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Since the commodity boom of the early 2000s, the visibility of ‘artisanal’ or ‘small-scale’ mining has grown in media coverage and development policies focused on Africa. This article argues that the regulatory category of ‘artisanal’ mining in Africa originated during the colonial period as ‘customary mining’. I build this case through a regional case study of mining policies in the colonial federation of French West Africa, where a single decree accorded African subjects ‘customary rights’ to seasonally mine gold and rock salt in restricted areas. By contrast, colonial citizens, mostly Europeans, accessed stable mining titles. Customary mining rights never codified actual African mining ‘customs’, as colonial officials argued. Rather, this law marked the boundary between the technological status of French subjects and citizens. Core elements of this colonial legal framework have been incorporated into postcolonial policies governing the rights of citizens to mineral resources in Africa.



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This article is based on research funded by the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the University of Michigan. I thank the editors and anonymous reviewers of The Journal of African History. Earlier versions of this article benefited from conversations at the University of Michigan with Gabrielle Hecht, Stuart Kirsch, Mike McGovern, Davide Orsini, Derek Peterson, Rudolph Ware III, and Nana Quarshie. My deepest gratitude is to Linda d’Avignon, Falaye Danfakha, and to the village of Togué. Author's email:



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1 International Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals, and Sustainable Development, Global Trends in Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining: A Review of Key Numbers and Issues (Winnipeg, 2017).

2 Geenen, S. and Classens, K., ‘Disputed access to the gold sites in Luhwindja, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 51:1 (2013), 85108; Hilson, G. and Yakovleva, N., ‘Strained relations: a critical analysis of the mining conflict in Prestea, Ghana’, Political Geography, 26:1 (2007), 98119; Luning, S., ‘Processing promises of gold: a minefield of company-community relations in Burkina Faso’, Africa Today, 58:3 (2012), 2239.

3 Human Rights Watch, Precious Metals, Cheap Labor: Child Labor and Corporate Social Responsibility in Ghana's Artisanal Gold Mines (2015); Amnesty International, This is What we Die for: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt (London, 2016).

4 UN Economic Commission for Africa, Recommendations from Artisanal Mining Workshop: Drive the Sector Forward (Addis-Ababa, 2016); UN Environmental Programme, Final Report: Second Global Forum on Artisanal and Small-Scale Gold Mining, 3–5 September 2013 (Lima, 2013); The World Bank, Mining Together: Large-Scale Mining meets Artisanal Mining (Washington, DC, 2009).

5 UN Economic Commission for Africa, Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining and Technology Challenges in Africa (Addis Ababa, 2003); World Bank, The Millennium Development Goals and Small-Scale Mining (Washington, 2005); Hilson, G. and McQuilken, J., ‘Four decades of support for artisanal and small-scale mining in sub-Saharan Africa’, Extractive Industries and Society, 1 (2014), 104–18.

6 Barry, M. (ed.), Regularizing Informal Mining: A Summary of the Proceedings of the International Roundtable on Artisanal Mining (Washington, DC, 1996), 1.

7 World Bank, The Millennium Development Goals.

8 Scare quotes around the terms ‘artisanal’, ‘customary’, and ‘traditional’ are hereafter implied.

9 On the former, see Berry, S., No Condition is Permanent: The Social Dynamics of Agrarian Change in Sub-Saharan Africa (Madison, WI, 1993); Chanock, M., ‘A peculiar sharpness: an essay on property in the history of customary law in colonial Africa’, The Journal of African History, 32:1 (1991), 6589; Mamdani, M., Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Cape Town, 1996); MacKenzie, F., Land, Ecology and Resistance in Kenya, 1880–1952 (Edinburgh, 1998).

10 Out of a vast literature, see Hilson, G., ‘“Once a miner, always a miner”: poverty and livelihood diversification in Akwatia, Ghana’, Journal of Rural Studies, 26 (2010), 296307; Machonachie, R., ‘Re-agrarianising livelihoods in post-conflict Sierra Leone? Mineral wealth and rural challenges in artisanal and small-scale mining communities’, Journal of International Development, 23 (2011), 1054–67.

11 De Boeck, F., ‘Domesticating diamonds and dollars: identity, expenditure and sharing in southwestern Zaire (1984–1997)’, Development and Change, 29:4 (1998), 777810; Makori, T., ‘Mobilizing the past: creuseurs, precarity, and the colonizing structure in the Congo Copperbelt’, Africa, 87:4 (2017), 780805; Mantz, J. W., ‘Improvisational economies: colton production in eastern Congo’, Social Anthropology, 16:1 (2008), 3450; Smith, J. H., ‘Tantalus in the digital age: coltan ore, temporal dispossession, and “movement” in the Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo’, American Ethnologist, 38:1 (2011), 1735; Walsh, A., ‘“Hot money” and daring consumption in a northern Malagasy sapphire-mining town’, American Ethnologist, 30:2 (2003), 290305; Werthmann, K., ‘Cowries, gold and “bitter money”: gold-mining and notions of ill-gotten wealth in Burkina Faso’, Paideuma, 49 (2003), 105–24.

12 For a comparison of mining and agricultural policies in interwar Afrique Occidentale Francaise, see Luning, S., Jansen, J., and Panella, C., ‘The mise en valeur of the gold mines in the Haut-Niger, 1918–39’, French Colonial History, 15 (2014), 6786. In this article I take a broader temporal approach to the regulatory history of mining.

13 On the relationship of property enclosure to the categories of wood theft and poaching, see Marx, K., ‘Debates on the laws of the theft of wood’, in Marx, K. and Engels, F. (eds.), The Collected Works of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Volume I (Carlottesville, VA, 2003), 224–63; and Thompson, E. P., Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (New York, 1975). On poaching in Africa, see Mavhunga, C., Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe (Cambridge, MA, 2014); White, L., ‘Whigs and hunters: the path not taken’, The Journal of African History, 58:1 (2017), 51–9.

14 Roitman, J., ‘The politics of informal markets in sub-Saharan Africa’, Journal of Modern African Studies, 28:4 (1990), 671–96, 685.

15 Established in 1904, AOF consisted of Cote d’Ivoire, Dahomey (Benin), Guinea, Haute Volta (Burkina Faso), Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, and Soudan (Mali).

16 On the latter point, see Mann, G., ‘“What was the indigénat? The “empire of law” in French West Africa’, The Journal of African History, 50 (2009), 331–53 (335). A small number of permanent residents of Senegal's coastal cities were granted the status of colonial citizens, but most Africans in AOF were classified as subjects. Diouf, M., ‘Assimilation colonial et identité religieuses de la civilité des originaires des Quatre Communes (Sénégal)’, Canadian Journal of African Studies, 34 (1999), 565–87.

17 For the sake of clarity and legibility to French language work on this topic, I use the term orpailleur(s) to refer to West Africans who mined for gold in kin-based groups in colonial AOF. Statistic cited in Robequain, C., ‘Problèmes de l’économie rurale en A.O.F.’, Annales de Géographie, 46 (1937), 137–63 (146).

18 In AOF the gloss ‘Syrien’ and ‘Libanais’ referred to a heterogeneous group of people who migrated to West Africa from the Levant beginning in the late nineteenth century.

19 Other historic goldfields in AOF include Hiré in Cote d'Ivoire and Poura and Gaoua in Haute Volta.

20 Curtin, P., ‘The lure of Bambuk gold’, The Journal of African History, 14:4 (1973), 623–31.

21 Le Dictionnaire de l'Académie française (8th edn, Paris, 1932), s.v. ‘orpailleur’.

22 On mining policies in colnoial Sierra Leone, see Greenhalgh, P., West African Diamonds, 1919–83: An Economic History (Manchester, 1985), 152–5. On French Equatorial Africa, Belgian Congo, and Nigeria, see Hailey, An African Survey, 1508–17.

23 Ritual specialists oversaw mining because gold was considered the property of land spirits. Diourakuntigi were tied to clans whose ancestors purportedly created the initial human bonds with these spirits, cemented by blood sacrifices. See R. d'Avignon, ‘Subterranean histories: making “artisanal” miners in West Africa’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 2016), esp. chs. 1 and 6.

24 My analysis of South African mining laws draws heavily on Capps, G., ‘Tribal-landed property: the value of the chieftaincy in contemporary Africa’, Journal of Agrarian Change, 16:3 (2016), 452–77 (464–66).

25 Ibid. 469.

26 Ibid. 470.

27 The colonial state did have legal trusteeship over ‘tribal trust’ land, which included the power to veto concessions or to appropriate a portion of land rents. Ibid. 468.

28 Dumett, R. R., El Dorado in West Africa: The Gold-Mining Frontier, African Labor, and Colonial Capitalism in the Gold Coast, 1875–1900 (Athens, OH, 1998), 272–77.

29 Ibid. 89.

30 Ibid. 273–7; Greenhalgh, West African Diamonds, 149.

31 On the impact of metropolitan legal traditions on mining laws in the colonies, see Hailey, L., An African Survey: A Study of Problems Arising in Africa South of the Sahara (London, 1957), esp. 1520–27.

32 Curtin, ‘The lure of Bambuk gold’.

33 J. Gallieni, L. Archinard, and L. Faidherbe wrote about their military campaigns in West Africa in popular press publications in France. Similarly, a series of gold rushes in the Gold Coast was sparked by stories of the colony's indigenous gold mines as recounted by British officers and soldiers returning from the Asante War of 1873–4. Dumett, El Dorado in West Africa, 89.

34 Barbier, L. L., ‘Comment les Noirs extraient l’or a la Cote d’Ivoire’, Le Tour du Monde, 25 (1903), 98–9; Gallieni, J., Mission d’exploration du Haut-Niger: Voyage au Soudan français (Haut-Niger et pays de Ségou), 1879–1881 (Paris, 1885), 305–06, 512–13; Serrant, E., Les mines et gisements d’or de l’Afrique occidentale (Paris, 1889). Examples of this discourse in the 1850s, when governor Louis Faidherbe launched a failed French mining project in Bambuk, include: Flize, L., ‘Le Bambouk’, Le Moniteur, 51 (1857), 3; and Raffenel, A., Nouveau voyage dans le pays des nègres (Paris, 1856), 134–9.

35 Samori evaded French capture until 1898. Archives Nationales du Sénégal, Dakar (hereafter ANS) P/464, Barrat, ‘Note sur les mines du Soudan’, 21 Oct. 1895.

36 AOF's mining laws were detailed in a ‘mineral regime’ (régime minière) and implemented by decree (décret). Centre d'Archives d'Outre-Mer, Aix-en-Provence, France (hereafter COAM), AOF/XIII/2/4, ‘Régime Minière’; ANS P/464, Barrat, ‘Note sur les mines du Soudan’, 21 Oct. 1895.

37 Ibid.

38 Berry, No Condition is Permanent; Mann, K. and Roberts, R., ‘Law in colonial Africa’, in Mann, K. and Roberts, R. (eds.), Law in Colonial Africa (Portsmouth, NH, 1991); Spear, T., ‘Neo-traditionalism and the limits of invention in British Colonial Africa’, The Journal of African History, 44 (2003), 327 (3).

39 Archives Nationales de la Guinée, Conakry (hereafter ANG) 3/Q/10, ‘Rapport du contrôleur des mines to the Lieutenant-Gouverneur de la Guinée Française’ (hereafter GGF), 25 Apr. 1909.

40 ANS P/468, ‘William Atherton Report, Province of Bouré’, 18 Dec. 1902.

41 ANS P/464, Barrat, ‘Note sur les mines du Soudan’, 21 Oct. 1895.

42 Archives de la Direction des Mines et de la Géologie du Sénégal, Dakar (hereafter ADMGS), Orpaillage en Guinée (OG), Letter from Bidiane, Commandant de Cercle (CdC) Siguiri, to the GGF, Siguiri, 6 Sept. 1913; ADMGS OG, ‘Procès-verbal d'une palabre tenue a Fatoya’, 27 Jan. 1914.

43 ADMGS OG, ‘Procès-verbal d'une palabre tenue a Fatoya’, 27 Jan. 1914

44 Ibid.

45 ANG 3/Q/10, ‘Rapport du contrôleur des mines àGGF’, 25 Apr. 1909.

46 ANG 3/Q/10, Letter from David, ingénieur des mines, to the GGF, Conakry, 25 Oct. 1913.

47 ADMGS OG, Eduard Julian, ‘Rapport sur l'exercice du droit coutumier et l'amélioration des exploitations aurifères indigènes’, 21 Aug. 1929.

48 ANG 3/Q/10, Letter from the GGAOF to the GGF, Conakry, 2 Dec. 1913.

49 ADMGS OG, Letter from Bidiane to the GGF, 6 Sept. 1913.

50 ‘Décret du 22 Oct. 1924, fixant le régime des mines en A.O.F.’, Journal Officiel de l'A.O.F., 6 Dec. 1924, 735. The system ‘native reserves’ was implemented federation wide by ‘decree’ (décret). Lieutenant-governors of each colony determined the location of reserves by ‘ordonnance’ (arrêté).

51 ADMGS OG, Bardin, ‘Etude sur la viabilité des exploitations modelés’, 14 Nov. 1931.

52 Robequain, ‘Problèmes de l’économie rurale en A.O.F.’, 143.

53 ADMGS OG, Letter from the Minister of Colonies, Travaux Publiques, to the GGAOF, 7 Aug. 1932.

54 ADMGS OG, Julian, ‘Rapport sur l'exercice’, 21 Aug. 1929.

55 ADMGS OG, J. Malavoy, ‘Note sur l'amélioration de l'orpaillage indigène’, 24 Mar. 1931.

56 Ibid.

57 ADMGS OG, Julian ‘Rapport sur l'exercice’, 21 Aug. 1929.

58 ADMGS OG, Aubert, Inspecteur des Affaires Administratives, ‘Rapport sur la situation du commerce de l'or et sur l'exploitation des mines d'or de Siguiri par les indigènes’, 29 May 1934.

59 Siossat, J., ‘Les coutumes des orpailleurs indigènes du Maramandougou’, Bulletin du Comité d'Etudes Historiques et Scientifiques de l'A.O.F., Tome XXI (1938), 336–49, 346.

60 ADMGS OG, Nickles, ‘Observation sur l'or dans le Houre-Kaba et le Fitaba’, Labé, 2 June 1939.

61 ADMGS OG, Goloubinow, ‘Prospection aurifère en Guinée’, 9 Aug. 1935.

62 ADMGS OG, Letter from GGF to the General Inspection of Public Works, 4 July 1934.

63 ANG 3/Q/10, Letter from Pierre Legoux to Fernand Blondel, Ingenieur en Chef des Mines, 29 Feb. 1934.

64 Robequain, ‘Problèmes de l’économie’, 146.

65 ANG 3/Q/10, Arnaud, Directeur des Mines de l'AOF, ‘Rapport sur l'organisation administrative, technique, et coopérative d'orpaillage’, Dakar, 11 Sept. 1944.

66 Ibid. ‘Secondary’ refers to deposits derived from the weathering of primary deposits.

67 Ibid.

68 Béréte began his political career in Guinea's Chamber of Commerce and later served as the President of the Territorial Assembly of Guinea from 1954–6.

69 ANG 3/Q/23, Letter from Union du Mandé to the GGF, Conakry, 18 Mar. 1947. Mamba Sano served in the French National Assembly from 1946–58.

70 ANG 3/Q/23, Blouin, ingénieur au Bureau Minier de la France d'Outre-Mer (hereafter BMFOM), ‘Mission orpaillage de Siguiri’ to Massoulard, CdC, Siguiri, 22 June 1950.

71 Bérété, Framoi, ‘L'Octroi à des sociétés privées des permis de recherches et d'exploitation d'or dans le cercle de Siguiri signifie la suppression pure et simple de l'orpaillage des autochtones’, Voix de la Guinée, 20 (June 1950), 3.

72 Ibid.

73 ANG 3/Q/23, Letter from Framoi Bérété, President de la Commission Permanente, to the GGAOF and the President of BMFOM, 23 May 1950.

74 Ibid.

75 For a discussion of debates by African politicians in Sierra Leone's Legislative Council over mining rights, see Greenhalgh, West African Diamonds, 135–6.

76 Chanock, , ‘Paradigms, policies, and property: a review of the customary law of land tenure’, in Mann, and Roberts, (eds.), Law in Colonial Africa, 6184; Berry, No Condition is Permanent.

77 ANG 3/Q/23, Letter from Roland Pre, GGF, to the GGAOF, Conakry, 25 Apr. 1950.

78 Décret n° 54-1110 du 13 novembre 1954 portant réforme du régime des substances minérales dans les territoires d'outre-mer, au Togo et au Cameroun’, Journal Officiel de la République Française (hereafter JORF), 14:11 (1954), 10713–18.

79 Décret n° 57–242 du 24 février 1957 relatif au régime des substances minérales dans les territoires d'outre-mer’, JORF, 28:2 (1957), 2300–02.

80 While all three countries nationalized key industries, expatriate firms continued to play a role in resource extraction in key sectors in Guinea and Senegal. Morgenthau, R., ‘The developing states of Africa’, The Annals of the American Academy of Social Science, 432:1 (1977), 8095 (89).

81 UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) Mineral Resources Development with Particular Reference to the Developing Countries (New York, 1970).

82 For the case of Senegal alone, see de Lestrange, M-T, Gessain, M., Fouchier, D., and Crépy-Montal, G., ‘Stratégies de lutte contre la disette au Sénégal oriental’, Journal des Africanistes, 56:1 (1986), 3550.

83 The World Bank's strategy for pro-market mining reform in Africa is outlined in World Bank, Strategy for African Mining (Washington, DC, 1992). See also Campbell, B., ‘Revisiting the reform process of African mining regimes’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 30:1–2 (2010), 197217.

84 On the complex relationship between farming and artisanal mining in West African contexts, see Banchirigah, S. M. and Hilson, G., ‘De-agrarianization, re-agrarianization and local economic development: re-orienting livelihoods in African artisanal mining communities’, Policy Sciences, 43:2 (2010), 157–80.

85 Mali did not revise its code until the 1990s. Portant Code Minier de la République de Guinée, Ordonnance 076, 21-3-1986; Code Minier de la République du Sénégal, Loi N 88, 6-8-1988, Décret n 89-907, 5-8-1989; République du Mali, Portant Code Minier, Ordonnance 99–032, 19-9-1999.

86 See fns 2–6, 10, 11, 84.

87 Banchirigah and Hilson, ‘De-agrarianization, re-agrarianization’, 166; Luning, ‘Processing promises’.

This article is based on research funded by the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the University of Michigan. I thank the editors and anonymous reviewers of The Journal of African History. Earlier versions of this article benefited from conversations at the University of Michigan with Gabrielle Hecht, Stuart Kirsch, Mike McGovern, Davide Orsini, Derek Peterson, Rudolph Ware III, and Nana Quarshie. My deepest gratitude is to Linda d’Avignon, Falaye Danfakha, and to the village of Togué. Author's email:





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