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Gold at the end of a rainbow? A case of rural survival

The excellent gold mining and extractivism related seminar here in Helsinki on 22 May 2015 brought back in mind some personal experiences from years back. Those experiences could be seen as one example of the principle, that a disaster to many is usually a road to riches to some people at the same time.

Man digging a ditch.

In 1992 the whole of Southern Africa was experiencing the most serious drought in living memory. I happened to visit Zimbabwe southern rural areas during that time. People there were suffering. The agricultural production had collapsed and livestock were dying in big numbers. As one way of coping with the serious situation, whole communities were leaving their villages to stay by river banks in order to do gold panning from the almost totally dry river beds and banks. There were whole families living, including children dropped out of schools and moved to temporal shelters to help their parents in the hard work of digging sand and panning gold.

Mostly because of environmental reasons, the panning was informal and illegal. The gold digging and panning causes widespread erosion and mercury pollution problems in the river systems. Because of this illegality, there were no formal markets available for the mined gold. It had to be sold at whatever prices, usually far below the prevalent market prices. Most of the buyers were foreign gold smugglers, many of them coming from South Africa.

I was moving around in the areas in my typical travel outfit, including a soft safari hat and a back bag to carry my personal belongings.  Towards the end of my visit I learned from my local friends, that there was a rumour going around that I was a South African gold smuggler with my bag full of money. That was quite natural, because there were not many other strangers loitering in those rural areas. Luckily I had my friends to clarify my presence there. Otherwise somebody might have been tempted to get me parted with my back bag to find out what it contains. Anyway, maybe I can say that gold could have become the end of my own rainbow, even though it was none of my business!

Kari Bottas, 26.5.2015
Writer is a programme coordinator at Siemenpuu Foundation

You can download here the After the Gold Rush seminar report (pdf).