GUY RAZ, host: In the middle of Africa, a landlocked and sparsely populated country, the Central African Republic could soon become a gold-exporting powerhouse. International mining companies are hoping to establish operations there soon. But for now, many farmers in the country are abandoning their fields and taking up gold hunting. Jeanne Baron has this portrait of a mining village where hundreds of people are joining the rush.
JEANNE BARON: Levi Cumbo has been working for the last six months at this gold mine called Mombdi in the northwest corner of the Central African Republic. Miners discovered a rich vein about two years ago, and every day, more families arrive - men, women and children- to dig in the deep trenches where gold has been found.
LEVI CUMBO: (Through translator) It's like, it's totally - it's luck. You know, some people you'll find one million in a month, and then other people, they'll find 200. That's what we are, you know. We're miners, we're proud of it.
BARON: The value of gold that Cumbo claims to find here translates to anything from 50 cents to $1,000 a day. He's describing all this to Brook Lauten from the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organization. As farmers abandon their fields to search for gold, aid workers like Lauten have become increasingly concerned about conditions at this crowded camp. Although Cumbo may tout the riches he can find, this team from the International Rescue Committee sees little sign of wealth here.
BROOK LAUTEN: There's no school. There's no latrine. There's no hospital. There are many here you see.
BARON: Lauten says this crowded village of grass huts looks all too much like a refugee camp. As we wait for a tour of the mine, there's a sudden commotion. We look up and see a wall of fire very close and moving fast. Everyone runs. (Foreign language spoken) (Foreign language spoken) (Foreign language spoken) (Foreign language spoken) (Foreign language spoken) (Foreign language spoken)
BARON: The fire burns through dozens of homes before frantic villagers are able to put down the blaze. There are no casualties, but all around, people are crying. They've lost goods, food and money. Cumbo tells the IRC's Brook Lauten that these fires happen all the time.
CUMBO: (Foreign language spoken) (Foreign language spoken)
CUMBO: (Foreign language spoken)
(Foreign language spoken) So he's saying it's been four times in the last two months. So I mean, it's...
BARON: Often. happening often.
BARON: Fires like this have not slowed the pace of new arrivals. The camp is bigger than ever with 2,000 inhabitants. The mineral wealth of the Central African Republic is mined entirely by communities like this one. Nobody knows how much gold makes it onto the international market from these communities but some estimate as much as two tons a year, mostly sold through the black market. Sebastien Pennes heads up a program here with Tetra Tech ARD, a U.S.-funded organization, which advocates for mining reform. He says the rising price of gold has infected the region with gold fever.
SEBASTIEN PENNES: With a lucky strike, you can make enough money to live for two or three years. But of course, that lucky strike is so rare that at the end of the day you're better off, you know, working in the field. But if you're lucky, you can be very, very rich.
BARON: Riches are hard to even imagine in the Central African Republic. It's ranked among the 10 poorest countries in the world. Decades of chronic rebellion have meant no security and no development. But recently, the government has stabilized, and a Canadian gold mining company has just signed a 25-year contract with the government. Pennes says state coffers are expected to swell.
PENNES: It's a huge country, very unpopulated. The mineral deposits are enormous, and so the possibilities are huge.
BARON: Those possibilities go well beyond gold. The Central African Republic is home to diamonds and uranium, and there's talk of oil. Industrial gold mining is on track to begin in 2013 bringing with it ballooning revenues. Where that wealth ends up is an open question. But the miners at Mombdi know what they're going to do; rebuild their grass homes quickly so they can pick up their shovels and dig for gold. For NPR News, I'm Jeanne Baron.