By: Javier Silas Omagor
A drive through the area presents one with several man-made fissures always crowded with children and women, at sight especially for starters you may think these are groups of people laying bricks or constructing damps but make no mistake; those are the Busia people digging their way into prosperity in Gold Mines. Busia is a rich agricultural landscape yet still with a heavenly gift of the precious metal; Gold. “This is one reliable way of survival for us in Busia because there is a high demand for this mineral, mining has changed our lives for good, at least we can take good care of families.” A 64 year old Gabriel Mukasa said. At Amonikakine the activity is tense and a lion’s share of thoughts flipping through your mind here is that; mining is going to be one of the development vehicles for Busia and Uganda at large especially when the sector is managed well by those in authority. “I rarely go digging, everyday my target is the mining site because a good day can return up to UGX. 15.000/= for me alone.” A 32 year old Angela Nafula, told Step Radio Online.
However, Not all that glitters is gold, some find it a chilling situation yet with no choice.
In a nutshell, Busia is in quest of elevating itself to becoming a boom of a Gold town in Uganda but the major concern is the shifty price tag coming along with it; the ravaging environmental and harsh social costs.
Social and Environmental Consequences
First rewind two decades ago when farming was still a dominant force and indeed a one stop for most of the people living in this Uganda-Kenya boarder district but in the present day this has changed in a flash-The district is one among those in the Gold-rush in the country.
Obviously, the rush for Gold brings about thousands of jobs and major tax revenues this does not apply for poorly managed mining sectors instead this will mainly benefit most the illegal miners not the natives who are bonifed owners of these natural resources and minerals onto doing donkey work. For some this is a real path to prosperity but for the majority it has instead locked them up in poverty.
“There people who are getting rich from the Busia Gold but not natives nor government, as a district we know them but we cannot flash them out when the in line ministry is not responsive.” Jane Nabulindo, Busia Woman Member of Parliament notes.
In Tiira, Amonikakine and Akobwaat villages where our reporter visited hundreds of locals especially children and women are ever present in these massive open pits hunting for the tiny particles of the precious mineral. The Gold open pits measure up to 130-fit deep, those scrambling for the mineral inside have no Personal Protection Equipment-PPEs on them. Without safety precautions whatsoever, it’s vividly dirty and dangerous work. Considering the scale of the massive open pits the end product seems small. This is even made worse with the use of the rudimentary methods.
“Child labour is one of our biggest problems brought about by this Gold mining in this district and of course the safety and health of these indigenous miners.” John Oscar Angiro, an official from the district labor office highlights. More than 3 people die in the gold sites in Busia with the ever collapsing sand while between 2-3 children succumb to death by drowning in the stagnated water in the unattended to gold sites every week, at least that is according to Paul Boniface Ogutu, LCV chairperson. “As we talk I have just sent police to Busitema sub County where one miner was buried yesterday but they (Police) have dug 108 fit deep without seeing his remains.” Ogutu revealed. According to police records, in a month over 10 people are lost in the district owing to risky and irresponsible mining. Mercury is largely used to help in aggregating and biding the specs of gold together after separating it from the soil texture. The toxic chemical is a very dangerous element in humans. “Mercury can cause brain and organ damage especially in children; it’s a poisonous metal that can eventually kill in a gradual manner.” Dr. Mackay Odeke of Mbale Regional Referral Hospital. The process also includes soil panning for longer hours. “Because they have to work for long while panning soil their eyes are strained to distinguish gold fragments as tiny as grains of sand from soil texture and later make it into one solid peace, this has resulted into escalating cases of sight problems amongst those staying in or around villages where mining is tense.” Dr. Odeke furthered in explanation. Odeke also says that every 2 of the 10 women from Busia visit the hospital with cases of fistula given the long periods they spend in the dirty water searching for Gold. “My wife is a fistula patient, coming to four years, but like me she knows that there is no choice.” Francis Wafula, a miner said of his spouse. ProssyKhirunda, a health worker in the district is concerned of the ever growing number of malaria cases brought about by mosquitoes that breed from stagnated water that fills the unattended to open pits when it rains.
The activity has done harm in water pollution and the entire green cover as the waste, mercury, cyanide, lead and engine oils and all other substances that kill aquatic life are always directed to the rivers, streams and open land.
“Actually there is a mess in our community here and we have written to the relevant ministries to no veil, nature has been provoked to the highest peak and you know when it comes to environment, for every action at least there is a reaction.” Fred Wakapisi, the district environment officer warned. According to the 1995 constitution, article 17 (i) the state shall promote sustainable development and public awareness of the need to manage land, air and water resources in a balanced and sustainable manner for the present and future generations. The same constitution requires the district environment officer to liaise with the National Environmental Management Authority-NEMA in protecting the environment, a responsibility Mr. Wakapisi says he has performed but no results to show. With the help of the toxic mercury, many water sources in the area have been contaminated, at the swamps and rivers the water is undrinkable and their fish is gone. The road network is not being spared either, the miners dig up to the road surface as long as they are convinced that Gold is there. At Tiira and Amonikakine alone the records at the District Education Office indicate that every year, 17% of learners drop out of school to join gold mining putting the area among the list of districts in the country with the highest number of illiteracy. “I would rather stay back home and help my parents mine gold so that we earn a living than starving at school t.” A 14 year old female miner said in an interview.
Dangerous Mining Offers Dangerous Future
A glare from any point though the district offers a worrying impression that in the next two decades there might not be farm land, the green cover will be no more and water will completely be undrinkable while animals may face extinction in the area.
Busia’s rush for gold in a bid to leave poverty behind has seen the scoured and devastated nature. The barren moonscape remaining leaves you wondering if it will ever be green again and friendly to life again.
“My greatest worry is failure by the ministry to cooperate, we have written to them several times but they have never bothered to come and assess the extent of our fears.” recalls LCV Boss. The District Chairman also wonders why some miners sent by the ministry into the district share exploration licenses while others are unauthenticated yet the minister is silent on it despite several whistle blowing.
According to Naomi NangokuMumoita, mining expert, Busia’s other major problem is small scale miners who are mostly indigenous. “For them because they own the land, they will wake up and start digging holes everywhere without going through the right procedure or considering the environmental implications.” Nangoku observed.
“The negative impact of small scale mining in rural districts like Busia is so vast and it’s difficult to actually quantify it, as a district alone they do not have administrative capacity to stop illegal miners, the situation seems to be out of control, this will require daunting task from the ministry itself.” The expert Nangoku advanced.
Desperate For Solutions
“It’s a catastrophe; our district and mainstream leadership are doing little in helping educate ignorant people on dangers of irresponsible mining.” A concerned Tiira village resident, Charles Wafula told our reporter. The angry Wafula advanced; “As locals we are planning to form our own civilian force that will work to flash out these destructive miners who are wrecking our district.” Asked on the residents’ concerns, the district officials claimed to have done their best but continued to blame the ministry of Energy and Mineral development for not being cooperative.
To justify themselves, the district council sat last week and unanimously agreed to write to the Attorney General’s office to operationalize their proposed ordinance that will seek to weigh in harsh punishments to those practicing destructive mining. The same proposed ordinance also seeks tighten the knot on parents and individuals encouraging child labor at expense of school. Most of these children at mining sites have missed a better part of their education while some of them have lost lives in these massive open pits by drowning.
“It’s true that young children keep drowning weekly but because of fear to be arrested for negligence most parents conceal these deaths but that is going to be history with crime preventers aboard now.” Busia District Police Commander, Ezra Tugume. The District Police Commander says 29 per cent of the death related cases recorded by the force in the area relate to gold mining. He tips the central government to intervene very fast given the immeasurable damage the illegal mining is causing to the environment and how lives have been raked.
According to the Uganda Mining Act 2003, section 3 sub section 3.1 the overall responsibility for the Mineral Sector will lie with the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD) or the ministry responsible for minerals.
Article 51 (1) of the same Act stipulates that where the Commissioner considers that the holder of a mining lease is using wasteful mining methods or treatment especially to environment and life, the Commissioner may notify the holder accordingly and require him or her to show cause within such period as the Commissioner may specify, why he or she should not should not cease such practices. However, both locals and authorities in the area say they have never seen the ministry officials on ground for close to three years.
“The law makes it very difficult for us as a district to take decisions on our own when it comes to minerals and other natural resources but we would have rectified this vice decades ago because the ministry that has the powers seems less bothered by our plight.” Ogutu said.
Now, the ministry of energy and mineral development has apologized for the delays vowing to recall all licenses initially issued to the mining investors in a move expected to help get rid of quack investors whom the ministry blame on the mining sector failures, especially in Busia district.
“We are going to increase on the scoop of monitoring and inspection to make sure that at least they (Miners) fulfill all the legal steps, those who fail will be cancelled, going forward we are also to amend the mining act, so as to enable us perform our duties well.” Vincent Kedi, the Principle Engineer in the ministry of energy and mineral development revealed.
Some of the artisan miners on condition of anonymity explained that most of them use appropriate mining methods save for the locals who are plunged into dangerous rudimentary approaches. They also admitted obtaining fake exploration licenses from the source they asked not to be named in this story.
Generally, Gold Mining is a hugely profitable venture for any economy across the Globe but failure to establish legitimate legal structures, leaves the door open for labor and environmental abuses the reason why the entire Busia district will soon start paying a heavy price tag that the vast destruction of their natural heritage has caused. Just like Busia, in other gold rich districts in Uganda only strong Central Government actions on this destructive money making business can stop resources from being wasted out for the sake of the future generations. The question is will that intervention be timely?