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Health and Safety Issues Ignored in the Busoga Gold Rush

Nabwal Mining Camp.

A youth miner entering a pit in Nabwal Mining Camp. Photo by Josepine Nabaale.

With red dust all over his body, a short well-built man, probably in his 40s, steps out of a 50-foot deep pit in order to speak to Oil in Uganda on his mining escapades.

His name is Mr. Majidu Musisi, and he is the Chairman of Nabwala Gold Mining site in Budde, Bugiri district, which has over 500 small-scale gold miners. Mr. Musisi works with his wife, Ms. 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 deeper into the ground,‘’ Majidu says.

In his search for gold, Mr. Musisi uses rudimentary tools such as a hand-held pick axe, shovels, and hoes. Quickly, he adds that he is aware that he needs protective gear like a helmet for his head and gloves for his hands, nose-masks, and gumboots for his legs to protect him from various things, including mercury oxide used in the extraction of gold. However, he adds that “These protective gears are expensive to buy and that he would rather use bare hands instead of purchasing gloves, gumboots and nose-masks, which could set him back economically.”

“If we were using excavators and other advanced technologies, it would be different,” Mr. Musisi adds.

It is a common sight to find men, women, and children searching for gold from a mixture of soil, water, and mercury.

The local miners are in an unending search for mercury oxide to help them extract the precious metal, but while they are at it, they are exposing themselves to the harmful effects of mercury poisoning, which could result in death.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), exposure to mercury is the biggest cause of health hazards facing small-scale and/or artisanal gold miners. This was stated in a WHO report on the health effects of mercury on children and women of childbearing age. The report further outlines that exposure to mercury can be passed from a mother to her unborn child.

While Uganda’s National Environment Management Regulations 1999 recognize the harmful effects of mercury and its associated compounds and provide guidelines for the handling as well as transportation of such chemicals, the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and customs importation and exportation framework is not very clear on mercury oxide. Consequently, mercury oxide is imported to the country unregulated or as a smuggled good.

Last year, Dr. Joseph Gyagenda of Nsambya Hospital 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 are even 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,” Lubanga Ronald states nostalgically.

When digging tunnels into the ground, there are no re-enforcements on the walls of the tunnels. According to Batambuze Methuselah, the Community Development officer of Budhaya Sub-county, this 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 storage of tailings has become a challenge in the area.

For years in Uganda, artisanal and small-scale mining has 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 in 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 are directly engaged in the activity, and an additional 1.5 million are 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