The maiden Conference of Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury took place in Geneva on September 24-29. The Convention is an international legal instrument or Treaty designed to protect human health and the environment from anthropogenic emissions and releases of mercury and mercury compounds. The Convention currently has been signed by 128 countries and ratified by 83 so far.
The Minamata Convention requires the phase out of many products containing mercury, implements restrictions on trade and supply of mercury and establishes a framework to reduce or eliminate emissions and releases of mercury from industrial processes and mining.
Mercury is widely used by artisanal and small scale gold miners, Uganda inclusive. According to the UN, the practice of mercury amalgamation in Artisanal and Small Scale Gold Mining (ASGM) is of particular concern due to the “decentralised distribution of elemental mercury utilized and its widespread handling, thermal conversion and disposal within social settings such as shops, villages, and food production areas.”
The sad bit in Uganda is that because of the state of ASGM, unregulated and illegal, miners have no idea of the dangers of mercury. At high levels, mercury can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs, and immune system of people of all ages. According to studies, high levels of methyl mercury in the bloodstream of unborn babies and young children may harm the developing nervous system, making the child less able to think and learn and potentially reducing their IQ.
During a working visit in Namayingo a miner brazenly said he had handled mercury for over ten years but “nothing was wrong with him and he had never developed any problems.”
Asked how they accessed mercury, a miner in Nsango B village, Budde Sub County in Bugiri district once told a team from Oil in Uganda that they ‘had suppliers’ but was not willing to elucidate. Mercury however is largely smuggled from Tanzania and easily accessible by the miners at just between Sh800 and Sh1000 a gram meaning it is easily accessible.
Mr Erienyu Johnson, the Busia District natural resources officer, displaying a bottle of dirty brown-coloured water, noted how he had fetched a sample from R. Okame in Busitema where miners used mercy nearby. He said locals had complained that the water had been contaminated by the miners.
He said a nongovernmental organisation, Environmental Women in Action for Development (EWAD), ventured into the district to ‘build artisanal miners’ capacity and promote safe mining without using mercury..
Mr Erienyu said though the district leadership is in the process of working out something to manage the use of mercury by artisanal gold miners there are currently no measures in place.
“We currently have a draft ordinance that is to be presented at the next council seating,” he told Oil in Uganda.
National Task Force
At the national level, Uganda, through National Environmental Management Authority, has a task force – Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICHEM) – which is the national focal point for the management of use of mercury.
Mr Paul Twebaze, an environmentalist working with Pro-Biodiversity Conservation Uganda (PROBICOU), says the civil society organisation is the national focal point NGO for SAICHEM in Uganda.
Twebaze says PROBICOU is also a member of the National Steering Committee of the Stockholm Convention against Persistent Organic Pollutants (global treaty ratified by the international community lead by UNEP – calls for the elimination and/or phasing out of 12 POPs) in Uganda, activities all coordinated by NEMA.
“We have been a lead NGO doing work on mercury and of course working towards ratification of the Minamata Convention working with the Government of Uganda to speed up the processes of the ratification of the Minamata Convention.
“We got involved in the negotiation processes and are currently working with government on enabling activities,” Twebaze says.
“We are working with the health sector to discourage the use of dental amalgam which contains mercury. Additionally we are also trying to promote the use of mercury-free electronic appliances,” Twebaze says of their manadate.
He says they are also working with all stakeholders in the mining industry to minimize and eventually phase out the use of mercury especially by the artisanal and small scale miners.
Paul says Uganda is being supported by the Secretariat of the Minamata Convention to speed up the process of ratification.
“After Uganda has fully understood and appreciated the situation I am confident it will ratify the Convention,” he says.
Mubende gold mining is highly dominated by men, a trait blamed on the cultural belief of women not being allowed to access mines.
Mr Kibirige Emmanuel the secretary Singo Artisan Small Scale Miners Association (SASSMA) in Kitumbi sub county Mubende district explains that they have 1420 registered members but only 472 are women that deal in petty jobs like panning gold dust, spreading the gold dust in the sun to dry up among others.
“Women engagement in the gold mining is rooted back in our culture. It was believed that if you slept with a woman you could never get gold the next day. Women were not allowed to step near a gold pit because they were looked at as a curse, that if they got close to a gold pit, gold could disappear. As a result we also told our workers never to sleep with a woman for a full week,” Mr Kibirige revealed
“However these are practices that were made by our grandparents but we have discovered that all these were lies because today women have come up to engage in the mining although in small numbers. They enter tunnels and pits and own gold pits and all is well, nothing has gone wrong.” Kibirige stressed
Kibirige explained that the value chain begins with getting a spade in the morning, entering the pit, digging out the gold dust which is done by men. Women are involved in petty jobs like sun drying the gold dust, taking it to the crashing/milling machine after which they start panning it. A few women however have taken on the ‘men’ jobs of buying and selling gold.
However others also blame the limited involvement of women in the mining sector on limited information provision. About 2500 women in Mubende district have not directly engaged in mining sector due to lack of information which has hindered there economic empowerment.
According to the community development officer for Kitumbi Sub County Mr senkusu Edward the information gap in the mining sector has greatly affected the women involvement in this activity thus carrying out petty jobs like gold dust panning where they earn peanuts
Mr Senkusu explained that gold mines in Mubende district are estimated to accommodate around 60,000 people dealing in the business. Out of this number only 2500 are women who engage mainly in service provision.
“Most women are always scared of engaging in mining sector, they do not know how to operate machines, fear taking risks- a culture belief community attitude and above all they lack information to help them run this business,” he explained.
“There is need for thorough sensitization of the community to enable the women to work in the mines.” Senkusu stressed
Ms Catherine Nyakecho, a Geologist Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development confirmed that women engagement in the mining sector is still at low capacity. She explained that a survey carried out in 20 Uganda’s gold mining sites revealed that men participation stands at 113,756 while women are at 79,019.
According to the Mining Act, 2003, clause 114, on the contrary, a woman may be employed in any underground work in any mine or in any operation or activity relating to or associated with mining. This clearly indicates that women are catered for under the law but due to the lack of information and cultural ties, women involvement in this sector is below standard.
Ms Nivatiti Nandujja the Women Rights Coordinator ActionAid Uganda, women should come on board and get involved in the decision making in the mining sector.
“We need to have gender based laws with in this sector. When it comes to the employment pattern, the conditions where they work are critical; they lack protective gears from dangerous chemicals substances, they don’t have the entitlements provided for by the law like maternity leave , the wages are really wanting. These issues and more need to be addressed,” she advised
Ms Nivatiti explained that there is need to make information about the mining sector available for women. She called on ensuring a gender equity sector with women representation who ensure that women benefits within the sector are pronounced.
Nivatiti stressed that; “We need to address the cultural barriers affecting women participation; we need to empower women to talk in all the forums and to ask for what belongs to them during community meetings. They need to bargain their way through so that their rights are realized.”
By Josephine Nabaale
CSOs have organised a dialogue slated for Wednesday the 26th April 2017
Four of Uganda’s Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are hosting an annual multi-stakeholder national dialogue under the theme; Land and Extractives – harnessing citizen participation for good governance and sustainable livelihoods.
The meeting that is expected to attract more than 100 participants is aimed at ensuring that stakeholders at the grassroots interact with the leaders at both local and central government to ensure transparency and good governance of the oil, gas and mineral sector.
The convention, organized by Action Aid Uganda (AAU), Civic Response on Environment and Development (CRED), Saferworld Uganda and Transparency International Uganda (TIU), will be held at Hotel Africana on Wednesday the 26th of April, and among the invitees are delegates from Parliament, the private sector, industry players, government agencies, local government leaders, community leaders, community representatives and relevant CSOs.
The meeting arose out of findings by civil society regarding the increasing unplanned and untimely displacements and land disputes in the oil rich and mining areas, which inhumane activities affect people, particularly the less privileged, including women and children.
Instead of remedying this pattern, the government has instead recently decided to worsen the problem by proposing an amendment to Article 26 of the Constitution with the effect of allowing government to acquire land before effecting compensation to the project-affected person.
Elaborating on the expected outcomes from the meeting, Mr. Ivan Mpagi, the Extractives Governance Project Manager at ActionAid Uganda, explains that the meeting is meant to create a platform for discussing the challenges in the extractive sector by engaging policy makers on what needs to be done in order to address these challenges.
“We want to bring the oil companies together to tell Ugandans how far they are in the actual extraction of oil,” Mr. Mpagi says. “The extraction will generate employment, and it will generate revenues as well, and we as civil society want to monitor this development and hold these actors accountable.”
He further expresses hope of more transparency concerning the government’s exploration agreements with the oil companies (Tullow, CNOCC and Total), as he finds the government to have been “very secretive” until now. “Through the dialogue we hope that Ugandans can be told about the agreements made with these companies.”
By Preben A. Martensen-Larsen
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