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Abstract Although artisanal gold mining is known for human rights violations and environmental degradation, it is an increasingly important economic activity in many African countries, with a high potential to alleviate poverty. Due to increased demand for gold investment during the COVID-19 pandemic, the monthly international gold price has increased by 20% from January to May 2020. To understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced gold miners, we analyse a panel survey of about 170 artisanal gold miners interviewed 2 months before the first case of COVID-19 in Burkina Faso. Follow-up surveys were done early in the pandemic and about 1 year after baseline. Various pre-existing local market failures caused local gold prices to decrease by 20%–30% from January to May 2020, when international gold prices noticeably increased. Market failures include oligopsonistic market conditions on the mines, which worsened due to travel restrictions that disrupted trading routes, reduced local traders' liquidity and made it difficult for traders to reach mines. Moreover, we find that miners have very little knowledge of international gold prices, and due to insecurity and credit constraints, they are unable to wait for local prices to recover. Once travel restrictions were lifted, the local gold price recovered close to the global gold price. To make local markets more competitive and ensure that miners benefit from rising international gold prices, governments could broadcast world gold prices on local radio, increase trading opportunities and provide access to credits for miners. 1. Introduction The LBMA (London Bullion Market Association) gold price, considered the benchmark for the international gold price, has increased about 260% from 1990 to 2019. Due to a surge in global gold prices, many industrial mining activities have become profitable and expanded in countries such as Burkina Faso, which is currently the fourth-largest gold producer in Africa. In 2009, gold overtook cotton as the primary export product in Burkina Faso, and in 2018, the export of gold was almost seven times larger than the export of cotton (WITS 2021). In 2013, Burkina Faso exported about 39 tonnes of gold accounting for 71% of exports and 16% of fiscal revenues (IMF 2014). Although most of the gold is extracted by industrial mines, the majority of gold miners are involved in artisanal mining. For example, in 2017, industrial mines in Burkina Faso directly employed 9,651 people, while an estimated 600,000 to 1 million people were involved in artisanal mining (Mondlane, 2017; UNIDO, 2017; Drechsel et al., 2019; Brugger and Zanetti, 2020). Unmatched by most other rural activities in countries such as Burkina Faso, artisanal gold mining has the promise of substantial profits that could provide an escape out of poverty for millions of people (Fritz et al., 2018). Fisher et al. (2009) found that people involved in artisanal mining or related services in Tanzania were less likely to be poor than people in other occupations. Other studies found that artisanal mining positively impacted household income in Ghana (Guenther, 2018) and Burkina Faso (Bazillier and Girard, 2020). Therefore, despite the sector's bad reputation concerning environmental degradation and human rights abuse, it has considerable potential to alleviate poverty. In contrast to agricultural commodities, miners receive a large share of the international gold price. Reported local gold prices in Burkina Faso are usually between 90% and 95% of the world fix price (Artisanal Gold Council, 2021). This is very high compared to, for example, cotton, the second largest export commodity in Burkina Faso and the most popular cash crop, where farmers only received about 60% of the world cotton price (Kaminski, 2011). It is, thus, not surprising that many studies assume that the livelihoods of miners are closely linked to international gold prices (Shandro et al., 2009; Hruschka and Echavarria, 2011; Seccatore et al. 2014; Bazillier and Girard, 2020; Grynberg et al., 2021). Gold prices are considered to be such a key driver to local incomes that changes in the international gold price are used to estimate the number of artisanal miners worldwide. Using changes in international gold prices and adjusting for estimated productivity of miners in different countries, Seccatore et al. (2014) estimated 16 million active artisanal gold miners in 2017.1Bazillier and Girard (2020) have also shown that the world gold price is directly linked to the livelihood of communities around artisanal mines. The authors show that a 1% increase in the international gold price led to a 0.1% increase in expenditure of households near artisanal mines in Burkina Faso. Although these findings suggest a strong correlation between the world gold price and local prices, the correlation between local and global prices is not explored further and a critical gap in literature. Moreover, conducting 3,400 rapid phone interviews in 22 different countries, Perks and Schneck (2021) asked respondents how current gold prices compared to prices before COVID-19 was an issue in their country. They found that in June 2020, the majority of miners reported gold prices lower than before the pandemic, despite increasing international gold prices in the same period (Perks and Schneck, 2021). The authors did not ask respondents about the magnitude of the changes or asked how participants measured local prices. According to the authors, most local gold prices have shown some evidence of recovery by 2021 (Perks and Schneck, 2021). Our study contributes to this emerging body of literature, with a unique panel, including a baseline survey of about 300 artisanal gold miners in Burkina Faso, 170 were active in the gold trade and two follow-up phone surveys with the same miners. Unlike other studies, our data collection already started before the pandemic. We conduct a quantitative analysis on the impact of COVID-19 and the surge of international gold prices on local gold prices and study the mechanisms that explain the link between the two. Although it is difficult to directly compare local gold prices and international gold prices for various reasons—including inconsistencies in the purity, assay, and weighing of gold on the local level—we can analyse relative changes in international and local gold prices over time. We conducted surveys on four artisanal mines shortly before the Coronavirus spread across the globe (December 2019–January 2020). We conducted two rounds of follow-up phone surveys; the first was from April to May 2020, when a state of sanitary emergency, including travel bans, was implemented in Burkina Faso. The second follow-up phone survey was about a year after the baseline survey between December 2020 and January 2021, when the Burkinabe government relaxed many lockdown regulations, but the global health crisis was still ongoing. While the pandemic led to a surge in international gold prices, we find that it had the opposite effect on local gold prices, which fell from an average price bracket of FCFA 25,000–FCFA 29,999 per gram in January 2020 to less than FCFA 20,000 per gram in May 2020. Due to various market imperfections, the impact of COVID-19 and the measures to combat it were much more prominent in local gold markets and caused this diverging trend. First, local travel restrictions hindered traders from reaching sites. International travel restrictions dislocated existing trading routes, which meant that many private buying companies (locally known as comptoirs) could not export gold and did not have sufficient cash to buy gold from miners through gold traders (or collectors). As a result, the number of gold collectors available to miners decreased from 2.6 in January 2020 to 1.2 in May 2020. Second, information asymmetries about international gold prices are large. Our survey reveals that more than 95% of miners do not know the international gold price. Even if miners knew international prices, many would not wait for prices to improve since miners are highly dependent on their income from gold without any access to credit (Hinton, 2006; Telmer and Veiga, 2009; Brottem and Ba, 2019). In addition, since gold is highly lootable, keeping gold until prices recovers can put miners in danger (Ross, 2004; Bertran Alvarez et al., 2016). 2. Context Artisanal mining has been practiced throughout Burkina Faso since the 1980s but has grown substantially in the past 15 years (Werthmann, 2017; De Jong, 2019). In 2018, the Burkinabe governmental body responsible for artisanal mines, ANEEMAS (l'Agence Nationale d'Encadrement des Exploitations Minière Artisanales et Semi-mécanisées, the National Agency for the Supervision of Artisanal and Semi-Mechanized Mining) surveyed 63 (not randomly selected) mines out of about 2,300 artisanal mines sites in Burkina Faso identified from satellite images. They found that more than half of the mines started operations only after 2000. Presently, an estimated 0.6–1 million people are directly or indirectly involved in artisanal mining in Burkina Faso (Mondlane, 2017; UNIDO, 2017), out of an adult population of 10.5 million (15 years and older; World Bank, 2021). In some areas, two out of three households have at least one family member involved in artisanal mining (Brugger and Zanetti, 2020). Due to the small quantities of gold that a group of miners extracts, gold accumulates from the mines to the larger comptoirs (private buying companies) through a myriad of local and regional traders, known as gold collectors (Grätz, 2004; Guéniat and White, 2015; Telmer, 2021). Independent intermediary gold traders or collectors travel from nearby cities and towns to buy gold from miners. They then sell the gold to the comptoirs, most of whom are situated in Ouagadougou, who then export the gold. The comptoirs often try to drive out other gold collectors and that miners sell gold to them exclusively. Comptoirs have been known to intimidate and threaten miners to force them to exclusively sell their gold to the comptoirs (Engels, 2017; Bugmann et al., 2022). Artisanal miners in Burkina Faso are often exposed to violent conflict. Due to increased terrorist activities, the government has implemented a state of emergency in the north of Burkina Faso, in the areas bordering the Sahel, since December 2018 (Reuters, 2018). ANEEMAS reported that 86% of mines that they recently surveyed had experienced some form of conflict (although it is not specified what type of conflict; ANEEMAS, 2018). One of the participants in our study mentioned during the phone survey in May 2020 that: ‘Our problem today is the case of the bad people who attack the villages and the gold sites. It is the attack of the sites that worries us, not COVID-19.’ In this already fragile state, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Burkina Faso on 9 March 2020 in the capital city of Ouagadougou. With 146 confirmed cases on 26 March 2020, the government of Burkina Faso declared a state of sanitary emergency in addition to the state of political emergency in the north (WHO, 2020 ). The sanitary state of emergency included various regulations, such as promoting handwashing, discouraging shaking hands and mandatory mask usage in public spaces. Moreover, city-wide quarantines, curfews from 19:00 to 05:00 and a travel ban were implemented. The travel ban included closing the airports in Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso from 21 March to 1 August 2020, only allowing freight and cargo planes to enter the country (Garda World, 2021; US Embassy in Burkina Faso, 2021). Except for commercial traffic, all other land borders were closed and we are still closed as late as August 2021. City-wide quarantines have disrupted the interconnection of roads between various towns and the centre, Ouagadougou, making travelling within the country difficult. However, all city quarantines and curfews were lifted on 4 May and 3 June 2020, respectively (US Embassy in Burkina Faso, 2021). In addition, public markets have been closed until 20 April 2020. The gold miners' market is essential for selling gold, buying necessary supplies and crushing ore. It is difficult for miners to continue work without the support and structure found in the market. During our final phone survey in January 2021, the Burkinabe government has relaxed most of the social distancing and related regulations; with no restrictions on public transport, schools were open, and no restrictions on the number of people that were allowed to gather (Hale et al., 2020). 3. Sampling and data We first visited four artisanal mines, Sandouré, Ronguin, Zomnkalga and Galong-Tenga in the Centre-North of Burkina Faso (see Figure 1), from November 2019 to January 2020 for a research project on mercury use and the health of artisanal miners.2 We included various questions about knowledge and use of mercury and personal protective equipment, as well as questions about local gold markets, socio-demographics of miners and contact details (see Appendix A1 for all questions asked relevant to this paper). Due to the security situation on the mine sites, our local partner requested that only local Burkinabe fieldworkers could visit the mines. Researchers trained the enumerators in Ouagadougou before fieldwork and then remotely managed the project via phone. Figure 1 Open in new tabDownload slide Fieldwork study area. Location of the four artisanal mines where we conducted fieldwork from November 2019 to January 2020. Due to the informal operations of small-scale gold miners, artisanal mines do not have records of workers on a mine. Moreover, enumerators were not allowed to walk around freely in the mines. Given the tense security situation and that artisanal mining is mostly illegal or informal, artisanal miners are skeptical of strangers on the mining sites. Artisanal miners often fear that strangers are from the government trying to stop their activities or from an industrial mine exploring the area to expand mining activities, which would displace them. Therefore, we were not able to do a census on the mine, and random sampling of miners was impossible. We resorted to a combination of a geographic systematic sampling technique and snow-ball sampling technique. All enumerators identified a central point on the mine that the local partner considered a safe point from which enumerators can spread out. From this central point, enumerators would then split up into four directions (labelled the north, south, west, and east axes). An enumerator would walk in their dedicated direction until they cross paths with a miner and then ask them if they wanted to take part in the survey. Since miners often work in groups, the enumerator would also ask the first miners to suggest other members of their group that want to take part in the survey. If no more miners in the group wanted to take part in the surveys, the enumerator continued on the original axis that he walked on to approach the next participant. Due to security concerns, our local partners' availability and time constraints, we could only spend about four days per mine site. In the available time, the team approached 302 miners, of whom 26 did not want to take part in the study. Enumerators surveyed 52 people at Galong-Tenga, which is about 25% to 50% of the total mining population (reference on size of mine, see Brugger and Zanetti, 2020). Enumerators surveyed 64 people at Sandouré, 88 people at Ronguin and 72 people at Zomnkalga. Although there is no information available on the number of gold miners on the other sites, the mining villages' total populations are less than 800 people (source: GeoNames.org), which means we surveyed about 10% of the greater population of the mining villages. Although our purpose was not to identify a representative sample of all artisanal miners in Burkina Faso, sampling about 300 miners from four different sites gave us some heterogeneity and variation to study the local markets. While the sample size is relatively small, other studies that collected primary data on artisanal gold mines in Burkina Faso had similar sample sizes, including 237 miners from four mines (Brugger and Zanetti, 2020), 200 miners from two mines (Sana et al., 2017), 162 miners on one mine (Black et al., 2017) and 153 miners from three mines (Ouédraogo and Amyot, 2013). Relatively small sample sizes when working with artisanal miners could be attributed to the difficulty to access mines, security concerns and miners' reluctance to engage with strangers. However, Tomicic et al. (2011) and Pokorny et al. (2019) recorded much larger sample sizes of 1090 and 600, respectively. Due to the COVID-19 situation, we conducted two rounds of follow-up surveys via phone, which were initially planned as in-person surveys. During the first phone survey, we reached 182 people (out of 245 from which we obtained a phone number during the baseline, see Table 1); 4 did not want to participate and the other 59 could not be reached. For the second phone survey, we were able to complete 133 interviews (see Table 1). Of the total sample, 168, 114 and 97 in each survey round, respectively, reported that they sold gold in the last month and were of particular interest for this study (see Table 1). All tables and figures that follow apply only to these individuals who were actively involved in gold trading in the last month. Data is available in the Appendix under Supplementary Data. Table 1 Sample Details; We Approached 302 Miners During the First Round of Fieldwork and Contacted the Same People in Two Follow-Up Phone Surveys . In-person surveys . First follow-up phone survey . Second follow-up phone survey . Date 25–27 November; 2 December 2019; 7–13 January 2020 20 April–17 May 2020 23 December 2020–8 January 2021 Number of people approached/telephone numbers available 302 245 245 Did not want to take part 26 4 4 Could not get hold of the person (follow-up only) N/A 59 108 Total surveys completed 276 182 133 People that sold gold in the last 30 days (final sample size) 168 114 97 . In-person surveys . First follow-up phone survey . Second follow-up phone survey . Date 25–27 November; 2 December 2019; 7–13 January 2020 20 April–17 May 2020 23 December 2020–8 January 2021 Number of people approached/telephone numbers available 302 245 245 Did not want to take part 26 4 4 Could not get hold of the person (follow-up only) N/A 59 108 Total surveys completed 276 182 133 People that sold gold in the last 30 days (final sample size) 168 114 97 Open in new tab Table 1 Sample Details; We Approached 302 Miners During the First Round of Fieldwork and Contacted the Same People in Two Follow-Up Phone Surveys . In-person surveys . First follow-up phone survey . Second follow-up phone survey . Date 25–27 November; 2 December 2019; 7–13 January 2020 20 April–17 May 2020 23 December 2020–8 January 2021 Number of people approached/telephone numbers available 302 245 245 Did not want to take part 26 4 4 Could not get hold of the person (follow-up only) N/A 59 108 Total surveys completed 276 182 133 People that sold gold in the last 30 days (final sample size) 168 114 97 . In-person surveys . First follow-up phone survey . Second follow-up phone survey . Date 25–27 November; 2 December 2019; 7–13 January 2020 20 April–17 May 2020 23 December 2020–8 January 2021 Number of people approached/telephone numbers available 302 245 245 Did not want to take part 26 4 4 Could not get hold of the person (follow-up only) N/A 59 108 Total surveys completed 276 182 133 People that sold gold in the last 30 days (final sample size) 168 114 97 Open in new tab We had a high attrition rate between phone surveys of about 30% to the second survey round of the numbers that we could not reach, about a third were already invalid, and two-thirds could not be reached (voicemail or rang without answer). From baseline to the third survey round we had an attrition rate of 42%; of these, 95% went straight to voicemail or rang without answer, the other numbers were invalid. According to the enumerator who conducted the phone survey in our study, the high attrition rate in our sample could be due to various reasons, including that people work long hours on the mines and are difficult to get hold of, problems with mobile coverage in rural areas and changing contact details due to migration. We find some evidence of an attrition bias due to the high attrition rate. In both follow-up surveys, more miners were from Zomnkalga and in the third survey, less participants came from Ronguin, when compared to the baseline survey. We also found that women were less likely to complete follow-up surveys. However, we did not find any other significant difference between the means in the baseline and the follow-up survey rounds (see balance table in Table A1 in Appendix A2). We cannot definitively conclude that the reasons why a person did not complete the follow-up surveys are somehow correlated to the gold price they received. However, we found that those involved in the gold trade at the baseline survey were not significantly less or more likely to complete follow-up surveys.3 Moreover, when we replicate our main results on a balanced panel of miners who completed all the survey round, we do not find that the attrition bias drives our results (see Figure A1 in Appendix A3). Participants in the survey had to be at least 18 years old. If we assumed the participants that said they are ‘older than 50 years’ (6.6%) are on average 55 years old, then the average age of the miners in our sample is 33 years. The majority of participants are male (92%), which is consistent with information from the Ministry of Mines, who noted that the percentage of women is site-dependent; some sites have no or as little as 5% (ANEEMAS, 2018). Participants reported low levels of schooling, with 67% of participants not having attended any schooling. The miners are less educated than the Burkinabe national average: 70% of male and 93% of female participants cannot read or write, compared to 50% and 67% of men and women, respectively, older than 15 years nationally. Only one participant (0.6%) has completed secondary schooling (the highest reported level of schooling), while the national average of people older than 25 years that completed secondary school is 8.5% (World Bank, 2021). Most of the participants (95%) reported that they are from the Mossi ethnic group, which is the largest ethnic group in the country. However, the percentage of Mossi in the sample is much higher than the national average of about 50% (INSD and ICF International, 2012). As the area where we conducted the fieldwork is predominantly Mossi, it seems that miners might be more likely to be locals. Of all participants, 5% said they are the only person dependent on their income, 29% said there are 2–5 people dependent on their income, 36% reported 6–10 dependents and 30% said there are more than 10 people dependent on their income from mining. The number of dependents in our sample is higher than the average five dependents per miner used in the UN report on minerals in Africa (UNECA, 2011). Most respondents reported living in tiny houses: a quarter of the respondents live in houses of one or two rooms (including bedrooms and living areas). Many homes are crowded, with an average of 2.7 people sharing a room. 4. Results 4.1. Diverging prices on international and local gold markets While COVID-19 has had an immense negative impact on the world economy, it led to the highest nominal international gold price 2020 since at least 1978 (earliest year in data) of 66.46 USD per gram on 6 August, which was also a significant increase from 47.26 USD per gram before the pandemic (average monthly price in November 2019; World Gold Council, 2020). On the other hand, measures to curb the spread of the novel Coronavirus disrupted many market interactions. Therefore, to determine the impact on local gold prices, we asked all participants who said they sold gold in the last month how much (in FCFA) they received per gram the last time they sold gold. Since many miners are illiterate and we believed this could be a sensitive question, we recorded answers in brackets of FCFA 5,000 to limit reporting errors. During the fieldwork, this referred to gold sold from 25 October 2019 to 13 January 2020 (57 days); during the first phone survey, this referred to gold sold from 20 March 2020 to 17 May 2020 (41 days); and during the final phone surveys, this refers to gold sold from 23 November 2020 to 8 January 2021 (35 days).4Figure 2 shows the distribution of local prices stated (grey bars) and the average international gold price during these periods (black dashed line). Figure 2 shows that local prices decreased significantly in May 2020 when the international gold price increased. Of all miners who sold gold in May 2020, 58% said they received less than FCFA 20′000 (CHF 32) per gram, which is significantly lower than the lowest daily international gold price in March and April 2020 (CHF 49 per gram; World Gold Council, 2020). One miner said in May 2020: ‘This situation of Coronavirus is going to destroy our lives because buyers were not willing to buy gold at the cost of FCFA 20,000 …. So the situation is tough’. Figure 2 Open in new tabDownload slide International and local gold prices. The dashed line shows the average international gold prices. The grey bar shows the percentage of the reported local prices participants received in each price category during the same period. The first graph refers to the period before the pandemic (October 2019–January 2020, average world gold price was FCFA 28,143 per gram). The second graph refers to early in the pandemic during international travel restrictions (March–May 2020, average world gold price was FCFA 31,587 per gram). The third graph refers to later in the pandemic when various regulations have been relaxed (November 2020–January 2021, average world gold price was FCFA 32,153 per gram). World gold prices converted from USD to FCFA using the average exchange rate in each period (exchange rate source: Investing.com) During the January 2021 phone surveys, with many social distancing and hygienic restrictions relaxed but the pandemic still ongoing, we observed that the local gold market recovered. Although the international gold price in January 2021 was in the same price bracket as in March and April 2020 (FCFA 32,213 per gram), local gold prices increased significantly over the same period. The results are similar if we consider only miners that completed all three survey rounds (see Figure A1 in Appendix A3). The national inflation rate, which was less than 2% in 2020, also does not explain the increase in local prices. Miners were asked about the price they receive in FCFA and therefore not influenced by changes in any exchange rates (see questionnaire in Appendix A1). We also do not find that the FCFA/USD exchange rate has a significant impact the world gold price, which we converted from USD to FCFA using the average exchange rate of each period. In the second round, the world gold price is in the same price bracket whether we used the average exchange rate of either the baseline or the second survey round. However, given the appreciation of the FCFA against the USD, the world gold price is slightly higher if we use the baseline exchange rate instead of the exchange rate during the final survey (FCFA 35,142 vs FCFA32,153). However, these differences do not drive our results. The reader might also note that some miners report local gold prices that are even higher than global gold prices. We believe some reported local gold prices are higher than the international gold price due to the method used by local collectors to weigh gold. Gold collectors use electronic scales and handheld flail scales with coins and matches as counterweights when weighing gold. When using electronic scales, the gold is measured in grams. When using flail scales, the gold is measured in ‘strands’ of gold (or brin in French), which is calculated as the weight of one match. Incorrect counterweights used with handheld flail scales can contribute to the high local prices compared to the gold fix price. Other studies have shown that traders in Burkina Faso inflate the buying prices by using non-standard counterweights, such as coins and matches (De Jong, 2019). For example, traders frequently use an FCFA 25 coin as a 6-gram counterweight, but in reality, the coin weighs about 8 grams, which means collectors deflate the price they offer miners by 25%. Although collectors say this is to compensate for the loss in the purity of the gold, loss in purity is usually only around 7% (Sollazzo, 2018). Blore (2013) found that miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) typically report receiving 95% to 97% of the LBMA price for their gold. However, if the discrepancies of the counterweights are corrected, miners receive 56% to 76% of the LBMA price. However, this measurement error should be constant over each round, and we do not believe it would influence the relative difference between international and local prices. We, hence, can analyse relative changes between the international and local gold prices over time, and we observe a divergence between increasing international gold prices and decreasing local gold prices. 4.2. Market failures on local gold markets The main reason for the divergence between local and international prices is that various pre-existing market imperfections were exacerbated by travel restrictions imposed to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, local gold markets were not perfectly competitive; there were on average only 2.6 gold collectors available to miners and 38% of miners reported monopsonistic local gold markets, with only 1 gold collector to whom they could sell their gold to. In Zomnkalga, 67% of participants said there is only one gold collector available to them, followed by Baloun-Tanga (42%), Roguin (34%) and Sandouré (20%). It could be that Zomnkalga has a higher reporting of monopsonistic market conditions because it is managed by the comptoir, SOMIKA. The comptoirs often try to extend their power on the mine site, by directly taking control of the sites or by pre-financing operations with the precondition that miners will sell gold to them exclusively (Bugmann et al., 2022). The other mines are managed by a syndicate of miners and land owners (Baloun-Tenga) or in the case of Ronguin and Sandouré, by an independent manager who collaborates with local communities and landowners. There are slight differences in the reported prices between mines. Zomnkalga, with the fewest available traders (two available collectors on average), also reported lower prices than the other mines. However, Sandourè, with the highest reported collectors available in our sample, reported similar prices to Zomnkalga. However, it should be noted that the number of gold collectors available at Sandouré is still relatively low (2.9). We find a positive and significant correlation between the reported gold prices and the number of gold collectors, both when considering the entire sample and per mines site. We therefore believe that the number of gold collectors is an important driver of local prices, but that there are many other observed and unobserved factors that determine local prices. Travel restrictions negatively impacted local gold prices by further reducing the number of available traders in two ways. First, international travel restrictions disrupted transnational trading and smuggling routes, which prohibited comptoirs from exporting gold and dried up many collector's cash reserves. With lower cash reserves, many local gold collectors could not buy more gold from miners for cash and temporarily stopped trading. Second, domestic travel restrictions made it difficult for collectors to reach mine sites. Before the pandemic, only 40% of miners said they could sell their gold directly to a processing centre or in a nearby village, town or city. The other 60% of miners relied on traders to visit them at their homes or on the mine. In the baseline survey, we find that miners who rely on traders to visit them at home are more likely to receive lower prices for their gold. As a result, in May 2020, 82% of miners reported monopsonistic local gold markets (up from 38% in January 2020) and 95% said they had difficulty finding even one buyer. The average number of gold collectors available for miners decreased from 2.6 in January 2020 to 1.2 in May 2020 (Figure 3). One participant mentioned in May 2020: ‘The cost of gold is as low as cotton... plus you could not even get a buyer because of travel restrictions’. Another participant said: ‘There was a time, especially in early March, when even if you had gold in your possession, no local buyer would buy because travel restrictions and curfews prevented travelling’. Figure 3 Open in new tabDownload slide Reported collectors in each period. The middle of the box plots shows the median values, with the outer edges of the box showing the 75th and 25th percentiles. The ‘whiskers’ indicate the lower and upper quartile ranges plus 1.5 the inter-quartile rate (adjacent values) and the dots indicate outliers. Since the vast majority (80%) of respondents said there is only one buyer available in May 2020, the miners that state more than one are seen as outliers, as indicated the dots. Local markets started to recover after travel restrictions were lifted in January 2021; similar to pre-pandemic levels, 22% of participants said they only have one available gold buyer, and the average reported traders recovered to 2.4 (Figure 3). Information asymmetries are a second market failure of local gold markets that led to decreasing local gold prices despite increasing international gold prices. In May 2020, 80% of respondents said that they do not know what the world gold price is, and of those who said they know, only one person gave the correct answer of the gold price on that particular day within an FCFA 5,000 bracket (Figure 4; we did not ask this question during the baseline survey). Although fewer miners, 67% vs 80%, said they did not know the world gold price in January 2021, still only one person knew the correct price within an FCFA 5,000 price bracket (Figure 4). For the miners that did give an estimation of the world gold price, we do not find any significant correlation between the reported prices they received and their estimation of the world gold price. However, it could be that our sample size is too small to determine a significant correlation because only 55 people (26% of sample) gave an estimation of the world gold price. Figure 4 Open in new tabDownload slide Miners' estimated world gold price. The dashed line shows the average international gold price in the specific period, and the grey bar shows the percentage of miners' reported estimations of the world gold price. We did not ask this question in the baseline survey. Even if miners were aware of rising international gold prices, they would not be able to hold gold to sell it once the local market has recovered. Miners are highly dependent on their income from mining, especially in an informal environment where everything is paid with cash; miners are pressed to sell their gold as soon as possible (Geenen, 2013; Hilson and McQuilken, 2014). In particular, miners do not have access to credit markets that would help them overcome lower incomes for a couple of weeks or months (Hinton, 2006; Telmer and Veiga, 2009; Brottem and Ba, 2019). Even if miners do not face cash or credit constraints, they do not have the facilities to store gold safely until local prices recover. Gold is considered a highly lootable resource, given its small volume and high value (Ross, 2004). Especially given the high level of violence on mine sites and possible attacks in Burkina Faso, miners are reluctant to keep gold on their person, as it puts them at risk of attacks and looting (Bertran Alvarez et al., 2016). Therefore, given cash and credit constraints and insecurity, miners cannot hold the gold until the market recovers. Even though most miners are pressed for income, they would consider selling gold to traders on credit to reduce their risk of looting and attacks. Traders who did not have sufficient cash could buy gold from miners (at low prices) on credit. Before the pandemic (January 2020), only 6% of participants in our sample indicated that they sold gold partially on credit, meaning the gold collectors did not pay the gold in full but agreed to settle part of the payment later or pay in kind. One year later, in January 2021 (question not asked in May 2020), 86% of miners said that during the last 6 months, they had to sell their gold fully or partially on credit. One of the miners said in May 2020: ‘Our concerns are the delay in the payment of our gold, ... sometimes I wait five to seven days before I receive my gold money. This is our current problem’. In addition to lowered local gold prices, social distancing regulations made it more difficult to continue work on the mines. While working on the site during the day was still allowed, working on the mines after 19:00 was prohibited due to curfews (many miners work night shifts). Gold markets that are often close to artisanal mines were closed due to the limitations on the number of people allowed to gather. Since miners rely on the gold markets to get supplies, crush ore, and trade gold, the closing of gold markets made it difficult to continue mining and left mines deserted, despite working on mines not being strictly prohibited. When we asked miners an open question about how the pandemic affected them most, the second most common answer after travel restrictions (mentioned by 93%) was deserted mines (mentioned by 77%)5. In May 2020, one participant mentioned: ‘The gold panners do not come to the sites anymore... and the police patrol sometimes confiscates our motorbikes, work equipment and other materials’. Another respondent said: ‘In reality, the (social distancing) regulations cannot prevent us from working on the site because the authorities do not have the means to control the implementation. (However) I do not always work because there is no longer an atmosphere on the site. It is difficult to work without an atmosphere’. Lowered local gold prices and the inability to work greatly affected miners' ability to secure a livelihood. Social distancing could therefore also have had an adverse impact on labour and decreased the supply of gold. However, according to demand and supply data from the World Gold Council (2022), there was only a 5% decrease in the international supply of gold from mines in the second quarter of 2020, which is relatively small considering the major disruption to the gold supply chain. 5. Discussion and conclusion The pandemic and related policies to reduce new infections were an extreme global event, one with unique impacts on the local economies and supply chains. However, given the informality and illegality of the artisanal mining sector, these types of disruptions are more frequent (Pijpers and Luning, 2021). For example, due to Dodd-Frank legislation in the US that required companies to state the provenance of resources used in production, many companies decided not to source from high-risk areas, such as the DRC, which—similar to the impact of travel restrictions during COVID-19—resulted in a decreased demand for resources (Cuvelier et al., 2014). Other examples could include governments' extreme regulatory restrictions or bans on artisanal mining in countries Ghana (Orleans-Boham et al., 2020; Osei et al., 2021). Nevertheless, COVID-19 is an interesting case study because gold is often favoured as an inflation hedge and a safe investment during economic downturns when interest-bearing investments do not perform well, which led to surging international gold prices during the pandemic. On the contrary, regulations to curb the spread of COVID-19 lead to decreasing local gold prices. In addition, despite the potentially significant impact of COVID-19 on the artisanal gold mining sector and the relevance of the sector for millions of people in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the topic has not received widespread attention compared to other studies on the impact of COVID-19 and measures to reduce its spread (Hilson et al., 2021). The contrasting impact of the pandemic on international and local gold markets is a good indication of how vastly different these two markets are. It is difficult to directly compare international and local gold markets because the international gold market is highly competitive and local gold markets are imperfect. The gold sold on international gold markets is perfectly homogenous, with the organisations such as the LBMA verifying that it is 99.99% pure gold and correctly weighed. The international gold price is usually determined twice a day by an online auction of the largest banks representing the sum of their clients' demands. Past and present gold prices are published online and are widely available. On the contrary, gold sold at the local level are not homogenous, but semi-refined bars called doré, consisting of varying and unknown percentages of gold and secondary minerals such as silver and copper and other impurities. Local collectors—of which there are only a few per mine—routinely manipulate prices by using incorrect counterweights when weighing gold (De Jong, 2019, Sollazzo 2018). Although not directly comparable, we believe this measurement error in local prices—due to incorrect weighing and differences in local gold's assay and purity—is constant over time, which allows us to compare relative changes in local and international gold prices. We find that international prices increased during the pandemic and local prices plummeted during periods of isolation from an average price bracket of FCFA 25,000 to FCFA 29,999 per gram to less than FCFA20,000 per gram. In January 2021, with the pandemic still ongoing but travel restrictions and other social distancing regulations relaxed, the local gold prices recovered to a mean price bracket of FCFA 30,000 to FCFA 34,999 per gram. Although the world gold price and local prices followed the same trend in the long-run, international and local prices diverged early in the pandemic. Lower local prices had a significant impact on miners since many were not able to wait for prices to recover and were forced to sell gold at low prices at a time when the world gold price increased significantly. Given the volatility of local gold prices as shown during the pandemic, researchers should be cautious when using the international gold price as a direct indication of local prices over a shorter time period. Even though COVID-19 is an extreme global event with a singular impact on local supply chains, artisanal miners are vulnerable to a range of external shocks. However, even when considering a larger range of crises that artisanal mining might face, such crises might be the exception and the world gold prices and local gold prices could indeed follow the same trend under normal circumstances. The pandemic accentuated pre-existing market imperfection of local gold markets. Due to market imperfections, external shocks could have a much larger impact on local gold markets than on more competitive world markets. Travel restrictions implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19 obstructed international and domestic smuggling and trading routes, which made it difficult for local collectors to reach mine sites to buy gold and for comptoirs to export gold. This decreased the average reported number of buyers available to miners and lowered local prices. We do not find that miners were aware of the increase in world gold prices, which could have further inhibited their ability to negotiate for fair prices. Even if miners were aware of world gold prices, they would not be able to store gold until the price recovers. Due to cash constraints, lack of access to credit markets—exacerbated by high lootability of gold and dangerous conditions on the mines—miners are highly dependent on their income from mining and cannot wait for the market to recover before selling their gold. The winners are the larger comptoirs with liquidity to buy gold at low prices and the infrastructure to keep it safe until the market can recover and resume international trade. If the government could improve some of these market imperfections, artisanal miners would be less vulnerable to external shocks. Local authorities could broadcast international gold prices to miners, primarily through popular mediums such as radio, and provide better access to credits. Government agencies could also act as central gold buyer, as it is already done by ANEEMAS in a small number of areas in Burkina Faso (outside our study area). There is evidence that local gold prices in Ecuador and the Philippines, where central banks act as domestic gold buyers, were less affected by the pandemic (World Gold Council, 2021). However, governments should take care when designing domestic purchase programs, as previous central buying programs by federal agencies have led to rent-seeking by federal buyers (Hilson and Pardie, 2006; Grätz, 2013; Werthmann, 2017; Côte and Korf, 2018). Governments who consider acting as a central gold purchaser need to, among other things, make sure they have easily accessible and widespread purchasing points, gold purchases are coordinated with other governmental agencies, employ strict measures to control and prevent corruption and control purchases on a regional instead of national level (World Gold Council, 2021). Studying the characteristics and dynamics of local gold markets is vital to design policies that can protect miners against external shocks and make them more likely to benefit from increases in global gold prices. This includes understanding the link between the international and local gold markets and how these linkages fail. Funding Funding was provided by The Institute of Science Technology and Policy and ETH4D at ETH Zurich. Supplementary material Supplementary material is available at Journal of African Economies online. Data availability The data underlying this article are available in the article and in its online supplementary material. Footnotes 1 Other estimations of the number of artisanal miners mostly rely on governmental reports of the 70 countries in the world that hosts artisanal gold miners, such as, Hruschka and Echavarria (2011), who estimated 15 million artisanal gold miners in 2011. Since most artisanal miners operate informally, governmental records probably underestimate the size of the mining populations. 2 Two ethical review boards, the Comite d'éthique institutionnel pour la recherche en sciences de la sante (IRSS) in Burkina Faso (N/Ref. A38-2019/CEIRES) and the ETH Ethics Commission in Switzerland (2019-N-141), reviewed and approved the research project. 3 We ran two logistic regressions, with the first dependent variable equal to one if the person completed the second survey and the second equal to one if the person completed the third survey. In both cases, the independent variable was equal to one if they had been involved in the gold trade in the last month at the baseline, which was not a significant predictor if someone completed follow-up surveys compared to someone not involved in the gold trade. For these analyses we use the full dataset also participants not involved in the gold trade. 4 The baseline survey covers more days than the follow-up surveys (57 days vs. 35–41 days) because the pilot (Sandouré) was done a few weeks before the rest of the fieldwork, and this extended the period referred to by the questions about gold sold ‘in the last month’. We do not find any significant difference in our main findings if we exclude the Sandouré from the analyses. 5 Most miners mentioned ‘isolation’ in the survey. Given that isolation was primarily mentioned in high-income countries and only mentioned by a small percentage of people in low-income settings and given the crowded homes of respondents, we were curious why so many respondents mentioned isolation as a significant impact of the pandemic. However, the enumerators said that ‘isolation’ did not refer to loneliness from being alone at home, but it referred to isolated or deserted mine sites. References ANEEMAS . ( 2018 ). 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Journal of African Economies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 12, 2023
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