Scores of people have died in the West African nation of Mali after an informal gold mine collapsed last week, the country’s Ministry of Mines said on Wednesday, highlighting the risks that countless artisanal miners face in one of Africa’s largest gold-producing countries.

It was not immediately clear what caused the collapse last Friday or how many people had died at the site about 55 miles southwest of the capital, Bamako, according to a statement from the ministry. The death toll exceeded 70 people, according to The Associated Press, and as of Wednesday, emergency services workers were still looking for bodies, the ministry said.

Several West African countries have experienced a new boom in informal mining, also known as artisanal mining, over the past two decades. It has provided a livelihood to thousands of people, fed trafficking routes and attracted armed groups. In northern Mali, for instance, Tuareg rebels and insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda control mining sites.

In 2022, Mali produced more than 72 metric tons of gold, which represented a quarter of its national budget and 75 percent of its exporting revenues, the former minister of mines, Lamine Seydou Traoré, said last March. About six tons came from artisanal mining.

Gold has been a significant part of Mali’s economy for centuries, since Mansa Musa, the ruler of the ancient empire of Mali, traveled to Egypt with a caravan of tens of thousands of people in the 14th century, flooding local markets with so much gold that its value crumbled for more than a decade, historical accounts show.

In recent years, the country has emerged as a major hub for smuggling artisanal West African gold to the United Arab Emirates.

In an effort to claim control of the profits made from mines, Mali’s military-ruled government adopted a mining code last summer that gave the state and local investors up to a 35 percent stake in mining projects — up from 20 percent. Mali is home to industrial mines operated by mining multinationals such as Barrick Gold Corporation and B2Gold Corporation, among others.

In November, Mali signed a deal with Russia to build a gold refinery in Bamako, another sign of the growing ties between the two countries. Russia has provided helicopters and weapons to the Malian military and sent mercenaries from Wagner to crush Islamist insurgents and rebel groups.

While Wagner operatives have sought to obtain mining concessions in exchange for their presence in Mali, no deal has been publicly announced.

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