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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 August 2018

New York University


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.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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

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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), 224–63Google Scholar; and Thompson, E. P., Whigs and Hunters: The Origins of the Black Act (New York, 1975)Google Scholar. On poaching in Africa, see Mavhunga, C., Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe (Cambridge, MA, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; White, L., ‘Whigs and hunters: the path not taken’, The Journal of African History, 58:1 (2017), 51–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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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), 331–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar (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), 565–87Google Scholar.

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)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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), 623–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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

22 On mining policies in colnoial Sierra Leone, see Greenhalgh, P., West African Diamonds, 1919–83: An Economic History (Manchester, 1985), 152–5Google Scholar. 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), 452–77CrossRefGoogle Scholar (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), 272–77Google Scholar.

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)Google Scholar, 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), 98–9Google Scholar; Gallieni, J., Mission d’exploration du Haut-Niger: Voyage au Soudan français (Haut-Niger et pays de Ségou), 1879–1881 (Paris, 1885), 305–06Google Scholar, 512–13; Serrant, E., Les mines et gisements d’or de l’Afrique occidentale (Paris, 1889)Google Scholar. 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), 3Google Scholar; and Raffenel, A., Nouveau voyage dans le pays des nègres (Paris, 1856), 134–9Google Scholar.

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)Google Scholar; Spear, T., ‘Neo-traditionalism and the limits of invention in British Colonial Africa’, The Journal of African History, 44 (2003), 327CrossRefGoogle Scholar (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), 336–49Google Scholar, 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), 3Google Scholar.

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, 6184Google Scholar; 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), 10713–18Google Scholar.

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), 2300–02Google Scholar.

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)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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

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), 3550CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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)Google Scholar. See also Campbell, B., ‘Revisiting the reform process of African mining regimes’, Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 30:1–2 (2010), 197217CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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), 157–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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’.

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