- Busia’s rush for gold in a bid to leave poverty behind has also seen the scoured and devastated nature. The barren moonscape remaining, leaves you wondering if it will ever be green again and friendly to life.
- “It’s a catastrophe for our district in waiting but the mainstream leadership are doing little in helping educate ignorant people on dangers of irresponsible mining.” A concerned Tiira village resident, Charles Wafula told AICA Website.
By: Javier Silas Omagor
This is a story of a naturally gifted district digging its way into prosperity in the Eastern part of The Pearl of Africa-Uganda.
Busia is a rich agricultural landscape yet still with a heavenly gift of the precious metal – Gold! 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. A drive through the area presents one with several man-made fissures always infested 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.
“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 my target is always the mining site because a good day can return up to UGX. 15.000/= for me alone.” A 32 year old Angela Nafula, states. However, some find it a chilling situation yet the locals have no choice.
It’s evident Busia is in quest of elevating itself to becoming a boom of a Gold town in Uganda but the major concern is that the shift is coming with ravaging environmental and harsh social costs.
Social and Environmental Consequences
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.
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.
With 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 labor is our biggest problem 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 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.
Prossy Khirunda, 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.
While children are always drowning to death in the same open pits during rainy seasons.
The activity has done harm in water pollution as the waste, mercury, cyanide, lead and engine oils and all other substances that kill aquatic life.
“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.
During my two week long stay in the district engaging stakeholders in interviews on the matter, I realized that the district administration was tremendously getting concerned and committees were constituted and sent to the villages to asses, sensitize and carry out feasibility studies on how best the administration can curb the growing vice.
“On November 8th this year our committee members will visit most affected sub counties including Buteeba, Sikuda and Busitema, the main target is to rescue our farm land and environment including water sources.” Ogutu, LCV boss said as of November 6th.2017, in an interview.
The district boss fears that in the next two decades there might not be farm land in Busia and water will completely be undrinkable while animals may face extinction in the area.
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.” A 14 year old female miner said in an interview.
It’s upon this development that the district unanimously agreed to write to the Attorney General’s office to operationalize their proposed ordinance that will seek to weigh in harsh punishments to 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 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 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.
Busia’s rush for gold in a bid to leave poverty behind has also seen the scoured and devastated nature. The barren moonscape remaining, leaves you wondering if it will ever be green again and friendly to life.
“It’s a catastrophe for our district in waiting but the mainstream leadership are doing little in helping educate ignorant people on dangers of irresponsible mining.” A concerned Tiira village resident, Charles Wafula told AICA Website.
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 blamed the ministry of Energy and Mineral development for not being cooperative.
“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.
“There people who are getting rich from the Busia Gold but not the local miners nor government, as a district we know them but we cannot flash them out when the ministry is not responsive.” Jane Nabulindo, Busia Woman Member of Parliament notes.
According to Naomi Nangoku Mumoita, 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 in a long run government loses lot of money to untaxed mining investors.” 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. Meanwhile, some of the artisan miners who spoke to our reporter 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.
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.
Now, the ministry of energy and mineral development has vowed 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.
Article 51 (1) of the same 2003 Mining Act conforms of that where the Commissioner considers that the holder of a mining lease is using wasteful mining methods or treatment especially to environment and live, 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.
Authorities in the area say they have never seen the ministry officials on ground for close to five years.
“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.
Generally, Gold Mining is a hugely profitable venture for any economy 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 the 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 but will that intervention be timely?