Blog Series: The Golden Conflict in Sudan
This blog and photo series is the first part of a series about land governance and gold mining, the golden conflict, in Sudan.
The Golden Conflict (I)
Before COVID-19 changed the world, on the first day of January 2020 (Sudan’s independence day), I travelled to Kalogi, one of Sudan’s gold mining capitals to explore land-based investments and the impact of gold mining on local communities in the region.
The road from Khartoum to Kalogi, the capital town of the Gedir region, is more than 800 kilometres long. Our journey started at 2 o’clock in the morning on the first day of the year 2020. We used a four-wheel-drive vehicle and although we may not need this type of vehicle at the start of our journey, we will undoubtedly need it as soon as we leave the asphalt highway. We headed to the southwest, passing the city of Al-Ubaid, about 420 km underway. We then headed to the southeast, to Umm Rawaba, after which we left the tarred road, except for a few kilometres here and there. We passed plains, valleys and mountains and the car groaned from the roughness of the road. The regions we passed through are sparsely populated. At times, we passed groups of pastoralists that move from north to south during their seasonal move. And every now and then, we are overtaken by fast driving cars that take artisanal gold miners to the rich region.
Over the years, tens of thousands of Sudanese people from different conflict-suffering areas of the country moved to Qadeer, that lies within the Nuba Mountains in the province of South Kordofan. All of them were looking for an opportunity to improve their livelihood in search for gold. As part of the government’s economic diversification strategy, gold has become Sudan’s number one export product, even though a lot of it is traded illegally.
As part of the government’s economic diversification strategy, gold has become Sudan’s number one export product, even though a lot of it is traded illegally.
Before we reached Abu–Jubayhah, a town about 70 kilometres northwest of our destination, the care nearly ran out of fuel. A driver we met along the way told us that the authorities had ordered the shutdown of the fuel stations in Abu–Jubayhah without stated reasons, perhaps they are expecting the change of the price of fuel in the new year, which is among the cheapest in the world. We communicate with someone town to help us with some fuel to reach our destination. However, we were lucky to find a petrol station in a village off the road, and it appears that they didn’t know about the directions of shutdown.
We reached Kalogi, the local capital of Gedir, around 9pm. We travelled about nine hundred kilometres of roads. This journey used to take ten days in the past before the roads improved; it still takes about three days in the rainy season with the help of four-wheel vehicles. We met with several community members in Kalogi, where we were invited in the home of our guide. The people have many stories about the tension between gold and agriculture. Most of the people were farmers, until the rush for gold came. Gold exploration changed the livelihoods of many of them. Now, most people are either gold workers (artisanal miners) or they provide different services to gold workers and the many immigrants that were attracted by the gold business.
The next day, we learn more about the mining process. Artisanal gold miners collect gold from the surface by digging wells, breaking and crushing rocks to dissolve gold using water and mercury. The result of this process is dunes of waste soil that still contain quantities of gold that the artisanal gold miners are unable to extract. In the area around Kalogi, this soil is collected by three larger mining companies that are controlled by different military groups. These companies can extract twice as much gold from this soil, through the use of cyanide. The use of both mercury and cyanide is harmful to the land, people, cattle and the environment, which lead to tension and conflict between companies an local communities. Many peaceful protests against the mining operations and the companies have taken place. In September 2019, sit-in protests lasted several weeks. However, increasingly, the conflict led to the burning of a number of vehicles that belong to investors and the several processing facilities were set on fire in the neighbouring town of Talodi. But because of their links with the military, the companies are well able to defend themselves and continue their operations.
As a result, talking about conflicts related to land and gold is not easy. To this day, it brings tension and suspicion among the communities towards the investors, companies and the government (that allows the mining operations), which we experienced first-hand. Driving a four-wheel-drive car, me and my companions were mistaken for gold investors in the nearby town of Talodi. Angry community members we encountered planned to burn the vehicle, but postphoned their plans until after independence day celebrations. When local authorities found and confiscated my notebook and laptop (full of notes about the gold business and mining), we were arrested, thrown in jail and interrogated. A long story short: after several failed attempts to convince our captors that we were merely visitors, they finally let us go because our friends and the chief from Abu Jubayhah (where we ran out of petrol earlier) and contacts in Khartoum could confirm our story: we were not interested in investing in gold mining.
When local authorities found and confiscated my notebook and laptop, we were arrested, thrown in jail and interrogated.
At the time of writing this blog, in May 2020, there have been no reported incidences of COVID-19 in the province of South Kordofan. Different measures have been put in place to prevent people from travelling between provinces and markets are closed from noon every day. However, it is very difficult to enforce these measures in these sparsely populated areas where miners walk to work for more than 10 kilometres and companies are owned by military groups. As of now, while in the entire world many businesses and trade have shut down, the mining industry in South Kordofan still continues. Artisanal miners cannot afford to lose their only source of income and mining companies are not interested to pause their activities in this region, which is – literally and figuratively – a goldmine, often at the expense of local people’s health and the environment in the region. Where COVID-19 is just one of many worries for most people.
Mining companies are not interested to pause their activities in this region, which is – literally and figuratively – a goldmine, often at the expense of local people’s health and the environment
Since June 2019, Salaheldin is a LANDac fellow, researching and exchanging knowledge on land governance and the impact of land-based inestments. As a land mapping specialist from Sudan, Salaheldin has worked on land governance for the past seven years. Before he initiated the Centre for Land and Environmental Governance in Sudan (the ISTIDAMA Centre), where he works as a strategist, researcher and lecturer, Salaheldin worked as a manager at the Ministry of Physical Planning. Salaheldin obtained a master’s degree in International Relations, Geoinformation Science and Earth Observations at the University of Twente and a Bachelor’s degree in Surveying Engineering.