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new internationalist
issue 246 - August 1993



Even the donkeys are doped in Burkina Faso mines

Fourteen-year-old Salfa Ganamay said he couldn’t afford to think of the risks he was taking as he gripped at the sheer sides of the mine’s gaping mouth. Descending only on a series of footholds dug into the crumbling earth, he climbed down slowly into the darkness. When he reached the bottom, voices of welcome rose up, echoing eerily as if in a huge cathedral. Buckets on ropes were quickly dropped down to them, to be filled with fist-sized chunks of quartz and hoisted up again. The stones were then pounded into dust for panning by tired women and children who sit from dawn to dusk in temperatures that often reach 45º Celsius.

An hour’s journey from Ouagadougou, Buda can’t be found on any map of Burkina Faso. It is one of hundreds of mining shanty towns that are springing up along the southern Sahelian rim, where alluvial gold has been found for centuries.

Gold fever has now spawned 50 violent and lawless mining towns in Burkina Faso alone. The appearance of mines like Buda has coincided with the onslaught of 23 years of drought. The long, slow dying of the land – hastened by rising populations and the introduction of cash crops to service foreign debts – has meant that more and more villages are being swept into the gold rush.

Salfa came with his father from a village in the north. ‘I would like to find gold and be rich,’ he says. ‘But I will be happy with enough money to buy seed for my mother to plant for the next rains.’

In the dry season, between November and May, Buda swells to a makeshift town of 30,000 people crammed into fragile shelters of mats woven from millet stalks draped over sticks of wood. Those who have struck gold display their luck ostentatiously and ride round the mine on shiny new mopeds, wearing fake Rolex watches, sunglasses and new clothes. Women come from as far as Nigeria and Senegal to work in the red light area.

Life is cheap. On average two men a week die from accidents at the mine and six are seriously injured. Epidemics of yellow fever, meningitis and cholera frequently sweep through Buda and there are no medical facilities to treat diarrhoea, malaria and respiratory diseases caused by the fine white dust which settles everywhere.

At dusk the miners return from the pits in straggling lines like participants in a sad carnival: white-painted clowns, with dark staring eyes that shine in the fading light. Local people call them the White Tourists. Behind them, luminous mounds of excavated ore shimmer in the heat beside holes of varying depths. Those that have been abandoned are filled with human excrement.

Twenty-metre strips of land are leased to prospectors by the Société Miniére Geologique du Burkina for about $80. Those that strike it rich hire others to work the mine, giving them a small percentage of the day’s findings and usually providing food. Most miners rely on Kola nuts to stave off hunger, and take amphetamines. Even the donkeys are drugged.

The process of finding gold is long and laborious. Bare hands and water are the main investments. Any gold found has to be sold to the state, but at $8 per gram the price is well below the market rate. ‘We smuggle it out in food,’ one miner told me. ‘We get a better price for it than if we sell it here.’ He believed the principal actors in the illegal gold trade are a handful of ministers, local and Lebanese businessmen and a shrewd élite of soldiers and police officers.

The loss to a country as poor as Burkina Faso is a serious one. Gold is the main export, generating $38 million annually. Yet only one gold mine in Burkina Faso is fully industrialized.

Reports of new findings of gold deposits in the region by foreign investors and the United Nations Department for Technical Co-operation and Development, indicate that increased investment in West Africa’s mines could well lead to efficient mining methods that may eventually benefit mines like Buda and the people who work in them. Foreign investors are lining up to swoop.

Christine Aziz

Government planners in Singapore are worried that not enough babies are being born to educated Chinese couples. Former prime minister Lee Kwan Yew declared recently that women with little or no education were having twice as many children as graduate women. The government now wants births among some of its social groups to go down and among others to go up. It will play matchmaker to eligible graduates and discourage the uneducated from having children. In the past, women with little or no formal education were offered financial inducements to be sterilized. Graduate women with more than three children can get priority placements in Singapore’s better kindergartens and primary schools. The Social Development Unit (SDU – nicknamed ‘Single, Desperate and Ugly’) runs a lonely-hearts club catering mainly to the educated Chinese. It now has 14,000 single graduates on its books and organizes 400 social events for them annually.

Stephen Carr / Gemini



Back to business
FUNAI boss sacked

Amidst the chaos of the recent political upheavals in Brazil – including the impeachment of President Fernando Collor – the sacking of Sydney Possuelo as head of Brazil’s Indian Foundation, FUNAI, has gone almost unnoticed by foreign media. During his two-year presidency Mr Possuelo went some way towards transforming the government organ from a corrupt bureaucratic shambles to a respected body, widely recognized as an effective defender of Indian rights (see Updates, NI 240).

The central issue bringing FUNAI into conflict with vested interests at local and national level is the question of land demarcation. In accordance with the Brazilian constitution, FUNAI is responsible for the demarcation of all Indian land by 5 October 1993. There are 510 different areas and 89 million hectares of land to be demarcated – 10 per cent of the total land area of Brazil.

In practice, with no resources, FUNAI is in no position to demarcate more than a fraction of this. The Possuelo administration has nonetheless done a remarkable amount with remarkably little. Agreements with Brazilian aid agencies have expedited the demarcation of Indian lands, from the Guaraní in the south to the Macuxi in the north. The greatest victory of all was the agreement for the demarcation of the Yanomami land on the border with Venezuela in June of last year. Possuelo’s last act as President was to sign the agreement for the demarcation of the Macuxi / Wapixana area in the northern state of Roraima.

With his departure the Brazilian military are trying to revitalize their Calha Norte project designed to secure the northern frontiers of Brazil. The military commander of Amazônia, General José Sampaio Maia, has suggested opening a trail along the 9.2 thousand kilometres of frontier. ‘The ideal would be to build a high wall... but this isn’t possible,’ he said. Roraima state representative and military man, João Baptista Fagundes has reportedly received assurances from the new President Itamar that the area will not be demarcated. The military-business alliance may even attempt to use the ‘foreign-threat’ bogeyman to get the legal status of the Yanomami area revoked.

As for Sydney Possuelo? In this, the UN Year of the Indigenous Peoples – and land demarcation year for Brazil’s Indians – his future is as uncertain as theirs.

Steve Bowles

The world GDP league Miracle massage
New figures produced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imply some startling changes to conventional wisdom on the measurement of 'national wealth'. Traditionally figures have been compiled by the World Bank and others based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) expressed in US dollars at volatile market exchange rates. The new measure, 'Purchasing Power Parities' (PPP), massages the figures to take account of international differences in prices and the cost of living - and to produce something of an 'economic miracle'. Developing countries' share of 'world output' jumps from 18 per cent to 43 per cent.

All such measures are notoriously unreliable - they take no account, for example, of the distribution of wealth within countries or the 'quality of life' for the majority. In this case they look just a little too convenient for the IMF, which needs to demonstrate the success of its 'structural adjustment' policies in developing countries, where there is widespread criticism of their devastating effects.

Source: IMF World Economic Outlook 1993



Future imperfect
Kibbutzim shed ideals

Pioneers of the kibbutz in the promised land: ideals begin to crumble beneath debt and doubt.

Israel’s ‘kibbutzim’, or rural collectives, have since the foundation of the state symbolized the ideals of early settlers. But like other societies they are questioning their socialist ideology.

There are 270 kibbutzim in Israel with a total population of 126,000 members. All members have rights over all property and resources. Within the means of the kibbutz, individual needs are satisfied and everyone, including the elderly, makes some contribution. The collective is democratically governed and dedicated to material and social equality. No-one receives individual payment for their work.

Yehuda Harel, a kibbutz member and leading proponent of change, believes the movement is a total failure. He says members should have greater personal freedom and less collective governance. Amir Helman of kibbutz Afikim has added a call for greater professionalization of the workforce and direct payment for work.

Industry now provides two thirds of total kibbutz income. Plans are afoot to reorgan-ize kibbutz factories. More than 20 have been turned into limited liability companies. Other recent initiatives include partnerships with private capital and the abolition of management rotation. The concept of equal value of all work is also threatened.

Kibbutz Nir Am is already making open payments to members working overtime. And in October last year Ein Zivan, an impoverished kibbutz on the Golan Heights, broke the biggest taboo of all. As one member explained: ‘We decided that if the kibbutz was going to earn money everybody had to work and that he or she could keep what he earned as an incentive.’

What amounts to a crisis of confidence in the kibbutzim is the result of Israel’s economic problems in the mid-1980s, when the shekel was devalued and inflation rates soared to 445 per cent. The kibbutz movement had used government loans to invest heavily in new factories and homes for its members. Suddenly it was faced with interest rates approaching 90 per cent. The total debt of the kibbutz movement now stands at four billion dollars. To many this appears to confirm the failure of democratic work organization and management.

Ironically, these changes are being introduced when the economic situation of the kibbutz movement as a whole is improving and few kibbutzim face financial ruin any longer. Industrial plants are less successful where kibbutz values are not maintained, when for example supervising hired labour imposes additional costs. Kibbutz factories outperformed their non-kibbutz Israeli competitors even during the economic stagnation of the 1980s.

Still, some members like Gilad Shafran of kibbutz Snir believe in the privatization of the means of production, claiming that ‘most successful individuals will be only too happy to share ideas, initiative, and even possessions with less successful individuals as long as they are worthy’.

Meanwhile Ein Zivan has been told to stop paying differentiated allowances. At a recent showdown with the movement secret-ariat the kibbutz refused to comply – being bankrupt it had nothing to lose. But if it is not expelled the kibbutz movement could collapse.

Chris Warhurst

Patent pilfering
Endod, or Phytolacca dodecandra, commonly known as the African soapberry plant, is a perennial that has been selected and cultivated for centuries in many parts of Africa, where its berries are used as a detergent. Ethiopians are also aware of its fish- and snail-killing properties. It has been extensively studied in Ethiopia, Zambia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Now along comes the US University of Toledo applying for a patent on the use of Endod for the control of zebra mussels which infest the Great Lakes. If a patent is given it means the University and three scientists will benefit. What about the Ethiopian growers? Well, there is an ‘informal agreement’ to buy the raw material directly from them.

Chakravarthi Raghavan/Third World Features.

Fraudulent MBA
Corruption is part of doing business in Argentina, a fact now recognized by the University of Buenos Aires, which will include a new course on ‘perverse systems’ in its MBA syllabus. Lecturers will include businessmen, judges and government officials, including the mayor of Buenos Aires. His predecessor was charged last week with fraudulent administration. The government of President Carlos Menem has been rocked by 19 big corruption scandals since it took office in July 1989, and 20 senior aides and ministers have been sacked on suspicion of corruption. For all that, no investigation has ended in a trial.

The Financial Times, 27 April 1993


‘Falsehood hath so corrupted all the world,
Ne’er deal as true friends they whom sects divide;
But were not hate man’s natural element,
Churches and mosques had risen side by side.’

Abu’l-Ala, Syrian Arab poet (973-1058 AD)

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New Internationalist issue 246 magazine cover This article is from the August 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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