With red dust all over his body, a short well-built man, probably in his 40s steps out of a 50-foot pit, to speak to Oil in Uganda on his mining journey.
His name is Majidu Musisi, Chairman of Nabwala Gold Mining site in Budde, Bugiri district which has over 500 small scale gold miners. Musisi works with his wife, Nekesa Beatrice and together, they brave the pits and tunnels below the ground in search of the ever elusive gold rocks.
‘’I have been mining gold in this area since 2006, and even though other people have left with the belief that gold is done, I still think we can find more if we dig further into the ground ‘’ Musisi says.
In his search for gold, Musisi uses rudimentary tools like a hand-held pick axe, shovels, and hoes. Quickly, he rather adds that he knows that he needs protective gear like a helmet for his head and gloves, nose-masks and gumboots for his hands, nose and legs to protect him from getting into contact with mercury during washing and amalgamation process.
“These protective gears are expensive to buy,” he says, adding that they prefer to use bare hands and purchasing gloves, gumboots and nose-masks will ‘economically’ take him back.
“If we were using excavators, it would be different.”
It is a common sight to find men, women, and children searching for gold from a mixture of soil, water, and mercury. However, while the local miners crave mercury to help them get gold, they are also inviting ill health that could cause death with the same measure.
According to the World health Organization (WHO) exposure to mercury is the biggest cause of health hazards facing Small scale or artisanal gold miners. The UN organization says in a report on the Health effects of Mercury that due to Mercury’s effects, children and women of child-bearing age are considered vulnerable populations because it says mercury can be passed from a mother to her unborn child.
And yet at gold mines in Namayingo district, eastern Uganda, mercury is one of the vital possessions every miner must have. The liquid chemical is highly sought after as they apply it during the process to extract gold from dust dug ground from the Gold rocks in the mines.
Dr. Joseph Gyagenda of Nsambya hospital last year told Oil in Uganda that mercury was a heavy metal that could not easily be absorbed by living organisms, including humans and could cause permanent mental disability and a range of other conditions.
A walk around Nabwaala mining site, deep open-abandoned pits are littered all over the place; often with no kind of forewarning of probable accidents and some pits obscured by thickets.
Because of the rudimentary methodology, mounds of tailings stand at several meters high overlying on the edges of the pits that are sometimes more than 50 feet deep.
On a rainy day, accidents are imminent as the loose earth simply collapses into the pit, nostalgic Lubanga Ronald states.
When digging tunnels into the ground, there are no re-enforcements on the walls of the tunnels. This, according to Batambuze Methuselah, the Community Development officer of Budhaya Sub-county can make the walls collapse during the rainy season.
According to Musisi, four people have lost their lives after pits collapsed on them. In Nsango B gold mining site in Namayingo district, two people lost their lives in the same way in 2015.
“People here just mine and if they find no gold, they abandon the pit and start digging another one without filling the hole created,” Musisi narrates, adding that even stoarge of tailings has become a challenge in the area.
In Uganda, artisanal and small-scale mining has for years been recognized as illegal and there is no regulatory framework that governs them. This has also created loopholes on the checks and balances since the safety measures cannot be enforced.
According to the Acting Community development officer Bugiri District Shafic Butanda, the district has not taken interest in gold mining in the district.
‘’Gold mining is a new thing, so politicians in the district have not shown interest in it and we are forced to reach out to the central government to take up the issue of regulating small scale miners’’ he told Oil in Uganda.
The visit to Busoga revealed that artisanal mining, just like other areas around the country is a source of livelihood for many Ugandans. A recent study estimates that over 400,000 people in Uganda who are directly engaged in the activity and additional 1.5 million benefitting indirectly.
This is a part one series of the gold story in Uganda. In the subsequent part, we visit the Mubende mines whose operations are comparatively at a more sophisticated level.
Report by Collins Hinamundi and Robert Mwesigye
Gold miners in Mubende district have commended the safety campaign championed by Action Aid international to promote health and safety standards in the mines.
During a recent visit by Oil in Uganda to the gold mines early this year, several miners in Kitumbi sub county, Mubende District expressed their gratitude to Action Aid International for providing them with safety gears and providing a platform for awareness.
Nakimuli Shamim, one of the beneficiaries explained that she was unaware of the importance of using safety gear while washing the gold dust.
“Now that I understand how important this safety gear is, I can now wash up to 8 basins of gold dust without worrying about getting sick from exposure to mercury,” she narrated to Oil in Uganda.
“Before, I used to develop itchy skin rashes but my hands are now covered with gloves and I also have gum boots to protect my legs,” she noted.
Nakimuli adds that using the safety gear will eventually see her walk home with a high income since she will be able to work for longer hours.
As for Nalukuuma Juliet who has been in the gold industry for three years, the use of safety gear had never crossed her mind.
She narrates that she would endure the tedious process of washing the gold dust despite the fact that her hands always developed small painful swellings.
“If you are looking for money, you have to endure and keep working even if you have those small swellings. If you do not work you cannot be paid,” she stated.
Nalukuuma further adds that often, it is uncomfortable working under the sun while wearing the safety gear but one has to persevere.
According to Zziwa Hussein, a grinding machine operator, he is now protected from the dust emitted during the crashing process that has made him suffer from constant chest pains.
I now hope that the chest pains from inhaling too much dust will reduce with this safety gear,” he says.
In August 2016, over 80 miners in Lubaali, Lujjinji B and Kampala mining sites in Mubende district received safety gears including gumboots, waterproof overalls, nose masks and helmets from Action Aid International in a bid to promote health and safety conditions in mines.
Report by Josephine Nabaale
Stephen Wafula is a happy gold miner in Nakudi village, Banda Sub County, Namayingo district. The 27-year-old, father of 2 children, says, he switched from agriculture to gold mining last year, after witnessing his colleagues ‘prosper’ from mining. “Unlike farming, there is some money in gold mining. I don’t wait for a season, I earn per day,” he narrates, though hesitant to reveal how much he has earned from gold mining.
Byakatunda Katib who also mines in the same area, says they can earn as much as 20 Million shillings ($5,500) a week from Gold mining, if the season is good.
Like other artisanal miners, the use of rudimentary tools like hoes and spades are used in this area to dig deep underground and extract ore with traces of gold. After extracting the ore (soil containing gold) from the ground, the miners normally have two options; to dry, crush, wash and extract the gold or sell the iron ore to other people who can wash it and extract gold for themselves. Either way, the ore is sun dried and then put into a grinder and grounded into fine soil that is then mixed with water and mercury to attract gold dust (particles).
“Without mercury, it is difficult to extract gold particles because we do not have proper mechanization,” Wafula explains. He adds that after extracting gold, the remaining ‘soil’ containing mercury is disposed of in the open ground or sold for further processing using cyanide.
The use of mercury and cyanide is common in all gold mining area like Busia, Mubende, Moroto and Buhweju among others. These hazardous chemicals are mainly used to attract gold particles from the iron ore.
Mercury is a thick, waxy silver chemical that is used in the extraction of secondary gold. This chemical is used to purify gold from ore in a process called amalgamation. During this process, the vapour from the amalgamation (burning of gold particles mixed with mercury) is inhaled by the miner who often does not have protective clothing.
Many miners like Wafula are not aware of the risks of using mercury. Furthermore, they do not have proper healthy and safety gears for protection.
In the latest value for money audit report into the mineral’s sector, the Auditor General, recommends that government should slap a total ban on the use of mercury in gold mining due to health and environmental consequences. The report covers the period between 2011 to 2015.
“The use of mercury and cyanide in gold recovery is a health hazard and should be discouraged else safety precautions should be taken. There is bound to be serious environmental impacts and health issues related to pollution of streams and rivers of Mubende. According to the report, the tailings containing mercury is disposed of in the open, and when it rains mercury finds itself in water streams where the local people fetch water for domestic purposes.
It takes more than 5 years for mercury to completely dissolve into the soil, while it takes 10 years for Cyanide to dissolve into the soil. The Auditor General findings are similar to the Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines (DGSM) internal inspection report that also noted illegal mining and ‘harmful mining practices’.
According to the DGSM internal inspection report for June and July this year, the inspection team visited several artisanal mining sites where people were using mercury to recover the gold and the remaining tailings are then washed with cyanide in a makeshift processing plant which is a threat to the environment.
In Namayingo district, the inspection report notes that there is a company known as Lujiji Processing Company that has installed a gold procession plant and uses Cyanide to extract gold from tailings left behind by the artisanal miners who are also using mercury to recover the gold.
“The gold processing operations of Lujiji Processing Company should be halted until an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process is finalized and approved by NEMA,” the report recommends.
According to Oguttu Bonventeur Stephen, LC3 Chairperson Banda sub-county, the mercury being used in the mining sites are imported from Kenya through Busia and even as far as from Tanzania. He blames the porous borders and lack of enforcement on the use of the harzadous chemical.
“This mercury is being used a lot here. In a day, I am told they can use about 15-20 kgs of mercury and all that ends up in our water streams,” he told Oil in Uganda during a meeting.
Oil in Uganda has also established that artisanal miners in the mines buys 1 gram of mercury at 600 Uganda shilling at whole sale price and 1000 shillings at retail price.
Emmanuel Kibirige, general secretary, Singo Artisanal Gold Miners Association and a gold miner at Kitumbi, Mubende district, argues that the problem is improper disposal of tailings. He concurs with Auditor General Report, that when it rains, mercury is washed away and end up in streams and water sources.
“The problem is not mercury itself, but its improper disposal. It is disposed of anyhow. I think, we need to find a place, where we can dispose the mud containing mercury, and then treat,” he explains. However, he explains that many miners continue to use mercury without wearing any protective gear. “People here don’t use gloves, they use their bare hands and feet, yet there is mercury,” he said.
During an impromptu visit to some of the mining sites in Bugiri and Namayingo districts respectively, Oil in Uganda also found out that there was limited knowledge on the dangers of mercury and cyanide use.
At Byewunyisa Gold Mining Company in Budhaya Sub-county, the miners had removed their gumboots and were handling the tailings with bare hands, despite the fact that they had just used cyanide to get the gold particles.
The story is not any different from situation at Nsango B mining site where children are engaged in washing crushed iron ore with mercury. Recently, Dr. Tom Okurut, the executive director, National Environment Management Authority (Nema) revealed the use of mercury by miners exposes them to contract diseases like lung and kidney problems.
MINING POLICE The inspection report observes that miners have been sensitized against the use of mercury and environmentally friendly mining, there is very little change and recommends stringent enforcement mechanism. “Government should increase security in all gold rush areas including the establishment of Mining Police to enforce compliance,” the internal report recommends.
Of recently, the government has established units in police to hand specific tasks. For instance, there is the oil and gas protection unit and environment protection unit among others, and therefore the ministry wants a specific unit for mining to enforce compliance with good mining practices.
Report by Edward Ssekika and Collins Hinamundi. Additional information by Beatrice Ongode.
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