Digging a trench under the punishing midday sun, Thomas Lokinga stops only when he needs to wipe the sweat from his face. He is determined to find a nugget of gold amid the hard-baked ground in Nanakanak, in the eastern part of South Sudan, the world’s newest nation.
He’s one of about 60,000 gold diggers in South Sudan unearthing an estimated $660 million worth of gold each year, according to one international mining expert. These finds have sparked a gold rush in the nation’s east — a region that long was a flashpoint in the country’s nearly 50-year-old civil war.
With so many diggers, nuggets are getting harder to find.
Lokinga says he used to find a gram of gold a day, and now it takes 10 days of non-stop work. He says the dreams of wealth have attracted hordes of people including women and children, scratching out an existence after years or poor agricultural harvests.
“All over here people are doing this work,” Lokinga says. “Children and women and even elderly people inside the bushes, all just leaving their homes and looking for something to eat.”
At a nearby riverbed, people from the area’s Toposa tribe — wearing little but beads — puff on traditional pipes and talk about a golden era when you could find visible chunks. Now, they sift through endless basins of dirt searching for the finest specks.
The drone of crickets charges the air, as local leader David Headboy dreams of a brighter future away from panning.
“The hope now is that the machines come, that investment comes and gives food to the people and things are calm,” he says.
Preparing For Mining Companies
There are also hopes that bigger investors could bring development to areas without basic services, roads or power.
Geologists believe it’s likely that mineral belts, including copper and iron ore, line the soil and that precious stones nestle among rare earth elements.
But in a land that has languished in poverty and been torn apart by war, very little is known about what lies beneath. The few existing minerals maps were made in the 1970s during the brief respite between wars.
South Sudan gained independence from Sudan just two years ago, and the country is struggling from internal political problems. Just last month, President Salva Kiir fired his entire Cabinet.
Currently, the gold is only used as a form of foreign exchange with traders bringing goods from Kenya. South Sudan’s currency isn’t yet recognized internationally.
Kenyan trader Samuel Kivuva is chairman of the Foreigners’ Association in Kapoeta, the South Sudan trading town closest to the mines. He estimates that about 11 pounds of gold — worth about $250,000 — passes through Kapoeta each week.
The amount of gold doubled last year when traders brought in metal detectors to help the artisanal miners.
Emerging Turf War
But local security forces also want a piece of the action. They confiscated machines and money, in the first signs of an emerging turf war over the nascent industry.
The central government says it has suspended the licenses of more than 40 mostly regional companies working in South Sudan’s east until it irons out regulations that will put the finishing touches to a new mining law due for roll out soon.
In a resource-rich but grossly underdeveloped nation, the government hopes the mining law will formalize the sector and make it taxable.
The aim is to attract mining giants, many of which work in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, whose mineral finds stretch beyond their borders.
Director of Mining Arkangelo Okwang says that there is no shortage of interest in South Sudan.
“There are so many companies at the door, just queuing, wanting to come in, except that our regulations are not in,” he says. “Huge companies are coming in for South Sudan mineral opportunities.”
And he says that fighting both internally with rebels and with neighboring Sudan will not prevent the creation of a mining industry in South Sudan.
“I think we are [very] much ready,” Okwang says. “I don’t think that the type of insecurity is so significant to the extent of hampering the companies from coming in.”
Okwang says the country is taking cautious first steps toward industrial mining to try to avoid bloodshed over South Sudan’s minerals. The country, he says, is wary of other nations where battles over natural resources have turned into a curse.