by Peter Dörrie (Homepage / Twitter). He is a freelance journalist, who writes mainly about resource politics in Africa. This article is the results of a six-week research in Senegal in October and November 2014, made possible by a grant from the Heinz-Kühn-Foundation.
How do you transform an economy? How do you make the jump from a society stricken by poverty and stagnation to an emerging market with dynamic, but more or less equitable growth? Some countries, like South Korea and arguably China and India have managed to do so, but their examples don’t supply blueprints which could be copied one to one.
It is a question that is relevant especially to African countries, many of which have known relative political stability in recent years, but are yet to reap the economic rewards. One of those countries is Senegal, situated on the continent’s westernmost tip.
Unlike Angola, Equatorial Guinea or Nigeria, Senegal isn’t blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) with oil reserves that could push the economy into middle-income territory in a heartbeat. But its natural resource potential is still considerable, ranging from world-class fisheries over underused agricultural zones to mineral deposits like gold, phosphates and zircon.
Senegal shares this respectable, but on the first sight unremarkable natural resource potential with many other African countries, all of which are currently looking for ways to develop their economies. But finding the right answers is much harder for these countries than in places where a single resource like petrol can provide the potential foundation for a whole national economy. Simply saying “good governance” over and over again and combating corruption won’t help in Senegal, where roadblocks to equitable economic development are much more complex and developments in one economic sector can have unforeseeable consequences in others.
A proportional representation of Senegal’s exports (2012; MIT Harvard Economic Complexity Observatory). The main industries include food processing, mining, cement, artificial fertilizer, chemicals, textiles, refining imported petroleum, and tourism. Exports include fish, chemicals, cotton, fabrics, groundnuts, and calcium phosphate. The principal foreign markets are Mali 14.4%, Switzerland 14.1%, India 11.9%, France 4.7%, Guinea 4.2% (2012; The CIA World Factbook).
To explore these connections and talk with the people shaping them, I traveled to south-eastern Senegal. The area is part of the West African gold belt, one of the richest mining areas in the world. The shiny metal can be found here in many places only a few metres below the surface, accessible to everybody.
The village of Tomboronkoto, about thirty kilometres north of Kédougou, the capital of the synonymous region, is such a place. A dusty moonscape is situated on its outskirts, not far from the banks of the Gambia river, although similar sites exist throughout the area.
A few dozen people are working on the site, only a fraction of the crowd that is usually active here, explains my guide. Artisanal gold mining is currently prohibited in Senegal, which is why my companion, who is responsible for coordinating and organising the activities around the open pit mine doesn’t want to have his real name printed. Mohammed, as I will call him from now on, shows me the various stages and methods of extracting the ore. At one end of the mine, a number of narrow holes have been dug into the ground. Up to five metres deep, one or two children are working to drive them deeper into the ground, or to dig into promising sediment laterally. It is dangerous work because the holes are not secured and the sand is hoisted out of them in heavy buckets attached to strings that have seen better days. Needless to say that human rights organisations have no trouble coming up with lists of accidents in which children or adult gold miners were killed.
Gold is extracted from the sediment by using a combination of washing to sort the heavier gold particles from the lighter sand and treating it with mercury, explains Mohammed, which bonds with gold into an amalgam. Mercury is highly poisonous and can enter the human body through the skin, via contaminated food or in its evaporated state through the lungs, leading to severe impairments of sight, movement and mental capacity. Despite this, the dangerous element is handled without any kind of safety equipment.
The miners know that mercury is dangerous, says Mohammed, but it is cheap and makes mining a one-man operation without any investment needed for expensive machinery. While he guides me through the mine, Mohammed’s mobile rings every five minutes. People are calling him to complain about an Italian gold exploration company that has not employed enough locals. “We will talk with them,” Mohammed shouts into the mobile. “They can’t just bring people from Dakar to work here. If they don’t listen, we will try to shut them down.”
On the other side of the mine a group of young men are shovelling earth onto two beat up trucks. When he discovers them, Mohammed angrily starts an argument, because the area isn’t supposed to be worked on. “I’m the one telling you where to work,” he explains to the men who obviously don’t recognise him. “You go over there.” They grudgingly oblige. The men are from Burkina Faso, Mohammed explains, some of the thousands of migrant gold miners who have flocked to Senegal from across western Africa.
artisanal gold mining: A mine worker in Kharakhena, Senegal, who uses a machine to crush the ore before the gold can be separated (Photo by Kelly Boyer).
We hop on a dirt bike. He wants to show me where the trucks bring the sediment that the men have been extracting. After a short drive through green fields along a dirt track, we arrive at a large clearing. About a dozen diesel-driven earth crushers are standing in a semicircle. The noise is deafening. Together with the men working at the mine, at least twenty people are involved in this operation, stretching the meaning of the word “small-scale”.
Here, Mohammed says, no mercury is used, the process is completely physical. The crushers need substantial amounts of fuel and water, the latter being drawn from the majestic Gambia river that flows only a few metres away. Of course, at the end the muddy water also flows back into the Gambia, complete with fuel and machine oil residues mixed in.
Small-scale mining is important for communities in Senegal’s remote south-east, says Mohammed. People have been able to build proper houses in his village due the income from gold mining. The same income would never have been possible from agriculture. Before he returns me to the main road so that I can drive back to Kédougou, he tells one of the workers to search for two pieces of gold. “Here,” he says only seconds later, holding in his hands two nuggets barely larger than the tip of a needle, “a present.” I try to respectfully decline, but he insists. “It is my operation here, I can give the gold away to whom I want.”
As in the rest of the world, artisanal gold mining has boomed in Senegal after the financial crisis of 2008 let to astronomical increases in world market prices for the precious metal. Today, gold is Senegal’s top export commodity and touted by the government as an important foundation of future economic growth. But the government sees no role for artisanal miners like those in Tomboronkoto in these grand plans. Small-scale mining is a dirty affair, in more than one sense. It is very hard to regulate and control, leading to such things as child labour. Especially larger mining settlements – there are some in Senegal that are home to as many as 15,000 informal miners – have high rates of violence and prostitution. Also, small-scale mining is notoriously hard to tax.
The government is instead betting on international mining companies. Dozens are active in Senegal, although most are small outlets only engaged in exploration. Only one industrial mine has entered production, the Canadian-owned Sabodala Gold Mine.
Sabodala open pit mine
Sabodala is about 100 kilometres from Kédougou and used to be a pretty typical Senegalese village. It is still that, the only obvious thing setting apart the thatched huts and crude brick houses being the well-maintained dirt road and more small shops than would be usual for a village of the size. But to get to Sabodala, you drive past a massive hole, a crater-like open pit mine that is continuously being blasted into the bedrock next to the village. From this pit, gold worth 300 million USD was extracted in 2013. For most people here this is unimaginable wealth, but it is wealth that they have been excluded from.
Everybody I talk to in Sabodala says that the mine doesn’t provide enough jobs. The village is full of people idling about, many of which moved to Sabodala to find work at the mine. The complaints are echoed by a, member of the village committee that allocates open positions at the mine in cooperation with the company. “In the beginning, many people were employed. But today it is the opposite. At the moment the locals don’t benefit from the mine.”
Abel Page, who is with me at the meeting, grimaces at the comment. The young Frenchman works for Sabodala Gold Operations (SGO), the local subsidiary of Teranga Gold, the mining company that owns the mine. Together with a Senegalese colleague, he is responsible for the social and environmental responsibility projects of the company, as well as community relations.
As far as I can tell, Teranga Gold makes a real effort to be a good “corporate citizen”. It produces a shiny and comprehensive “responsibility report“, currently builds a kindergarten and a community radio station for Sabodala, provided running water to all compounds in the village and runs a tree nursery, a women’s vegetable farming area and agricultural training programs. Forty percent of the company’s staff is from Kédougou region and expats make up only ten percent of its total workforce. It has also helped push forward the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiative, an effort to publish all payments from and to government relating to the mining sector.
Some workers at Sabodala Gold Operations
Of course, Teranga Gold is still a mining operation and no social welfare programme. There is no question that the open pit mine, which will be substantially enlarged in the coming years, is highly disruptive of the environment. Cyanide is used to extract the gold from the bedrock. The poisonous tailings are stored in open dams, which have been secured against leakage and are industry standard, as Page is quick to point out. In theory, UV-light emitted by the sun will break down the cyanide, but one has to take the company’s word that the reservoir is secured and that the tailings dam will hold for the next few decades. The history of mining is full of broken tailings dams, spilling death over the surrounding countryside.
But the company is confident that it does its share to make the risks worth it for Senegal’s economy. In 2013 it payed 22 million USD to the government, split between royalties, taxes, social security and pensions. Its total contribution to the economy, including wages paid to Senegalese nationals and local sub-contractors tops 140 million USD, according to company reports.
Both Mohammed and his small-scale miners and the international mining company Abel Page is working for are pieces of a complicated puzzle that doesn’t only include gold mining, but also Senegal’s fishing sector, agriculture and other mining endeavours. Senegal’s government is working to put the pieces together, so that the country’s natural resources can serve to kickstart the economy, transforming Senegal into an emerging market by 2035, on par with China, India and Turkey today.
This project, dubbed “Plan Sénégal Emergent” (PSE), reflects the frustration of Senegalese society with the mismatch between its political and economic development. As the executive summary of the PSE notes, “For more than fifty years, Senegal has experienced rates of economic growth close to the rate of population growth. This poor performance has not permitted a sustainable reduction in poverty.”
Over the same period, Senegal has developed into one of Africa’s most stable democracies, praised for its inclusive politics and social stability. Still, the country languishes on the bottom rungs of the Human Development Index, in the neighbourhood of war-torn countries like Sudan and Syria. The city centre of Dakar, Senegal’s capital, is a shiny beacon of western consumerism, but on the city’s outskirts and in the countryside I feel reminded of nearby Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest countries.
Le Monument de la Renaissance africaine is a 49 m tall bronze statue located on top of one of the twin hills known as Collines des Mamelles, outside of Dakar, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the Ouakam suburb. It is the tallest statue in Africa.
The PSE is supposed to change this and natural resources play an important part in it. But the Senegalese government, small-scale miners, artisanal fishermen, subsistence farmers and international investors are still searching for and fighting over the right formula to unlock their potential. All too often, priorities, perceptions and expectations collide.
The industrial mine in Sabodala, as well as its artisanal counterpart in Tomboronkoto are excellent examples of this. In Sabodala, the local village chief tells me that of all the impacts of the mine, “only three or four percent have been positive.” He complains much like other locals that the company doesn’t offer enough jobs and that since it has arrived, locals are not allowed to practice artisanal mining any more. “I am afraid of the company,” he says, because it wants to explore possible deposits below the village itself, which could lead to a complete resettlement.
He understands the fears, says SGO’s Abel Page, but the company has entered into a contract with the government that both gives it the right to explore for further deposits, as well as the duty to do so. The problem, he argues, is primarily one of unrealistic expectations about the role of the company. “We can’t give everybody a job,” he says. He feels that the state doesn’t show enough presence in Sabodala and argues that his company isn’t responsible for stimulating the local economy.
Page has a point, of course. After all, one would expect that the taxes and royalties paid by the mining company get reinvested into the region, to diversify and develop the economy. But a researcher from a German political foundation tells me that seventy percent of all government expenditure is spent in Dakar, the capital city. Not a lot remains for regions like Kédougou and due to the centralized system of governance, getting access to these funds is largely dependent on good personal connections between local dignitaries and central government officials. The result: many villagers make little difference between the western mining company and the state, holding them equally responsible for service delivery and economic development. This creates tensions that none of the actors is able to overcome on his own and differentiates industrial mining from its artisanal counterpart that has immediate and visible benefits for the local population.
Despite the undeniable economic benefits it brings to the local population, the government has taken a critical stance regarding artisanal and small-scale mining. Too frightening are the vices that go along with it in many places, but the main sticking point is its competition with agriculture. Many young men and women find it more profitable to dig for gold rather than tilling the fields. But a stronger agricultural production is a major aspect of the PSE, while the government would like to leave the mining sector to better regulated and easier to tax companies.
A major emphasis is put on rice production. Rice is the country’s preferred staple food, but despite a considerable local production potential up to 80 percent of local consumption is imported from Asian countries. World market prices for rice are volatile and an increase can easily cost the Senegalese economy and consumers tens of millions of Dollars.
The government has therefore made self sufficiency a priority, explains Dr. Ibrahima Hathie, agricultural economist and research director of Dakar-based organisation IPAR. “They have set the goal for 2017. But if you ask me that is not a realistic objective, it is impossible,” he tells me in his office during our interview.
In 2005, Senegal imported an estimated 850,000 tons of rice. Increasing local production by this amount, Dr. Hathie argues, is not only a question of providing additional paddies and irrigation, although this is challenging enough. “You have to establish structures for the commercialisation and regulation of the trade,” he says. These structures don’t exist yet for locally produced rice, because a substantial share is consumed directly by the farmers themselves.
Given the monumental scope of this project and the government’s bad track record – successive administrations have created new but ultimately unsuccessful agricultural initiatives for decades – it is hard to argue with Dr. Hathie’s pessimism. But his criticism goes beyond the overly ambitious nature of the government’s self-sufficiency plans for rice. “Rice is very important, its true, but one shouldn’t ignore the other cereals. How do we want to achieve a lower vulnerability and diversify in the long term? There is nothing in the PSE about climate change and we don’t know how rice production will be affected by it.”
In the end, Dr. Hathie says, the success of the governmental agricultural policy won’t be decided by raw production anyway. If the goal is to reduce poverty and to support an equitable economic development of the country, increasing productivity could even be harmful if done wrong.
Those few industrial agricultural projects that currently exist in Senegal, like a Spanish project in the country’s north near the town St. Louis or a Lebanese-run farm close to Dakar, are geared almost exclusively towards the export of raw agricultural products. Existing agricultural value chains are rudimentary, like the production of peanut oil and tomato paste from locally grown fruits.
The agricultural sector currently employs 77.5 percent of the population, but only contributes 15 percent to the production of the national economy. If the government succeeds in increasing this low productivity, but neglects creating corresponding jobs in higher agricultural industries, mass unemployment and reduced food security would be the effect.
Building up whole industries from scratch based on the transformation of agricultural products is hard and requires substantial capital and political commitment. And Senegal doesn’t even have a very good starting position, despite considerable untapped agricultural potential. The national economy is deeply integrated into the world market, with few barriers protecting local producers from cheaper imports. At the same time its main export market for agricultural products, the European Union, has no qualms about closing its borders against imports that would threaten its domestic farmers. Also, because Senegal is member of the West African monetary union and its currency, the CFA-Franc is fixed against the Euro, it is hopelessly overvalued, stacking the odds against Senegalese producers.
Nobody I talked to in Senegal feels that the government – or anybody else, for that matter – has the solution to these issues or the political vision to change the system fundamentally. And this is not only a problem for the agricultural sector. If anything, the challenges for reforming the fishing sector are even greater.
I find myself on the beach of Bagny, 30 kilometres from the city centre of Dakar. The sun is burning down mercilessly, while I observe how a photographer who has positioned himself on the roof of a car is directing a crowd in this direction or that. Some people hold banners and in the middle a small fishing boat has been lowered into a shallow grave. “Here lies the last pirogue” declares a tombstone next to it. I am witness to a demonstration organised by the local chapter of Greenpeace. It is part of an international day of action against so called “Monster Boats”, huge industrial fishing vessels that Greenpeace oceans campaigner Marie Suzanne Traoré says are responsible for some of the most egregious examples of overfishing.
The crowd is made up of local Greenpeace volunteers, fishermen and female fishmongers. In Senegal it is easy to find people willing to protest against the activities of international fishing companies. More than 90 percent of all catches landed in Senegal are supplied by artisanal fishermen, plying the country’s world-class fisheries in boats ranging from three metres in length to pirogues with a crew of up to twenty which stay at sea for up to two months. Apart from motors and ice machines, the use of machinery is virtually non-existent. The sector relies on cheap manual labour and estimates go as high as two million people who rely directly or indirectly on maritime fishing for their livelihoods. Fish is also the major source of animal protein in Senegal.
Artisanal fishermen love to complain about foreign companies exploiting Senegalese stocks and they have all reason to do so. Like virtually all stocks around the world, Senegalese waters are heavily overfished. Until a few years ago the government more or less gave fishing rights away and corruption was rampant. With no coast guard to speak of, the authorities were often unable to police the national waters and enforce regulations.
But some things have changed in recent years. Under president Macky Sall, who came into power in 2012, a new fishery agreement with the European Union was negotiated that provides substantially better terms to Senegal than previous ones and excludes species that are caught by artisanal fishermen. Sall’s administration also arrested a Russian trawler and its crew for pirate fishing, only releasing the boat after a hefty fine was paid by its owners. Artisanal fishermen and their representatives have gained increased influence over political decisions that touch their interests.
Joint Patrol of the Senegalese Navy vessel Poponquine (right) alongside the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Legare (left).
But, like with artisanal gold mining, small-scale fishing is hardly a one-dimensional, exclusively positive affair. Working conditions are terrible and dangerous. From accidents on the boats to fish smokers that increase the rate of respiratory illnesses, working in the Senegalese fishing sector is no walk in the park. And while hundreds of thousands of people rely on fishing for their livelihood, it has allowed only a select few to achieve even moderate wealth. More commonly, fishing can provide the daily food on the table, but little beyond. On top of it, artisanal fishermen contribute to overfishing just as their international industrial counterparts do. An apt comparison would be that of India or China and the U.S.A. when it comes to climate change: The industrialised world started the problem and certainly has a greater responsibility for solving it. But without concessions from the developing countries, the problem can’t be solved at all.
Neither NGOs like Greenpeace, nor the Senegalese government seem to be keen on telling the artisanal fishermen that they, too, will have to change. The sensible thing to do would be to set and enforce quotas not only for foreign vessels, but small boats as well. Although, as one foreign diplomat tells me, setting these quotas is hard, because there is little knowledge about the productivity and level of overfishing of Senegalese stocks, because the requisite studies have so far been neglected.
Similar to the agricultural sector, productivity of fishing activities would have to be increased to allow individual fishermen to take home higher wages and leave poverty. But, just like with agriculture, this would actually reduce the number of available positions in the sector, making the establishment of well-managed value chains necessary to avoid rampant unemployment. Unfortunately, such a reform isn’t even on the political horizon. Without a broad social consensus, trying to limit artisanal fishing would be akin to political suicide for any politician.
When I drive home from the Greenpeace demonstration together with Abdoulaye, the representative of an organisation of fishery workers and squid merchant, he echoes my trepidation. “I am afraid for the small-scale fisheries,” he says. “The crash will come.” A possible template and warning example is the European Union. Due to overfishing and declining stocks, European countries lost half of their 300,000 professional fishermen from 1990 to 2007. And it would have been much worse if the political and economic weight of the Union wouldn’t have allowed it to gain access to long-distance fisheries like those in Senegal.
Fishermen at work in artisanal fishing pirogues with seine nets off of the Senegalese coast, Kafountine, Casamance (Photo: Clément Tardif / Greenpeace).
Senegalese fishermen won’t be able to follow the fish to other oceans once local stocks collapse. There are indications that this point will be reached sooner, rather than later. Catches have plateaued since 1997, never exceeding 430,000 tons while crashing in some years as low as 334,000 tons. An uncontrolled reduction of catches which would be the inevitable consequence of a collapse of the stocks, would have dramatic consequences, both for Senegal’s economy and food security of the local population.
Consequently the fisheries demonstrate perhaps most clearly what is true for all natural resources in Senegal, including those not discussed in this article: Business as usual is no longer an option. While until now Senegal’s economy has managed to at least keep up with population growth and deliver some statistically measurable improvements to the wellbeing of the population, increasing overexploitation and a changing geopolitical and economic environment could actually push Senegal’s economy into crisis. To avert this, Senegal’s economy will have develop new dynamics. Changing its approach to the management of natural resources will play a huge role in this.
Some encouraging examples exist. Early in 2014 a mineral sands mine has taken up operations north of Dakar. The Grand Côte project is the third largest of its type in the world. In comparison to the gold mine in Sabodala, it is hard to find anybody who is critical of the project. There were a few conflicts around resettlements, but even according to local civil society representatives, these were resolved more or less amicably, aided by the fact that the project exploits a chain of old dunes that are not intensively inhabited or used anyway. The company draws most of its employees from the local population and runs a training program to satisfy its need for qualified labour. According to company representatives it trains considerably more people than needed for its own operations.
There are of course still issues: the minerals produced in Grand Côte are exported in their raw state, excluding Senegal from much of the value creation associated with them. And according to experts I interviewed on the issue, the Senegalese mining code is exceptionally generous to investors, leaving the government with a smaller share of the mining profit than is internationally common. The latter point is also an issue with the gold mining activities in Sabodala, where the government share of the value generated is a measly ten percent.
Mining of sand at Grande Côte
This touches at one of the main problems that Senegal faces when it comes to developing its natural resources for the benefit of the larger society. In almost every interview I conducted, the interview partner would sooner or later bemoan the “lack of vision” on part of the government. While it is tempting to see this as a specific problem of the administration of President Macky Sall and perhaps his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade, my impression is that Senegal’s political and social elite in general is either not willing, or unable to develop the necessary political will and dynamic to drive the country the decisive step forward.
In many cases, like with the small-scale mining entrepreneur Mohammed or the squid-trader Abdoulaye, people it spoke to were acutely aware of the problems associated with natural resource exploitation. Senegal’s society is in general quite committed to compromise and balance. If supported by enough political will and energy, I am sure that even monumental economic reforms could be successful here.
But the political elite is currently more committed to preparing for the next general elections (coming up in 2017) than to face the country’s real problems, of which the management of natural resources is only one. It is telling that many people would not so much complain about government corruption, mismanagement or ill will, although these issues certainly exist as well, as about a general feeling of being left behind, without any enthusiasm for the future.
Although this is a pessimistic assessment, it bears also a kernel of great hope. In many ways, Senegal is a country full of potential, just waiting for the right time to realise it. The country’s natural resources are part of this optimistic perspective and given the right circumstances could contribute to a transformation that would leave society and economy barely recognisable, in a good way, within the span of a generation.