BETARE OYA, CAMEROON — Tensions are brewing in eastern Cameroon between residents and small-scale Chinese gold miners who began setting up camp there six years ago. Local miners say the Chinese have taken away their livelihoods and are not living up to promises to develop the area.
Local miners began extracting gold around Betare Oya in 2007. Three years later, the Chinese arrived.
Miner Emmanuel Manga says he couldn’t compete and had to become a commercial moto driver. He says he now makes barely $60 a month, a quarter of what he used to earn.
He says Cameroon should not allow the Chinese to go so far as digging in their goldfields or hiring laborers for very little wages to dig. He says it has made them poor.
About 300 Chinese miners are now working in the area, far more than the 100 authorized by Cameroonian authorities.
The Chinese miners use Caterpillar tractors and equipment that clean stones and sift soil allowing them to detect gold faster than locals who use manual tools.
Angry locals have responded by slashing tires, vandalizing equipment, and even beating some Chinese miners. Dozens of the Chinese have fled for safety to neighboring towns and only visit to oversee their businesses.
Adamou Assamou, the traditional ruler of the locality, says locals have not seen any sign of the development they were promised.
He says they were told by their local authorities that all Chinese gold miners had to buy pieces of land and construct beautiful houses in their villages but, he adds, that has not happened. He says the Chinese have instead built temporary camps near their mining areas and they don’t close the open pits they dig when they are finished. He says they only see Chinese miners in town when they come to buy food.
Locals say the gold exploitation also leaves polluted holes and destroys vegetation and animal habitats.
But Chinese gold miner Chris Ho says his company, which is operating with a temporary permit, has provided roads, generators and safe drinking water.
“We have built a lot of houses, I guess a lot of things. A lot of [Chinese] have already come here. They have brought a lot of things and they are changing the lives of the local people because Chinese and Cameroonians are just like together and we understand each other better,” Ho says.
Ghana, one of the world’s top gold producing countries, has experienced similar tensions. In 2013, the government cracked down, arresting illegal foreign miners and ultimately deporting thousands of Chinese nationals.
Economic analyst Emmanuel Mihamle says Cameroon could crack down as well, despite its longstanding ties to China.
Mihamle says since independence in 1960, China has built roads, hospitals, schools and hydroelectric dams and, in return, he says Cameroon has allowed Chinese companies to exploit and export natural resources like gold, rubber, diamonds and wood but he adds that the understanding is that these activities should be mutually beneficial.
In 2014, the government cracked down on what it said was the illegal export of gold and diamonds, and suspended some foreign mining contracts.