and community development plans for rural villages.  As he says, he only facilitates, it is up to the villages and participants at the meetings to make the projects what they are and make them happen.

As we discussed today, sitting at the breakfast table in Dakar, I talked about the village of Kharakhena.  About the gold mining that is changing the landscape, the people, the environment. I explained how the village that I knew was 150 people living collectively, and how in a matter of months 15,000 people descended onto the village when they heard of the gold in the hills. That was last year.  Today estimates are near 25,000 people.

Amadou asked for a piece of paper and a pen.  He has an amazing way of taking complex problems and organizing them into components. Breaking down the complex into understandable points.

He said, “This is a problem of a contexte en pleine evolution.”  A rapidly changing environment.  He took notes as we discussed how the influx of gold mining in southeastern Senegal is rapidly changing the environment.

  1. Economic Change:
    • As more people move into an area looking for gold, there are other needs to be met and many spell out economic growth for the community. What will these people eat? Where will they sleep? What will they do on their days off? Restaurants and bars pop up in villages like Kharakhena. Boutiques line the side of the roads, selling goods and products previously only available in town many kilometers a way. Markets previously open weekly, are now daily. Villages that never had a market in the first place, now do! Some people who come to in search of gold find they can cultivate as well with permission of the village chief, so agricultural practices may increase. With increasing profits from gold and subsequent economic activities, families may now have the funds to purchase livestock – not only raise and sell, but to keep as a longer term investment.
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      New Boutiques in Kharakhena. Each umbrella is a different vender.

  2. Behavioral Change:
    • The first behavioral change Amadou mentioned was the relationship people have with money. Although it is rare, some people who previously had very little money now find themselves with an abundance. How people save, invest, do business, or spend that money changes their behavior.  More people begin thinking about banking or developing their community.  Others spend their hard-earned money on things like televisions and large satellite dishes, which can be seen set up outside grass and bamboo huts.
    • Children’s behavior changes as well. Teenagers who might have thought about leaving the village to continue their studies now stay at the village to work at the mine. Even younger children, pre-teens and younger still, chose gold mining over attending school.  At the mines, children get a different education. As Saiba Keita, chief of the Kharakhena village, said, “The children are seeing things they should not see.”
  3. Cultural Change:
    • Cultural changes and behavioral changes are closely tied, but I’ve decided to split them there for emphasis. In mining villages where people come from far and wide, cultures mix and mingle resulting in a new mining culture. Artisanal gold miners tendto be transient or migrant people, whether within their own country or across international borders, with a common purpose of seeking economic benefit from finding gold.  The fact that they come from different backgrounds, countries, and ethnicities results in a transformation of economic, political and social values.  In Kharakhena, miners come from Senegal, Mali,BurkinaFaso, Nigeria, the Gambia, Guinea, and perhaps other countries as well.  Languages (French, English,Malinké,Pulaar, etc.), religions (Christian, Muslim, Animist, etc.) and value systems differ between each country and each ethnicity, but find themselves commingling here in the mining village. Kharakhena was a quiet Muslim village  before the mining boom, today there are bars serving alcohol. For some this is a benefit, while for others this an unwelcome change to the community.

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      Two men from Burkina Faso wash gold in a pan over a barrel of water. Most of that in the pan is sand, but perhaps there will be a small glimmer of old.

  4. Environmental Changes
    •  Changes to the environment occur at many levels from deforestation and mining pits on the landscape to mercury in the water sources to increased dust and air pollution.  The increase inbushmeat hunting associated with the large immigrant populations also takes a toll on the surrounding environment.  It’s hard to say exactly what the long-term effects will be without sustainability practices and restoration or reclamation to the land, but things aren’t looking good.

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      A curious warthog.

  5. Problem of Security
    • As more money comes into circulation in these mining villages, we begin to see an increase in crime. More thefts, fights, and even murders.  Sometimes the violence comes from outside the village when bandits form groups that live in the bush just outside the mining village. They hijack cars on roads and attack miners heading to and from the mine.  Other attacks happen within the village, particularly on those people who are known to have large sums of money on them.  Most of these attacks are well planned, targeting particular individuals. Villages put together neighbor watch programs and community police patrols to try to combat the increasing crime.

It was here we stopped with the list.  We realized it could go on… we hadn’t even mentioned the changes in health…but we had spoken for quite some time and Amadou had another engagement to attend.  We also realized that this conversation should be had with the people of the villages.  While some changes are obvious to the outsider, there may be more changes happening within that aren’t as easily detected but are just as important, if not more.

This was the easy part – listing the problems and changes.  The real work comes when we start looking for solutions. Amadou and I can only do so much when it comes to identifying problems and even less for solutions.  Solutions and change happens from within, from the ground, from the people.  As Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 

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A breakfast conversation