TORONTO — The killing of a Canadian mining company executive in Burkina Faso is drawing attention to the deteriorating security situation in the country and the risks resource firms face in unstable regions.
Kirk Woodman, who was working for Vancouver-based Progress Minerals Inc., was found dead after being kidnapped from a company exploration camp in the country Tuesday.
The incident, while rare, comes as threats from insurgents rise in the West African region which is home to numerous Canadian mining operations.
“Burkina Faso is a relatively new target for Islamic militancy,” said Ryan Cummings, a director of consultancy Signal Risk based in South Africa.
“I believe that in the West African region we are seeing a potential spread of extremism and Islamic militancy into new zones, specifically into areas where mining interests are present but have been insulated from the violence could potentially be increasingly affected.”
There are not yet enough indications that the mining industry is being targeted, but the resource sector is one of the few where expatriates would operate outside of the capital of Ouagadougou.
“I don’t necessarily think this is so much an attack on the mining sector per-se, it’s more targeting foreign nationals who find themselves in such locales because of commercial interests there,” Cummings said.
Montreal-based SEMAFO Inc., which has mines in the region, reported several attacks on roads near its operations last year.
The company said a national employee and a subcontractor were killed last August when a bus transporting employees was targeted by bandits and another subcontractor and five gendarmes were killed in a separate attack days earlier. In December, the company said government security forces were attacked on a road about 40 kilometres from its Boungou mine in the country.
The company updated its security policy so that all foreign employees are now being transported by helicopter between the mine site and the capital. It said security for local employees has been boosted by a ground military force and more escorts and that it continues to discuss security issues with the government.
Iamgold Corp. and Roxgold Inc. also have gold mining operations in the country.
Werner Claessens, a geologist who has known Woodman since the 1990s, said the environment for exploration geologists in Western Africa has been deteriorating in recent years.
The properties acquired by Woodman’s company was a promising series of gold prospects, but the “red zone” they were located in had come to be considered difficult to work in, he explained.
“It was a zone considered quite dangerous,” he said, adding that several years ago that wasn’t the case.
“It became dangerous in the summer of 2017 when the first terrorist attacks took place in that part of the country,” he explained.
Claessens has worked and lived in Western Africa since 1985, and lived in Burkina Faso from 2004 until 2011, and regularly visits the nation.
“For us it’s a very sad thing to see what is happening and developing there in terms of terrorist attacks … We’ve never seen this before in the nearly three decades I worked there,” he said.
Cummings said the security situation in Burkina Faso started deteriorating in 2014 when the authoritarian regime collapsed, but has been made worse by the spread of Islamic militants that are also affecting security in neighbouring Mali and Cote d’Ivoire.
But he said that while there are pockets of security issues across the continent, it is not the main risk faced by companies operating there.
“The biggest risks facing the mining sector are actually political stability and also legislation, and how the state intends to deal with its extractive sector.”
The insurgent threats in west Africa contrasts somewhat with a lessening threat from militants in Latin America, said Remi Piet, a senior director at Americas Market Intelligence.
“We have in Colombia, and across Latin America, a decrease of the widespread security threats linked to guerrilla warfare.”
But he said community opposition to mining projects, issues with drug trades, and some remnants of guerrilla groups continue to require attention and planning.
The killing of three geologists at Continental Gold’s operations in Colombia last September show the risks faced by exploration teams and the need to understand community concerns and risks.
“The big issue is when the company does not develop the right protocol and has not gathered the proper intelligences,” said Piet.
He said it’s crucial that mining companies create corporate social responsibility programs with real substance so that local communities become allies in resisting security threats.
— With files from Michael Tutton in Halifax.
Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press