Energy & Resources

Gold fingered

Why has Sudan kicked out China’s mining firms?

An employee holds gold samples at the Ariab mine

A vital export for Sudan: gold

It has more pyramids than Egypt and more gold than any other African country bar South Africa and Ghana. But as WiC went to press, Sudan no longer has any Chinese nationals extracting the precious metal from its mining areas (some of which trace a working history back 5,500 years).

Smelting factory owner Shi Bingmei was having lunch in her office in early May when the Sudanese security services suddenly turned up on her doorstep. According to news service Jiemian.com, they told her they had received a phone call from the capital Khartoum ordering all Chinese nationals working in the industry to leave within the next 24 hours.

They came back again the following morning and informed Shi that she would be arrested if she did not pack her bags. According to Jiemian.com, Shi and most of her compatriots are currently ensconced in Khartoum trying to work out how it all went so badly wrong.

Shi now believes her problems result from a power vacuum following the re-election of Omar al-Bashir as president in late April. While opposition parties boycotted the election – in protest against his 25 years in power – al-Bashir has not yet been formally inaugurated. Shi says this has led some local governments to try and profit from the situation at the expense of the Chinese.

“Sudan’s gold industry has only advanced because of Chinese investment and we didn’t expect to be suddenly expelled,” Shi says. “We stand to suffer huge losses because our equipment has already been installed, or cleared by customs.”

According to Shi, Sudanese gold production was extremely primitive prior to Chinese miners’ introduction of wet grinding methods from about 2012 onwards. Before then local miners had been plagued by pneumoconiosis due to the dust pollution generated from dry grinding techniques. Shi says the Chinese helped increase Sudan’s extraction ratio by 35% through more modern technology.

Up till that point, argue the Chinese, not a vast deal had changed since the first century BC when the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote this commentary about the hardships of gold-mining in the area (then known as Nubia): “The miners follow the direction of the metallic threads and are assisted by the light of lamps in the subterranean darkness. The stones are carried outside and are crushed and reduced to small fragments. The workmen never cease in their toil.”

For the Egyptian pharaohs, gold was considered to be the flesh of their god Ra, a symbol of eternal life. For the modern-day Sudanese government it has become an economic lifeline since the country lost 75% of its oil reserves when South Sudan seceded in 2011.

Gold accounted for 70% of Sudan’s exports in 2014. As recently as April, the country’s mining minister was telling Reuters that Sudan hoped to overtake South Africa and Ghana as Africa’s largest producer. At that point it seemed to be on track. Gold production had stepped up from 34 million tonnes in 2013 to 73.3 million tonnes in 2014, propelling Sudan up the global rankings to eleventh place behind Ghana on 90 million tonnes. For 2015, Sudan had set itself a target of 80 million tonnes and was on course to beat it after producing 25 million tonnes during the first quarter.

China is Sudan’s largest foreign investor and Jiemian.com says there are 17 gold enterprises in the country with the capacity to produce about 13 million tonnes of the precious metal per year. (China’s prominent role in Sudan came about when it filled the investment vacuum that resulted from a US trade embargo imposed in 1997.)

And, in February, the actor George Clooney was reiterating a long-standing plea for the mining industry to pay more consideration to the human rights situation in Sudan. In an editorial co-penned for the New York Times he called on gold miners to “initiate audits to trace gold to its mine of origin and ensure that purchases are not fuelling war crimes in Darfur”.

What’s next for the Chinese miners remains to be seen, but they are not the first to face trouble in Africa. Two years ago we reported on the backlash faced by gold miners from Shanglin who’d upset the locals in Ghana.


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