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The rush for gold is one of the ugliest market forces in the world

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Tracking the great gold rush

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Monday, 11 January 2021 14:54, updated on Friday, 15 January 2021 10:23

gold
Santos Viriato pours heavy buckets of water and soil into a plastic bin as Julius Mthembu lays bath towels on a conveyer to catch the particles during their illegal gold mining in Roodepoort, South Africa in 2012. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

As demand for gold skyrockets, artisanal mining and smuggling ramps up, financing conflict and corrupt politicians, risking human lives and destroying the environment. In the first report of our 5-part series, we look at the current state and worth of gold, amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

This is part 1 of a series.

On 14 July, the COVID-19 crisis prompted the World Gold Council to pronounce: ‘Investors have embraced gold in 2020 as a key portfolio hedging strategy. […] the pandemic will likely have a lasting effect on asset allocation. It will also reinforce the value of gold as a strategic asset.’ By 5 August gold had hit its highest price ever, at $2,048 an ounce.

While traders moved bullion at the press of a button, in Kamituga, a mining town in South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), disaster struck. In the early afternoon of 11 September at least 50 young creuseurs, or artisanal miners, drowned in a river of mud when torrential rains flooded the ‘Detroit’ gold mines to the south of the city. Only one survivor was found by the hundreds of local people who flocked to the scene to help.

READ MORE London Bullion Market clamps down on illicit gold trade

A chain of young men stretched down from the mine entrance, framed by sturdy wooden beams, passing up buckets of mud as rescue workers searched for the trapped miners, some of whom had been working 40 metres underground in the makeshift shafts.

Kamituga has been a mining town since the 1920s, when large quantities of gold were discovered there, and a succession of big companies arrived. But it is Kamituga’s artisanal miners, along with the toolmakers, the traders and the transporters, who keep the local economy going.

Prices go down

While the coronavirus pandemic pushed up the gold price worldwide, local prices offered from buyers in Africa actually went down, says Joanne Lebert, executive director of IMPACT (formerly Partnership Africa-Canada), which works to improve natural-resource governance.

“Buyers exploited the situation in Congo. More middlemen got involved instead of relying on the network of local traders,” says Lebert. “Transporting gold around the region became harder, and the miners lost out.”

Kamituga’s miners know the peaks and troughs of the international gold market. Amid the global economic calamity, this year was meant to be their time. Operations like the Detroit mine are the perilous starting point of a supply chain that reaches across the region through a network of traders, then local refineries, before it arrives in international trading hubs such as Dubai. Most of the trade evades Congolese officialdom, royalties and taxes.

READ MORE South Africa: Why Gold has not risen more on Coronavirus

In Kamituga, there are about 300 purchasing counters for gold, according to local campaigners Justice Pour Tous. A recent United Nations Group of Experts report on Congo’s mining industry says ‘a senior official of the mining administration in South Kivu assessed that about 300kg of undeclared gold transited each month’ through Bukavu, the provincial capital. However, official statistics record gold exports of just 5kg a month from the province.

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