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Is gold’s share in financing West African conflicts misjudged?

The interaction between gold, governance and crime can contribute to instability and violence, says a report by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).“Beyond blood!, Gold, Conflict and Crime in West Africa” by researcher Marcena Hunter is the latest report by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC) on this conflict-ridden part of the continent.

While gold is often referred to as a blood ore because of its role in financing conflict, Marcena Hunter demonstrates that the relationship between the gold sector, instability and violence is much more nuanced, with complex regional dynamics.

In the gold-producing heartland of West Africa, where artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is pervasive, she points out, a rising tide of insecurity and violence in recent years adds to the sector’s complexity. Criminal networks linking local mines to international trading centers, exploiting the gold sector for financial gain and power, are woven into the region’s convoluted web of actors, activities, and supply chains, she says.

“The analysis in this report demonstrates that the reality of the relationship between gold, conflict, and crime challenges the simplistic narrative of ‘blood minerals’ used to finance conflict, offering a much more nuanced understanding of the importance of the gold sector in West Africa. Instead, gold is closely linked to survival, money, power and crime,” says the American researcher.

Crime, fragility and violence

In West Africa, Hunter notes, criminal exploitation of the gold sector is facilitated by persistent and widespread informality, due in part to high barriers to entry into the formal sector, and lack of support for informal miners and gold traders. As a result, she says, corrupt and criminal elites in the political and commercial spheres can capture illicit gold flows, further contributing to community frustrations that can lead to conflict.

Furthermore, the GI-TOC researcher notes, when the gold sector contributes to the financing of conflicts in the region, its form and value can vary considerably. In places where conflict and gold mining overlap, armed groups may target the gold sector by taxing mining and commercial activities, demanding payment from miners to ensure security, or establishing checkpoints along roads to mining sites and commercial centers to collect payments.

Similarly, she notes, members of armed groups may also engage directly in gold mining, either for personal financial gain or for the benefit of the group. Yet, she notes, in many areas, gold is not the primary source of income for armed groups; other industries such as livestock are also targeted.

Between increased fragility and conflict are local self-defense and identity-based militias, which may act in cooperation or competition with the state. In West Africa, these groups range from hybrid security institutions to mafia-style protection rackets run by “violent entrepreneurs,” she says.

There is significant overlap between these groups and the gold sector, she says, with many examples of groups providing security at gold mining sites and along transportation routes. Yet, Hunter notes, the origins of different groups, their roles in local communities and the gold sector, and their role in conflict dynamics vary considerably.

The economic imperative of gold

Beyond the role of gold in financing conflicts, Marcena Hunter has been interested in the place of this resource in the area. The thematic manager on extractives and illicit flows at GI-TOC notes that the local importance of the gold sector is complicated by the fact that it is a major economic driver and source of livelihoods throughout West Africa. It is becoming increasingly important as other rural livelihoods become less tenable due to climate change.

As a result, ASGM has attracted a wide range of actors, from local communities in need of livelihoods, to people seeking more lucrative employment opportunities, to relatively wealthy businessmen and foreign investors seeking to profit from semi-industrial mining, she points out.

“Analysis of the relationship between gold, conflict and crime in West Africa must be framed within long-term trajectories, economic pressures and political economies at the local, regional and transnational levels,” she suggests.

For her, given the economic contribution of this sector across West Africa, it is impossible to fully grasp the relationship between gold and conflict without recognizing its role as an instrument of peace.

“With the increase of environmental pressures on agriculture and livestock due to climate change, the value of the gold sector as an economic safety net and compensation for rural-urban migration will likely increase. Among the beneficiaries are people who would otherwise have joined non-state armed groups or engaged in other, arguably more damaging, illicit activities,” Hunter says.

In addition, she continues, ASGM and its associated services provide a source of income and, perhaps more importantly, hope to internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have few other options for survival. “As such, the contributions of the gold sector to peace and security cannot be ignored,” she concludes.

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