Ahmed, in his quest to reach Europe, encountered extremists while crossing Mali and was coerced into laboring in one of the nation’s artisanal gold mines. He shared with Al Jazeera that he and his brother, along with other adults and numerous children, have been working under these conditions for a year, receiving safety and security in exchange for their labor.
Gold holds significant economic importance in Sahelian countries, funding both governments and extremist groups. Termed “blood gold” due to its association with corruption, extremism, and violence, Mali’s gold, constituting over 96% of its exports, has led to international resistance. In response, junta leaders revealed plans to establish a gold refinery in Bamako with Russian assistance, aiming to process up to 200 metric tons annually.
The junta, seeking control over gold production and revenue, increased the government’s potential stake in the mining sector from 20% to 35% just before finalizing the deal with Russia. This move follows Mali’s collaboration with the Russian Wagner Group, which arrived two years ago to combat extremism and has since involved associated mining companies in extracting gold for its benefit and to support Russia’s actions in Ukraine, costing Mali an estimated $10 million monthly.
Wagner, implicated in human rights violations such as summary executions, played a role in taking control of Kidal in northern Mali, a vital gold mining hub. The UN’s departure from Kidal in response to the junta’s demand to shut down its MINUSMA peacekeeping mission underscores the importance of goldfields in conflict financing and power dynamics in the region.
As one of Africa’s top gold producers, Mali annually exports about $9 billion in gold, with half going to the UAE for refining. Switzerland refines 15%, with the rest distributed among countries like Australia, China, and Turkey. International agencies are urging companies involved in Mali’s gold industry to reject “blood gold” associated with conflict and extremism, emphasizing the need for transparency and responsible practices.