From Sluice Box Owner to Shaft Owner: Meet Women’s Champion – Zourata Nacanabo
By Tegan Holmes and Dr. Alizèta Ouédraogo - June 1, 2022
Burkina Faso is experiencing growth in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) because it is one of the primary livelihood opportunities for both men and women in the country. Though, artisanal gold mining is not a livelihood opportunity that Burkinabè women are strongly drawn to, certain circumstances such as divorce, forced marriage, levirate, widowhood, and simply following the men miners to ensure they have access to basic necessities like food and water do bring many women in Burkina Faso into the ASGM sector. Within the Burkinabè mining structure present on most ASGM sites, women tend to have specific roles which generally differ from the men miners although there is some overlap in certain roles like crushing. Once involved at a mine site, women miners are typically not involved with the extraction of ore (the mining), but rather work on washing the gold down carpeted sluices and sometimes the manual crushing of rocks with hammers.
While it is the norm for Burkinabè women artisanal miners to operate in areas where gold washing on sluice boxes and mercury amalgamation takes place, there are also many women involved in supplementary roles such as cooking and cleaning. As more livelihood opportunities become available at the mine site due to projects like planetGOLD Burkina Faso, women miners are beginning to move into less traditional roles including owning mine shafts, often as a collective.
Funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and executed by the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) in partnership with the Government of Burkina Faso, the planetGOLD Burkina Faso project is actively working to improve access to finance for both the men and women of the target community – Gnikpiere mine. For the women, this also means accompanying them on their journey from employees (working at a sluice box for example) to independent entrepreneurs (as shaft owners or other occupations).
One woman miner in particular, at the planetGOLD Burkina Faso Gnikpiere mine site, is paving the way for the other women miners who wish to follow a similar path. This woman is Zourata Nacanabo, and she has succeeded in moving away from traditional women miner’s work like sluicing to becoming the sole woman shaft owner on the site for now.
Zourata Nacanabo at one of her shafts | AGC 2021
In Burkina Faso, shaft owners are usually men miners who have either saved enough funds from gold mining and trading on their own or who have managed to establish an informal sponsor relationship with an investor. This allows them to build a new shaft or purchase an existing shaft and use the remaining funds to provide the machinery necessary to deploy men miners known as ‘diggers’ into the shaft, where they then bring up ore for processing.
Zourata has successfully made the move from artisanal miner or “mineure artisanal” to shaft owner after spending many years working in ASGM. In a sector dominated by men owners, this has placed Zourata in an elevated position amongst the women and men miners of Gnikpiere.
Project’s are often more successful when they have champions, and for planetGOLD Burkina Faso, Zourata is one of the project participants championing the inclusion of women throughout project activities, with the support of National Project Coordinator and Gender Specialist, Dr. Alizèta Ouédraogo.
A shaft at Gnikpiere Mine | AGC 2021
Recently, Zourata sat down with Alizèta to share the story of how she became involved in ASGM, and the twenty-year journey she took to become the only woman shaft owner at the Gnikpiere site.
Like many of the women engaged in artisanal mining in Burkina Faso, Zourata began looking for livelihood opportunities when her husband passed away suddenly, leaving her with 8 children to feed and school fees to cover. Initially, she found work in Burkina Faso as a sluice box owner. Once she had honed her sluicing skills, she crossed the border into Guinea where she worked at various ASGM sites as a sluice box operator for 4 years, followed by Mali for 2 years, and finally, Senegal for 7 years. Now, 7 more years after her return to Burkina Faso, Zourata is proud to own five shafts on two separate mine sites. She has also remarried a fellow shaft owner, who has two shafts of his own.
Being a mother to 8 children, and actively pursuing livelihood opportunities in artisanal gold mining has not been without its challenges for Zourata. She often goes long stints without seeing her three youngest children, who live in her village a few hours away with relatives. It is safer though, for her children to live in the village, as Zourata herself notes that there are many hazards on the mine site, such as exposure to mercury vapors produced during amalgamation and amalgam burning, acids, and physical hazards like open shafts and operating motors. Her work at Gnikpiere also provides the funds needed for school fees so that all of her children have access to education.
At present, only one of Zourata’s shafts is active. It is 65 meters deep, with 16 diggers employed by her working on it. This is deeper than the average shaft in Burkina and operating it requires extra considerations, especially in terms of water management.
Having spent over 20 years in the West African ASGM sector, Zourata has specific knowledge of the gold trade in the region and the workings at the Gnikpiere mine site. As well, her position as a shaft owner has only furthered Zourata’s position as a person of influence on the site. Over the past two years, Zourata has become the informal leader of the women miners and is largely responsible for moderating any conflicts that occur between them and the men miners, as well as organizing social gatherings and working towards becoming a formal women’s cooperative together with the planetGOLD Burkina Faso team.
When the project began implementation activities at Gnikpiere, Zourata recognized that this project would provide the knowledge and connections to government stakeholders needed to formalize her women’s group, as well as providing much-needed capacity building activities related to chemical hazards such as those found with using mercury for processing, access to formal financing mechanisms, and potential opportunities for supplementary livelihood activities and formal training on mercury-free processing technology.
When Alizèta asked Zourata about what she knows about mercury and its hazards, she had this to say:
“Mercury causes many diseases, for which there is no cure. With mercury … I myself was a gold collector and buyer for 4 years, but it was because of mercury that I stopped buying gold. If the mercury vapor reaches your brain, you will have problems. There are some people themselves, once the mercury affects their body, they start having tremors at some point. At this point you have to look for medication. Some people even end up going abroad for treatment, especially those who inhale mercury vapors for a long time. But we don’t have a choice, that’s all we work with. How are we going to do it?”
Zourata’s final question, “How are we going to do it [process gold without mercury]? is an important one, and that is what planetGOLD Burkina Faso is working to address through several strategies such as the revision of the legal framework, increased access to finance, the installation and adoption of mercury-free processing systems, as well as vocational trainings from national specialists in the field of responsible ASGM.
The project recognizes the health impacts that the artisanal miners of Gnikpiere may be experiencing from mercury use, which are impacts felt by all of the artisanal miners globally that utilize mercury for the processing of gold. While there is knowledge on some of the effects of using mercury for gold processing among the women miners, the planetGOLD team recognized the knowledge gap related to the specific health impacts experienced by artisanal miners that handle elemental mercury and inhale mercury vapors during amalgam burning among the project participant group. To address this gap and further engage the women miners of Gnikpiere, a training was held specifically for women miners to discuss mercury and its effects on the body, with special focus placed on women of childbearing age, and those that are already pregnant. At the same time, the workshop provided a platform to discuss gender-related needs for finance and potential solutions such as the access to the FAARF (a governmental fund hosted by the Ministry of Women that gives small grants to female entrepreneurs).
Everyone on the project team is glad to have Zourata onboard as a champion. In this context, Zourata will continue building relationships with the women miners of Gnikpiere, engaging in project activities, and assisting the team in the introduction and adoption of soon to arrive, mercury-free processing technology which will greatly help to reduce, if not, eliminate mercury use on the site. Together, the planetGOLD Burkina Faso team along with the artisanal miners of Gnikpiere will answer Zourata’s question with responsible and sustainable solutions.