woman holds raw gold with her index finger and thumb at a mine in a picture

Kenya's New Gold Rush

Local miners and foreign companies are ramping up their searches for this precious metal, but at what cost?

In Kakamega County and other parts of Western Kenya, artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) has long provided residents with a tenuous living. ASGM is hard, dirty, risky work, with mostly meager financial rewards. But as British mining companies show new interest in Kenya’s gold deposits, buying land rights and conducting exploratory digs, more Kenyans are taking up mining themselves — hoping to make a small profit while they can.

What is ASGM, and what are the human and environmental costs associated with it?

mine workers are seen prepared for work at a mine in kakamega a town picture

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mine workers prepare for work at a mine in kakamega a western town of picture

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The ASGM process starts when miners, outfitted with flashlights, boots, and little else, enter shafts to collect rocks and soil containing small amounts of gold. These shafts can be more than 100-feet deep, and cave-ins are a constant risk.

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Before the haul is sifted, the larger rocks must be broken down into smaller rocks, pebbles, and finally dust. Machines, when available, are a help.

workers mostly women wash rock pieces with water including mercury to picture

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workers mostly women wash rock pieces with water including mercury to picture

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The dust is washed with a watery solution containing mercury, which causes the gold to separate and form an amalgam with the mercury.

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The mud formed by the mixing of the dust with the water-and-mercury solution can then be reprocessed, sometimes yielding more gold.

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The UN estimates that ASGM — which is common not only in Africa, but also in Central and South America and Southeast Asia — releases more than 14 million tons of mercury into the environment each year, making it the world’s largest source of mercury pollution. Miners, sifters, and their communities face numerous health risks from mercury exposure, from pulmonary edema and kidney damage to headaches and loss of vision to depression and insomnia. Campaigns are underway to reduce the use of mercury in ASGM in Kenya and elsewhere, but for now it remains common.

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Once the gold amalgams have been plucked from the dust and mud, they are heated over wood fires. The mercury burns off, leaving raw gold that can be sold to brokers.

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What is the state of ASGM in Western Kenya?

ASGM has been the dominant mode of extraction in Kakamega since the 1950s. Prior to that, from 1935 to 1952, the area was controlled by Rosterman, a British mining company that sought to capitalize on Kenya’s first gold rush. Rosterman deemed their mine unprofitable and abandoned it as Britain began to lose control of the Kenya Colony. (The Mau Mau Uprising started in 1952, the same year that Rosterman ceased its mining operations; British rule formally ended in 1963.)


In recent years, British companies have returned. Last February, Acacia Mining company announced the discovery of a 1.3-million-ounce gold stream in Western Kenya. (That estimate has since been lowered to 1.1 million ounces; global commodity markets currently price gold at more than $1300 per ounce.) Residents of these areas are waiting to see how Acacia will proceed. Some are optimistic that they will be able to sell their land to Acacia at a good price, or find steadier, safer employment in the company’s mines. Others are concerned that whatever wealth flows from the mines will pass them by. Given the history of British economic ventures in Kenya, their concerns are not unfounded.