Interview with Abdoulaye M. Sissoko, President of the Youth Association for the Development of the Village of Saboucire (AJDVS), in the village of Saboucire, commune of Sadiola, Kayes region in Mali on January 6, 2023.
Falémé River Intro
Hello Abdoulaye, can you describe in a few words the region where your association is based?
Abdoulaye: It is a rural region in the west of Mali, which has 47 villages and 51 hamlets. Agriculture, livestock, and fishing are the main sources of livelihood for people living here. The Falémé river, a major tributary of the Senegal river, is an essential resource for the population. The Falémé is on the border between Mali and Senegal, its source is in the foothills of the Fouta-Djalon massif (Guinea), and flows into the Senegal river northwest of Kayes, after a 650 km long course. For too many years, the vast Falémé plain has been threatened by extractive activities that endanger surrounding communities.
Your association is fighting against the ravages of gold mining by a Chinese company in the region. Can you tell us the history of this company?
Abdoulaye: The DPSTE Huayi company arrived in January 2021 in the region after being expelled from Ghana by the government. It works with a subsidiary called Feng Yi SARL to extract gold by dredging in the Falémé river. It uses machines to dredge the river and also the land bordering the river for the treatment of extractions and the deposit of waste. The supervisory staff is Chinese, while the drivers and operators of the machines are Ghanaians brought in by the company.
Falémé - Impacts of Exploitation
What is the impact of this exploitation?
Abdoulaye: The impact is devastating. Half of the forest — which provides many resources to our people, including pasture — has been destroyed. Our cemeteries, archaeological sites, and sacred sites have been crushed by bulldozers. The river has been polluted — fishing has become almost impossible because the fish have disappeared. Several villages reported that dozens of cows and sheep died after drinking water from the river. There are many health problems related to water pollution, including premature births, respiratory diseases, and others. The government does not test or control the quality of the water but the population is very worried that it is the pollution caused by the gold mining which is at the origin of these problems. People are afraid to eat what little fish they can catch because they are thought to be contaminated.
Half of the forest — which provides many resources to our people, including pasture — has been destroyed. Our cemeteries, archaeological sites, and sacred sites have been crushed by bulldozers.
But the worst is the murders of young women by company security guards. The women come together to practice traditional gold panning with the calabash, which allows them to supplement their income. But there have been several cases of young girls murdered on the spot by the guards while panning for gold in sites abandoned by the company. For example, a 15-year-old girl from the village of Sitadiya was shot dead on November 26, 2021. The same month, Fanta Foune Dansogo, a mother of three, was shot in the head. To date, there has not been justice for these murders.
How was this company allowed to operate there? Did local communities give their consent?
Abdoulaye: When the company arrived, it signed an agreement with the mayor on January 7, 2021 authorizing them to work on a 15-kilometer area. It is known that the company paid the mayor money but this has not been officially disclosed. Witnesses say 40 million CFA [~US$ 65,520] was paid to allow them to operate here. Then the mayor organized meetings with the village chiefs to inform them of the company's operations but not to obtain their consent. In these assemblies, they promised the development of the region, such as road and health infrastructure, but nothing was done and these promises have not been fulfilled.
Later in 2021, after we saw the devastation caused by the company, the young people in our association began to mobilize. In July and August 2021, we wrote letters to the mayor, to the prefect, even to the Minister of the Environment to ask for the exploitation to be stopped. The village chief also wrote to the prefect to alert him to this devastation and to request that the company's activities be stopped.
What were the results of these actions?
Abdoulaye: Nothing happened. All these steps were in vain and no authority reacted during this whole period. In order to face up to the protests of the population, the mayor of Sadiola issued several decrees prohibiting the company's activities from September 2021, but it nevertheless continued to operate as if nothing had happened. In December 2021, we had an assembly in the village and demonstrated in front of the town hall to demand that the exploitation be stopped. But still the authorities took no action. And the devastation from the company’s actions has continued unabated. So, on July 19, 2022, with the approval of the village chief, the young people organized a demonstration at the site of the company’s operations. We gave them seven days to stop their activities and pack up. After seven days, we returned to the site and found that the company continued to operate as if nothing had happened. So, we again called on them to stop.
Falémé - Result of Mobilization
What was the impact of this new mobilization?
Abdoulaye: Three days later, the village chief received a summon for 10 demonstrators from the court in Kaye. Seven of these young people appeared in court on July 30, 2022. They were questioned about the demonstration and accused of carrying out a violent action, when in fact the demonstration had been completely peaceful. The gendarmerie placed these seven people in police custody by order of the court. As President of our association and leader of the mobilization, I was among those summoned but I could not go to court because I was in Bamako at the time. On August 1, 2022, four people were released while three remained in prison. They were charged with disturbing public order, arson, and damaging the movable property of others. But these charges were false, it was really about intimidating the youth.
What were the conditions in the prison?
Abdoulaye: Kayes prison is overcrowded, with many people held there. These young people had never been in prison before and were very scared. With poor sanitation and poor food, many fell ill. Luckily, with support from the Oakland Institute and the Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund, we were able to purchase food and medicine for my comrades. This also allowed us to hire a lawyer who took charge of the defense of the people sued. This support and the presence of the lawyer at our side helped us in the procedure but also encouraged us in our fight. We knew we were no longer alone. Your assistance has reduced the threat and the youth have been encouraged.
Following our mobilization, the government finally began to take an interest in the issue, which passed to the Council of Ministers, with the decision to stop illegal and destructive mining activities such as these.
After a month in prison, the three arrested comrades were released on September 1, 2022 thanks to the work of the lawyer and the steps taken by the village chief to request their release. But all of us remain under judicial supervision, having to report to the gendarmerie every week.
Have there been any more recent developments?
Abdoulaye: Yes. Following our mobilization, the government finally began to take an interest in the issue, which passed to the Council of Ministers, with the decision to stop illegal and destructive mining activities such as these. In mid-December 2022, we were encouraged after several Chinese managers of the company were arrested by the gendarmerie and placed in detention while the drivers of the machines fled into the bush. Unfortunately, our joy was short-lived, as the company managers simply paid a fine and were able to resume their activities.
What does the government do to enforce its decisions?
Abdoulaye: The state recently sent an Auditor General to investigate. Following this, several deputies to the mayor were troubled, and one deputy was even arrested at the end of December. We also know that several ministries are now interested in our problem. This is the situation so far and we don't know what else to do. These people from the local authorities have to go to jail. We hope the truth will prevail.
Do you have anything else you would like the international community to know?
Abdoulaye: Like many other young people around the world, we are mobilizing to put an end to a major ecological scandal so that our ancestral lands stop once and for all being devastated from top to bottom by extractive companies. Mining companies — both Western and Chinese — are ready to do anything to satisfy their thirst for short-term profits. They have insatiable appetites for gold and other precious raw materials, to the great disarray of our present and future lives.
To conclude, I thank you for your crucial support and call again on the Malian authorities to stop this company. We will remain mobilized until the final cessation of these operations. Our forests and our river are devastated, we call on the national and international community to support us in this vital struggle. Environmental and human rights organizations must come to our aid so that our waterways are cleaned up and we are compensated for all the damage caused to our environment and our human rights.