In Banate, a village of 8,000 inhabitants 360 kilometers north of the capital Khartoum, the children were always born healthy, recalls Taleb’s mother, Awadya Ahmed, 45.
“My first four children are all doing well, except Taleb who was the only one born after gold dust covered the village,” she told AFP.
“Gold dust”, this white deposit which forms small heaps at the foot of houses, in the shade of an orchard or in the middle of a field, is a mixture of heavy metals used by artisanal miners to extract gold.
It contains mercury, cyanide and other agents that are harmful to humans and the environment.
For Aljayli Abdelaziz, a village dignitary, it all started five years ago.
“Since we saw these dusty deposits appear, children have been born with malformations and there have been miscarriages, I have counted 22 births with malformations,” he told AFP.
– Mercury in water, urine, blood –
In January, researchers tested the drinking water in Banate: the concentration of mercury there reached a national record. And they also found mercury in the urine and blood of the inhabitants.
This silver-colored liquid metal is particularly dangerous once in water because, drunk by animals, it ends up in the human food chain.
In pregnant women, it can permanently affect the child’s developing brain and nervous system.
While Banate is the epicenter of the phenomenon, in total there are “450,000 tons of gold mining residues saturated with harmful mercury” in Nile State, estimates Ali Mohammed Ali, of the Sudanese Association for Environmental Protection.
Gold mining is not a recent discovery in Sudan: since antiquity, men have descended into the bowels of the Nubian land – present-day Sudan – to extract nuggets.
But for a long time, no chemicals were used and in recent decades, only professional companies took care of this task — and the management of chemical waste afterwards.
Today, artisanal mines provide 80% of Sudan’s gold production. Every day, two million Sudanese work there in 16 of the country’s 18 provinces.
The remaining 20%, i.e. 30.3 tonnes in the first half of 2021 according to official figures, are extracted by officially registered companies.
However, gold miners “handle chemicals with dangerous residues such as mercury which should be treated by specialized people and in a very supervised way, especially far from dwellings and water sources”, denounces Saleh Ali Saleh, university professor and subject matter expert.
– “Years to make up for the damage” –
About fifty kilometers from Banate, a handful of miners manipulate with their bare hands vats of water filled with crushed rocks mixed with mercury in an attempt to extract gold nuggets.
Among them, Mohammed Issa. At 25, this son of a breeder from North Kordofan, 1,600 kilometers away, is literally experiencing his gold rush… even if it means losing his health.
“When I arrived here, I saw that everyone was doing this and that it was the boss of the mine himself who brought us the mercury,” he told AFP.
However, in 2019, a few months after the end of the military-Islamist dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, the government banned the use of mercury and cyanide in mines.
Because the figures are known: at the global level, artisanal gold panning generates more than a third of global mercury emissions, according to the European Agency for Development.
But even today, everywhere in Sudan, “you can buy it”, assures AFP the owner of an artisanal mine which employs 95 gold miners, on condition of anonymity as the question is sensitive.
Asked several times by AFP, the state company responsible for mining activities refused to respond.
The gold trade — $720 million in the first quarter of 2022 according to the Central Bank — has long been controlled by shadowy groups linked to the security services under Bashir.
Today, it explodes, and with it, environmental damage, warns Mr. Saleh.
“The existing damage is not easily resorbable. And even if we stopped everything today, it would take years to recover the damage”.