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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The world's newest nation, South Sudan was born out of decades of armed struggle for its land and vast oil reserves. But with a new mining law, it now hopes to uncover the treasure trove of mineral riches that lie beneath it. This has sparked a gold rush in the nation's east. Hannah McNeish reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGGING)

HANNAH MCNEISH, BYLINE: Digging a trench under the punishing midday sun, Thomas Lokinga only stops to wipe the sweat from his face. He's determined to find a nugget of gold amongst the hard-baked rubble. He's one of 60,000 gold diggers in South Sudan unearthing an estimated $660 million worth of gold each year, according to one mining expert. The nuggets are then sold, slipped into pockets and into neighboring Kenya.

Lokinga says he used to find a gram of gold a day, and now it takes 10 days' nonstop work. He says the dreams of wealth have attracted hordes of people, including women and children, scratching out an existence after years of poor harvests.

THOMAS LOKINGA: (Through translator) All over here, people are doing this work. Children and women and even elderly people inside the bushes, all just leaving their homes and looking for something to eat.

MCNEISH: At a nearby riverbed, people from the area's Toposa tribe, wearing little but beads, puff on traditional pipes and talk about a golden era when you could find visible chunks. Now, they sift through endless basins of dirt, searching for the finest specks.

The drone of crickets charges the air, as local leader David Headboy dreams of a brighter future away from panning.

DAVID HEADBOY: (Through translator) The hope now is that the machines come, that investment comes and gives food to the people and things are calm.

MCNEISH: There are also hopes that bigger investors could bring development to areas without basic services, roads or power. Geologists reckon that mineral belts, including copper and iron ore, stud the country and that precious stones nestle among rare earths.

In a country left to languish in poverty and torn apart by war, very little is known about what lies beneath. The few existing mineral maps were made in the '70s during the brief respite between wars. Currently, the gold is only used as a form of foreign exchange with traders bringing goods from Kenya. South Sudan's currency isn't yet recognized internationally.

A foreign traders association estimates that around five kilograms of gold worth about $250,000 passes through the nearest trading town, Kapoeta, each week. That amount of gold doubled last year when traders brought in metal detectors. But security forces also want a piece of the action. They confiscated machines and money, in the first signs of an emerging turf war over the nascent industry.

The central government says it has suspended licenses of over 40 companies working in the region until it irons out regulations that will put the finishing touches to a new mining law due for rollout soon. In a resource-rich but grossly underdeveloped nation, the government hopes the mining law will formalize the sector and make it taxable. The aim is to attract mining giants, many of which work in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, whose mineral finds stretch beyond their borders.

Director of Mining Arkangelo Okwang says that there is no shortage of interest in South Sudan's rich pickings.

ARKANGELO OKWANG: There are so many companies at the door, just queuing, wanting to come in, except that our regulations are not yet in. Huge companies are coming in for South Sudan mineral opportunities.

MCNEISH: And he says that fighting, both internally with rebels and with neighboring Sudan, will not tarnish South Sudan's venture into mineral extraction.

OKWANG: I think we're much ready. I don't think that the type of insecurity is so significant to the extent of hampering the companies from coming in.

MCNEISH: Okwang says the country is taking cautious first steps towards industrial mining to try and avoid bloodshed over South Sudan's minerals and to ward off the resource curse that has haunted its neighbors for decades. For NPR News, I'm Hannah McNeish.

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