How Illegal Gold is Feeding the Hunger-Stricken in South Sudan’s Restive Equatoria

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South Sudanese residents of Kapoeta state say they found a way to earn money to feed their families: selling gold. Gold mining is illegal in South Sudan, but locals say it is worth the risk of getting arrested, or buried. They say they might sell as much as 30 grams of gold in a week in a country where six million people are going hungry each day.

Gold is found in Kapoeta state’s Ngauro, Namurunyang, Kauto and Napotpot villages, all dozens of kilometers outside Kapoeta town in Southeastern region.

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A 20-year-old man whom VOA is identifying only as “Lokuru” for safety reasons is one of the local illegal gold miners in Kauto village, some 30 kilometers outside Kapoeta town. Lokuru said the amateur miners often dig down more than 20 meters to find gold.

“You can continue digging and the ground might even cover you. That is why people say it is God who is taking care of people. You continue digging deeper since you know it is something that can bring food when sold,’’ Lokuru told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.

Once they are down that far, the miners dig sideways in search of the precious mineral. They collect a mixture of dirt and gold dust, place it in basins or bowls, slowly pour water over the top, and shake. If there are gold nuggets inside, they settle at the bottom.

Last week, Lokuru was looking for a customer to buy three grams of precious stones he recently found outside of Kapoeta.

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“I came here to Kapoeta and found some white stones. I saw them gathered in one place. I started digging deeper into the ground and found other stones inside,” said Lokuru.

In the past, most Kapoeta residents did not know they could earn a living from the illegal trade of mining gold and depended entirely on keeping and selling livestock as their only source of livelihood.

In a place like South Sudan, gold mining can be extremely lucrative. Lokuru says 20 grams can sell for as much as 50,000 South Sudanese pounds.

Another amateur gold miner named “Mark,” said a friend introduced him to gold mining at Nahanak village. He says  his life has improved because of the lucrative gold trade.

“He taught me to dig this way and that for about two months and I was able to get 10 grams which I sold. I used that money for buying cows and goats which I now take to Juba,” Mark said.

At the same time, Mark emphasized that gold mining can be dangerous.

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“In areas of Namurunyang the gold is far [underground]. People dig up to eight meters deep and if one gets [gold], everybody will get into that hole and the digging continues. Sometimes the hole will collapse and could bury even more than 10 people,” Mark said.

Kapoeta officials announced a ban on gold mining earlier this year. Locals were told if they have gold, to sell it directly to the state investment cooperative in Kapoeta. The state said it would pay 6,000 South Sudanese pounds per gram, or $33. ($1 U.S. = 180 South Sudanese pounds on the black market.)

Middlemen have smuggled gold out of the country to be sold in neighboring Uganda or Kenya, where a gram of pure gold fetches $35. According to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, the same quantity sold for $50 two years ago.

Kapoeta Deputy Governor Paul Langa told South Sudan in Focus it’s not easy to control illegal mining of gold in the state.

“The gold is everywhere, ranging from here up to the mountains of Didinga, down to Buya, so it is tremendously hard to control. This is the dust which anyone can just get. For example, when we were renovating the airstrip, the Murrum [paving material]we collected, children were able to mine gold out of it,” said Langa.

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