Geology for Global Development

Chinese-African Partnerships: Impact in the Mining Industry

The sino-African partnership moves forward

China has boosted its aid contribution to the African continent. Whilst the total is still low compared with the US aid budget, the trend signifies a wider partnership between the two giants. In the UK, international aid is mainly spent on protecting our national interests. China is emerging as an economic superpower and as a major aid donor, and this raises the question – what interest does China have in Africa?

China’s interest in Africa is thought to stem from its insatiable desire for natural resources; China consumes half the world’s output of refined aluminium, coal and zinc. However, they may have spotted a wider opportunity. Whilst Europe struggles with an ongoing recession and political fall-outs, Africa is booming. They have seen continued economic growth over the past decade and (relatively) high stability. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving towards Africa. The opportunities for innovation and growth as millions of Africans lift themselves out of poverty will be huge.

The Chinese are building relationships across Africa, and expatriate communities are developing to host the Chinese citizens that live and work there. Is this arrangement benefiting Africans? I heard it first hand from geoscience professors whilst undertaking fieldwork in Namibia last year. Put simply:

“The Chinese are suddenly everywhere in southern Africa. They’re taking over all the mines. It’s causing some problems as lots of the local people don’t like it.”

Chinese investment is particularly visible in the mining industry. We talked about this before in a blog post focussed on China. The guardian have produced a video looking at the cost of the gold mining industry in Ghana (below), which I highly recommend watching. The Chinese government have given Ghana a three billion dollar low-interest loan to develop their infrastructure, and up to 10,000 Chinese immigrants are arriving into the country every year hoping to make some money.

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Chinese firms are industrialising the small-scale gold mines that were established by local people. Small amounts of gold are left behind by the bigger machines and Ghanaians are flocking into the mining region to process this gold by hand. In some instances children are dropping out of school to make up the workforce. The rush to profit from the minerals has resulted in chaos and conflict.

One Ghanaian working in a Chinese gold mine is not positive about the impact on his community:

“Since we started mining, our drinking water is polluted and our farm land is no good. We’ve seen no benefits”

Mining can benefit the people living on the resource rich land if the industry provides fair employment for local people, but the Chinese firms are bringing Chinese workers with them into Ghana. Only local people can be given licenses for small scale mining, but thousands of Chinese immigrants are in the country doing this work illegally. The Chinese are being driven out of China by their own domestic problems, a lack of jobs and opportunities, and are arriving into Ghana to make some easy money. Gold mining is particularly profitable right now.

A chinese miner works under dangerous conditions at a mine in Anhui province, China

Some of the extraction techniques used in these informal mines are also very dangerous. The Guardian’s video shows one man who has broken his leg whilst using industrial equipment, and later two children using mercury, an incredibly hazardous material that we’ve banned from schools in the UK, to extract gold with their bare hands.

Pollution and waste water contamination resulting from mining can be detrimental to people living close by. Mines operating in areas that are not properly regulated may be tempted to cut corners. The Ghanaian government claims that the drinking water supplies are being poisoned by chemicals used in the mines, such as mercury and cyanide.

The Chinese-African relationship includes aid, business partnerships and immigration. This arrangement has the potential to benefit both parties if it is well managed. The guardian documentary about the gold mining industry in Ghana, however, exposes the dark side of this partnership. We hope that the Chinese companies operating in Africa are making sure that the local people have access to resources, fair employment and an unpolluted environment.

Recommended reading

A series of detailed articles in the guardian about China in Africa.

A nature geoscience ‘news and views’ article explaining how gold deposits form in fault zones.

Our previous blog posts on Chinese investment in geoscience and the impact of the mining industry.


Rosalie was the Himalayas Programme Officer for Geology for Global Development and writer for the GfGD blog. She is a geochemist and a postdoc at the University of Oxford.