INVESTIGATION: Digging for death, untold story of Osun artisanal gold miners (1)
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Artisanal and Small-scale Gold Mining (ASGM) is an exploration by individuals or a group of persons with little or no technical skills. This undertaking has become a frequent phenomenon in Nigeria. In Osun State rural communities, residents and over 5,000 artisanal gold miners are ignorant of the death lurking around, as a result of exposure to toxins, and environmental hazards. Olugbenga ADANIKIN writes about the dangers of illegal gold mining, government’s neglect, failed promises and arbitrary land sales for mining.
IT was a wet Monday morning. It had rained heavily overnight in Ifewara village, Atakumosa Local Government Area of Osun. Artisanal gold miners in the ancient town, predominantly northerners set out to various mining sites as early as 7:00 am. Armed with tools such as diggers, shovel, head pan, and used paint-plastic, they, moved in droves to the mines, regardless of the morning drizzle.
Seated opposite the Adimula Ifewara palace, The ICIR observed how commercial motorcyclists convey the miners – three passengers on a bike – to mining locations. From their chit-chat, it was easy to know they are mostly youths from the northern region of Nigeria, some came from as far as the Niger Republic, Mali, and Chad.
“Gold mining is not for a lazy man,” says Mr Sunday, a hairstylist who owns a barbing shop near Ifewara Motor Park.
“Just behind my house, some young men died while mining the gold. It happened when the ground collapsed on them and before rescuers could come, they were already dead. So, in this whole community, women don’t mine. Indigenes who are into mining are not even up to 10. The labourers are mostly Hausas.”
Sunday said he had been tempted to venture into the gold mining business but reconsidered due to the risk. “The risk is too high,” he said.
The young barber said he makes an average N10, 000 daily, which according to him, was enough to cater for his needs. Yet, he is tempted to join the miners because two of his friends had built a house from the gold business while he still lives in a rented apartment. “Maybe I should have joined them,” he said.
As the conversation was on-going, his friend drove past in a Navy Blue colour 2009 Toyota Camry XLE. Sunday paused, pointing at him, “That is the fellow I was referring to.”
A trip to the mining sites
After a general observation of the community, this reporter decided to visit mining sites within Ifewara. The motorcycle taxi meandered through a narrow crooked path that stretches into the middle of thick forest. Within Atakumosa local government area, there are over 500 sites with no license from the government, except for the approval from traditional rulers, said the young man who worked as a fixer for the reporter. Arriving at Odubale gold site, the reporter and his fixer were welcomed by hostile and stern-looking youths who were obviously disturbed by the appearance of a stranger. But for the interruption, the miners were busy scavenging for gold in deep brown shallow water.
The destruction of the ecosystem and loss of biodiversity and national forest going on are unbelievable. But it appeared no one cared.
“Wetin…Wetin happen?” the miners aggressively queried the reporter in pidgin English. They became apprehensive upon sighting the reporter but the fixer quickly intervened.
The ICIR observed as the miners, in their hundreds, kept digging, and manually sorting the excavated soil with the hope of getting gold particle. Sadly, most times, what someone realised is a small particle of gold due to crude methods of mining and processing. The small quantity is later sold at N11,000 per gram.
In Ifewara, there are over 3,500 artisanal gold miners. “We are many, even more than 3,500,” says Abdul-Rasheed Usman, Seriki of Ifewara Hausa Community. He had spent 18 years in the village and was installed as chief to govern the Hausas. “We cannot do this gold business without government. We don’t even know how to reach out to the government because we work with Igbo here, Hausa, Yoruba and Fulani.” He spoke through Yusuf Attahiru, the Youth Leader who doubles as Secretary to the Hausa community.
In Ibodi community, another mining settlement, Seriki Sani Saidu puts the figure of miners at over 1,000. The population would have been more, but for the rainy season. Some of the workers left the mining job temporarily to farm in the North while others suspended the job due to the Muslim fasting. The ICIR finds out that most miners work without basic protective gears such as safety guards, footwear, nose-guard except a few who had headlamps.
Those with headlamps could work at nights and could dig as far as 100 metres radius underground, manually with no fear of getting trapped under the bowel of the earth.
“We have dug underground to that side and that side but we no die. God decides my fate, one can die anywhere,” says one of the miners, Kabiru Awal, with a smile.
Video of Kabiru Awal, a gold miner who had visited 3 cities in search of better living before resolving to mining
Having lived in Lagos, Port Harcourt and Ibadan with no economic breakthrough, Awal, a native of Kebbbi State resorted to mining. For seven years, he has been a gold miner. Within that period, he only made N1.5 million. That is an average of N200, 000 annually. “If I could get money today, I’ll leave the job,” he says.
All the miners that spoke to The ICIR said they need support from the government but denied ever getting help. “We cannot survive without help from the government. We don’t even know whether the government will help with small money and payback on installments,” says Rabiu Mohammed, a father of four children and two wives – Fatimah and Yeserah Rabiu.
He left Daura, Katsina State in 2016 for Osun. He had relocated when he heard of the job opportunity in the mining town. Scores of others also moved to Osun following the ban in Zamfara state. Venturing into the mining business was better than engaging in criminal activities, he said. “Anyone you see here has a good mind. You know you have come to suffer so you can make good money”.
He had earlier pleaded with the miners to allow The ICIR conduct interviews and take pictures. Rabiu further took time to take the reporter round the mine, lamenting the neglect by governments. He subsequently introduced younger workers, Bashiru Lawal (18), Sabe Musa (20) and Anas Adamu (25) all from Safana local government, Katsina State.
However, The ICIR gathered that since the Federal Government banned mining activities in Zamfara State, the artisanal miners have been moving in droves to Osun. In order to better manage the situation, traditional rulers of each gold mining community had to install ‘Seriki’ among the Hausa residents. Through this system, the local traditional rulers relate with the Serikis who then helps check miners’ excesses with the hope of also ensuring safety in the communities.
Job creation at great risks
Most youths take to artisanal mining because they are poor and the majority of these young ones could be found in Zamfara, Kebbi, Katsina, Kwara, Borno, Kaduna, Niger, Jigawa, Yobe, Osun states including the Federal Capital Territory (FCT). Though mining is a great employer of labour, the job comes at a cost.
“Artisanal mining is poverty-driven, majority of them just want to eke a living, so it creates lots of jobs” Ojeka Patrick, Director MMSD told The ICIR.
Mr Olusegun Oladipo, ex-President, Nigerian Society of Mining Engineers, believes that it provides over a million jobs for Nigerians, a figure the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD) later put at 500, 000. However, across the states, the World Health Organisation (WHO) puts the number of miners at risk of mercury poisoning – a deadly chemical at 850, 690.
Health, environmental implications of artisanal gold mining
Studies show that artisanal gold mining is capable of destroying the ecosystem and worst still, causes terminal diseases such as cancer, respiratory failure and untimely death of workers and residents around the mining communities.
A study by the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC) conducted in partnership with Global Environment Facility (GEF) in 2014 highlights some of the above dangers. It states that as long as workers engage in crude methods of gold mining and processing, especially those who solely rely on mercury for processing, they are easily exposed to acute respiratory failure.
Specifically, “exposure to mercury poses a great danger to human health including toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, including sensitive organs such as the lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes and may pose serious health threats to unborn babies and children under the age of five,” recent WHO report says.
Last year, the federal government committed to developing a National Action Plan to reduce the use of mercury for ASGM. At the event, which had attendance Mr Jean Bankole, the UNIDO Country Director, Dr. Abdukadir Muazu, Permanent Secretary, MMSD, all acknowledged how mercury poisons thousands of miners in the country. But, over a year after the federal government endorsed the Minamata Convention to check the persistent use of mercury for gold activities, nothing significant has been achieved while implementation is very slow.
In 2016, a WHO working document developed as a guide for healthcare officials working in artisanal gold mining areas further links the severe human health and environmental impacts of ASGM to the Minamata Convention. It affirmed that the lives of small scale gold-miners are threatened by terminal diseases.
Dr Julius Adeduntan, a medical expert at the Osun State University Teaching Hospital in an interview with The ICIR in Osogbo listed silicosis and chronic cough as major ailments vulnerable to the miners due to excess exposure to toxic fumes, dust and other elements inhaled on site.
“In a short time, it may not be obvious, but over a long time, it could cause occupational lung diseases, such that they begin to have dust deposits in their lungs. Then, they start having chronic coughs that don’t respond to conventional treatments, some could have issues with their lungs…,” says Adeduntan.
Dr Olorunfemi Akintunde, a Geologist who teaches at the Department of Geology, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, told The ICIR that lives of the residents especially the miners are being destroyed in bits. He said based on findings on the goldfield in Osun State, ASGM poses serious environmental and medical problems if wrongly explored.
“Aside from the gold, there are other elements that are polluting the soil and even the water. They are zinc, arsenic, silver, and lead so there is no way you will recover gold without these elements,” says Akintunde.
“These will create environmental problems for farming because they will mix with the soil and some will find their way into the groundwater system. So, when you ingest all these elements, lives are being destroyed in installments. It’s a major problem.”
Dr Adetunji Ademuyiwa, also from the department in OAU, expressed worry on the destruction of the ecosystem such as cocoa farms that have existed for decades. “Of course, the locals are making what they called money but at a very great expense.”
This investigation was done with the support of International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and Ford Foundation.