BAMAKO May 27 Gold exports from Africa's third largest producer Mali rose to 67.4 tonnes in 2013 due to a big jump in artisanal mining, customs and national institute of statistics data showed on Tuesday.
An influx of workers and increased mechanisation pushed artisanal exports to 20.7 tonnes, up from 1.6 tonnes the previous year, helping to boost total gold exports from 45 tonnes in 2012.
The increase is significant for Mali, a West African country whose economy has been damaged by the impact of a cycle of rebellions in the north by ethnic Tuaregs.
A 2012 rebellion threw the country into chaos when Islamists linked to al Qaeda hijacked the revolt and seized control of the desert north. They were only defeated last year by an international military operation led by French forces.
Mali is one of the world's poorest states, in part because of its vulnerability to climate change. The United Nations has asked for $2 billion this year to feed and care for impoverished people in the parched Sahel region, that includes Mali, which has been ravaged by drought for years..
"These (gold) statistics give us great comfort because they prove that the artisanal gold sector is on the move and dynamic and it can produce as much as the big gold companies which the state has been forced to put under pressure," said Abdoulaye Pona, president of Mali's Chamber of Mines.
"After the coup in 2012 followed by sanctions all sectors have fallen into crisis except mining, so much so that rural and urban people have veered towards artisanal mining," Pona told Reuters.
Limitations imposed by governments on artisanal mining in Ghana, Senegal and Burkina Faso have driven up the number of workers in Mali's mines and increased the sector's productive capacity, Pona said.
Another factor behind the improvement is a big influx of mining equipment from China, which includes 500,000 gold detectors, the same number of crushers and more than 1 million motorcycles hitched to carts used in the industry.
"Gold mining is no longer with the hoe or the calabash (bowl). Gold panning is now with excavators, crushers, dump trucks and chemicals," said Belco Tamboura, director of communications at the Chamber of Mines.
As a result, the number of private exporters has increased in the last year, he said. Even so, big players still dominate the industry with mining firms exporting 46.7 tonnes of gold.
Industrial mining companies, including AngloGold Ashanti and Canada's IamGold, reported total output of 46.27 tonnes in 2012, according to government data.
Mali's government is yet to receive customs data for 2013 but based on available 2012 data, the overall production rise could be linked to higher production from the informal, or artisanal, mining sector, said Mines Minister Boubou Cisse.
"This analysis revealed that more than 9 tonnes of gold was exported in 2012 that did not come from the industrial sector. These exports consisted of raw gold, semi-developed gold and powder," he said in an emailed reply to questions from Reuters.
He noted some of the exports were in breach of regulations since Mali does not allow exports of gold in powder form. (Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg; Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Evans)