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Economy

Gold Mining in Uganda

Ian Berry follows the journey of Fairtrade gold from Ugandan mine to London jewelers

Ian Berry

Ian Berry Miners working in the Sama FairTrade Mine. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Miners pump water out of a flooded area of the Sama FairTrade Mine. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A miner washes the ore at the flooded Busia United Open Cast Mine. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Miners dig for gold in their back gardens in the Margaret Ikee Conventional Mine. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Village life in the mining community. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Miners at the Busia United Mine wash ore through cloths to extract any specks of gold. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2916. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A woman digging alongside a man trying to repair a crushing and washing machine at an informal or artisanal mine. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A miner working at a flooded open cast pit at the Busia United Mine checks his pan for specks of gold. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A miner works at the flooded Busia United Mine which is an open cast pit. Here he pauses in the back-breaking work. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A miner stands at the bottom of a great hole at the Busia United Mine. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A young boy pulls off his rubber boots in the Margaret Ikee Conventional Open Cast Mine village. To judge by this and the dirt on him, he has been working with the miners. Near Tororo, Uganda, Afri (...)
Ian Berry Soil from the pit is being shoveled into basins for washing for gold at the Margaret Ikee Conventional Open Cast Mine. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A child miner shows a small piece of gold amalgam on his palm at the Margaret Ikee Conventional Open Cast Mine. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Miners remove the flood water from the Margaret Ikee Conventional Open Cast Mine by hand using their panning basins. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Margaret Ikee Conventional Open Cast Mine. A miner inspects his basin of washed ore for small specks of gold. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry A woman miner at the Busia United Mine sells her gold to a middle man who having weighed it is checking gold prices on his phone. The woman knows she will receive almost nothing for days of back-br (...)
Ian Berry Miners at the Sama Fair Trade Mine show the small speck of gold amalgam. Near Tororo, Uganda, Africa. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Miners at the Sama Fair Trade Mine use a retort to separate the mercury from the gold. This process prevents the release of the poisonous fumes from mercury into the air and allows for the mercury (...)
Ian Berry Tony Power uses a loup to examine a gold ring for flaws in the studio behind his jewellery shop. Cox + Power, London, England. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Tony Power heats gold with a blow torch until it is molten and can be poured into a trough in the studio behind his jewelry shop. Cox + Power. London, England. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Jon at work in his studio heating a piece of gold with a burner until molten. Jon Dibben Shop and Studio, Cranleigh, Surrey, England. 2016. For the Fairtrade Foundation. © Ian Berry | Magnum Photos
Ian Berry Stephen Webster is artistic director of Garrard & Co Ltd, the oldest jewellers in the world. Webster is an ambassador for Fair Trade. Here jewellery designed by him is displayed on a workbench in (...)

Ian Berry reflects on the Ugandan gold trade as efforts are made to encourage fairer trading practices. He follows the gold from Ugandan mines to the London workshops of jewelers. 

Fairtrade isn’t only about coffee and bananas. The Fairtrade Foundation is quick to point out that it doesn’t matter what the commodity is, people should get a fair price for the work they do. African gold miners are often exploited, but it is not as though they have a choice; it’s dig or starve and it’s accept a pittance for their labors or work harder the following day. The Fairtrade Foundation has intervened and is gradually improving mines and mining conditions and in so doing, is giving the miners a future.

In a thick rich seam stretching from Lake Victoria right into Kenya, gold lies more than 20 feet under the ground. In Tanzania and Kenya, gold mining is organized and legalized but in Uganda it’s the only way artisanal locals can produce a subsistence. Mined extensively by the British in the 30s, once the mines were abandoned, the gold became a desperate source of a few pence a day if a miner was lucky. And all he has to do is dig a hole in his back garden, shift tons of earth, sluice the gold-bearing soil through sieves and cloths, amalgamate any minute specks of gold with mercury and then sell the resulting nugget to a middleman who gives them less than a 20th of what gold is worth on the open market. It’s back-breaking, heart-breaking work that doesn’t improve their lives one jot no matter how hard they push themselves.

"The Fairtrade Foundation is working with jewellers in London who provide a steady market for the Ugandan artisanal gold"

- Ian Berry

Parents don’t consider that they might be blighting their children’s future by involving them in the process. All they know is that every hand is needed to produce a few Ugandan shillings a day – probably less than £1 – for all that hard work. Neither do the miners understand what happens to the mercury when they burn it off. Or if they do, they have no choice. By burning the amalgam, the mercury is released as a toxic gas, a process watched eagerly because perhaps this time the gold nugget will be big. In the process, the gas is inhaled, doing its silent and insidious damage. Mercury is also present in the bowls and basins used for amalgamation, bowls used for domestic purposes after work finishes for the day. Inhaling the mercury gas can affect the fetus. Mothers work during pregnancy and the results are evident in children’s glazed pupils, their distance from everyday life and their constant restlessness.

Where the Fairtrade Foundation has become involved, miners wear smart boiler suits and rubber boots; hard hats are essential round machinery. Care is taken to make the often 60ft deep open pits safe to work in and essentially, miners are rewarded with a decent price for the gold they produce. The aim is to eventually, remove children from the work and get them into school or, at least to begin with, prevent them from distorting their young, growing bodies by being subject to day-long digging which produces a man/child kind of physique.

The Fairtrade Foundation is working with jewellers in London who provide a steady market for the Ugandan artisanal gold. Miners, for the first time in their lives, have the possibility of considering a better tomorrow, of improving their lot and of providing education and even, perhaps, a different future for their children.

The slideshow above follows the journey of this gold from DIY Ugandan mine to the workshops of London jewelers.