© 2019 - International Centre for Investigative Reporting
INVESTIGATION: Ondo mining community where Chinese company exploits the people and abuses the environment
In this investigation, OLUGBENGA ADANIKIN visited Afo Ose LGA, Ondo State, a community with rich marble deposit. The report documents the stories of locals who feel cheated by Xiamen Winstone Limited, a Chinese mining company that offered so little for so much, and yet breaches an agreement leading to a N700 billion lawsuit.
A FEW days after Nigeria’s Independence anniversary celebration in October 2018, somewhere in far South-West, Afo Community, Ose Local Government, Ondo State, Ojo Ologbosere, 34, lost his eye to a blast while at work. He was then a staff of Xiamen Winstone Limited.
On the fateful day, Saturday 6th October, he was reluctant to go to work, he told The ICIR.
“I told my supervisor that I didn’t feel like working and won’t be able to come to work because of how I was feeling”.
He then asked his supervisor if he could take the day off since it was a weekend but his request was turned down.
Reluctantly, he resumed at the site and worked till break time. Then, the accident happened. There was a rock blast and an object from the blast hit his eyes.
“The blast was like a gunshot. The impact threw me off balance. Immediately, I was soaked in blood and people rushed to rescue me,” he said.
By the time the doctor was done with him, the bad news was waiting: “You have lost your right eye,” the doctor disclosed.
Mr. Samuel, a representative of Xiamen Winstone said the company does not blast, but Ologbosere insisted he was posted to the department in charge of rock blasting, describing it as the toughest department in the entire firm.
“I have vowed that if they had forced me to return to work with this condition, I will commit suicide. I find it hard to eat, and I often feel like the eye wants to pop-out, so I’m always stuck in-door as I can hardly use the eye.”
Although, Ologbosere acknowledged he was taken to the Federal Medical Centre (FMC), Owo, where surgery was carried out but he was denied access to official information regarding his eye status. The firm got the entire medical reports of the incident, but the doctor had confided in him that the eye lens was damaged and irreparable.
“I demanded for a report in that respect but the doctor told me he could not do that because Xiamen Winstone brought me to the hospital, and as such, it would be inappropriate to present me with the medical report”.
“I feel constant pains and weep uncontrollably. I cannot read my Bible any longer. They even accused me of going to the farm, how is that possible?” he queried, adding that he was never a farmer at any point in his life.
He was not the only one. Two other employees were said to have suffered the same fate at different times. An employee identified as Audu, aka DPO, from one of the northern states, was also a victim. He had since then been transferred to the Abuja office of Xiamen Winstones.
Tanimola Ebenezer, one of the workers got his arm dislocated due to an accident also in the factory. While he was yet to receive treatment, a Chinese supervisor allegedly pressurised him to return to work.
Meanwhile, Part VIII, N0 84 of the Minerals and Mining Act states that in a situation of an accident involving loss of life or serious injury, it should be reported to the nearest police station or office of the Mines Inspectorate Department in the state where the incident occurred.
“Every accident occurring in connection with a quarrying operation and involving loss of life or serious injury to any person shall be reported to the inspector or quarry officer immediately, by the quickest available means of communication.
“The place where the accident occurred shall be left undisturbed, and no person shall interfere with the surface working or any part in which or on which the accident the accident has occurred until the place or anything at the place, has been visited or examined by an inspector or quarry officer.”
‘Serious injury’ according to the Act refers to, “fractured skull, pelvis, arm, thigh, forearm or leg; dislocated shoulder; amputation of an arm, hand, one finger or more of the same hand, a leg or foot or; loss of the sight of an eye; or any other serious bodily injury, including internal haemorrhage or burns or asphyxia, if the injury is likely to endanger life, cause permanent incapacity or impair efficiency subsequently.”
The measure is meant to prevent a reoccurrence of such an accident. Rather, the victims of an accident at Xiamen Winstone are allegedly persuaded to resume work. And as at the time of filing this report, none of the accidents was reported to the appropriate authorities.
Anxiety over sack and neglect by Xiamen Limited
Ojo Ologbosere lost his own parents over a decade ago. He is currently a father of two, Damilola Ologbosere, a primary two pupil and Temitope, a toddler. The Xiamen staff thinks he may lose his job anytime soon due to his current disabled status, and he is constantly overwhelmed by fear. As at the time of this investigation, he receives N49, 000 as monthly salary and lives in a 2-room apartment.
Seated under a tree while little Temitope plays with the sand, he narrated how he had to hire a nurse, Mrs. Kemi Ogunlana to provide home service after realising he was not getting the needed treatment from the hospital and the company’s clinic.
According to him, he was initially left with a bandage on the eye to be attended to the following Monday without any medication. The accident occurred on Saturday. Although, “the FMC offered to administer drugs but the doctor that followed me from the company assured the accountant that I will be given drugs from the firm’s clinic.
“It was when I almost died overnight, at home due to the severe pains that I sent for the nurse. She quickly administered an injection then I had relief.”
He showed the drugs administered by the nurse to reporter. The drugs included yeasts, blood tonic, Enrythomax, analgesic among others.
Since October 2018, when the incident happened, Ologbosere said he has visited the FMC only thrice and was given eye-drops while the office clinic administered only analgesic drugs. He wondered how pain-killers will restore his sight, thus, need for the home service. As at the time of filing this report, the victim said he had N12, 000 debts to pay Nurse Ogunlana for drugs and services rendered.
“I want the government to come to my rescue because I am an orphan, indigent and vulnerable. These people are more powerful, richer and well connected. Some people are advising me to get a lawyer but where will I get the money,” Ologbosere pleaded.
Alleged poor working condition and 24 hours of dust, noise pollution
The ICIR investigation revealed that workers at Xiamen Marble Limited were denied proper working safety tools such as safety glasses; safety wears, except rain boots. It was gathered that the company, ordered for safety glasses only after the third accidents that left the affected workers blind. Apart from safety tools, workers complained they do not get a share of beverages that form part of the health package for the senior staff.
Chapter 4 under Obligation of an Exploration License Holder of the Nigerian Minerals and Mining Act, (2007) passed into law on March 16, 2007, states that,
“(1) every holder of an exploration license shall –
- Conduct exploration activities in a safe, friendly, skilful, efficient and workmanlike manner in accordance with the regulations;
- Conduct exploration activities in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.”
But the marble company seems to disregard these provisions, thereby compromising the health of its neighbours.
Basically, marbles are processed by continuous filing (scraping and polishing) in the factory after being sliced from the rock. It undergoes these filings with a water complement until specific dimensions are achieved. This process is always synonymous with noise pollution, air pollution, and thick dust among other forms of environmental contaminations that are hazardous to the wellbeing of both employees and the host communities.
“The dust used to be much even prior to the eye accident. At some point after the day’s work, if I have a slight cough, I could see the dust stick to my phlegm,” Ologbosere stated. He said he once made move for the firm to, on a monthly basis, provide beverages for all workers.
At his former workplace, he said, “workers were always given like 20 tins of milk monthly. But they have never provided such welfare package”.
But the company has denied all these allegations, including the claim that Ologbosere lost his eye while working at the facility.
Sam, the representative of Xiamen Marble Limited rather blamed the victim for not using his safety tools and emphasised that the firm does not blast. The company’s Managing Director, Aduku Makoji said he was unaware of the incident when he was contacted by the ICIR.
The ICIR, however, learnt that despite the huge extraction of marble in the village, the resources of the local community does not reflect on the people’s welfare. It was gathered that Julius Berger Plc, a prominent construction firm in Nigeria also extracted marble in the community for over four years without any support for the community, except for a car donated and a town hall building, now dilapidated. The community, in fact, is bereft of amenities that often come through the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility)of most companies in Nigeria.
Aside the major access road to Afo which is in a very bad state, the main road to Xiamen industry just opposite the king’s palace remains untarred and crooked. The entire atmosphere is covered with dusts while broken marbles littered the place. Also waste from marble stones was used to fill the road. Residents, commercial motor cyclists especially often complain that the marble crumps cut through tyres of their ‘Okada’.
Despite the neglect of the community, the company is in the good book of the traditional ruler, so no dates to speak against the Chinese company, residents told The ICIR
Those residing along the access roads only resorted to murmur. Roof of houses in the surrounding environment were covered with dusts. Nearby are St. David Primary school, the community hall and the king’s palace.
In an interview with The ICIR, Prince of Afo land, Adeyemi Egunjobi was full of lamentation while narrating his ordeal. His newly built house is one of the closest to the factory. He claimed to have made deliberate efforts to ensure the firm complied with best environmental practice and consider safety of the residents but failed despite all forms of pollutions, erosion and stench from the company from opening of their perimeter fence especially during raining season.
Meanwhile, Chapter 4, Section 61 Sub section E of the Minerals Act forewarned an exploration license holder not to, “abstract, divert or discharge water or effluent from any watercourse except in compliance with a water use permit and regulations”.
“We can hardly sleep because of the noise from the marble polishing and hydraulic machines. As you can see, there is dust. The roads are bad and they work here 24-hours, so there is always noise pollution,” he said.
“We just know there is nothing God cannot do,” he concluded with a sigh and deep sigh.
At this point, Mrs. Egunjobi, his wife could not hold on but flared-up expressing her anger, disappointments and why the husband kept being lukewarm over the situation instead of taking strong actions. But Prince Egunjobi argued that as a son of the King, he would not want to be labelled as someone responsible for disorderliness and chaos in his father’s kingdom.
Egunjobi shared his story regarding increase in his annual expenses on drugs for the family saying it had tripled from N10, 000 compared to when he was far away from the factory, close to the king’s palace. According to him, he had no option but to adapt to the new environment.
“God will judge the manner because the company has been unfair to us,” Mrs. Egunjobi lamented.
Air pollution recipe for respiratory failure, tuberculosis
Reports have shown that inhaling marble dust could cause toxic effects on the respiratory system. It is capable of damaging the cells of the respiratory organ. Workers and residents living in areas adjacent to stone quarries are prone to a disease called silicosis and other forms of respiratory tract infections.
A paper, ‘Impact of Granite Quarrying on the Health of Workers and Nearby Residents in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria’ published in the Ethiopian Journal of Environmental Studies and Management Vol. 2 N0. 1. 2009, by Oguntoke Olusegun; Aboaba Adeniyi and Gbadebo T. Adeola advised health department in quarries to reduce the ‘burden of respiratory tract infection’ by controlling indoor and outdoor pollution at the facility.
The study revealed that those working or residing close to a quarry are vulnerable to different ailments, especially respiratory tract infection. “Particulate matter concentration constitutes hazards to humans that either work at quarry sites or live in close proximity to quarry sites”.
Incidentally, people with silicosis have a higher risk of developing tuberculosis. Though, it could take between 20 to 45 years to develop the medical ailment but 5-10 years severe exposure could eventually cause lung damage, thus need for regulatory agencies including the government to take urgent action.
Aware of likely pollution from the factory, the accused firm, OFL Marble and Granite Limited also known as Xiamen Winstone Ltd paid N1.1m payment to the Treasury account (2902-2262-7720) through the National Environmental Standards and Regulatory Enforcement Agency (NESREA) as ‘non-compliance and admin fees’ for Afo community, Ose LGA of the state.
Aside the environmental violation charge paid to NESREA, a consultant, Dr. Tayo Taiwo, Lead Partner for Xploit Consulting Ltd on 6th November, 2018 had submitted an environmental audit report to the agency attaching the evidences of payment for the violation and admin charges. Additional N200, 000 was paid to NESREA for audit certification.
Owalafo Basic Healthcare Centre (BHC) is almost a kilometre away from the factory and few metres from the king’s palace. The health centre appeared deserted until the reporter walked in through the rusty gate.
Ms Blessing Olagoroye, Medical Health Officer at the BHC said at the moment, there were no cases of respiratory failure or tuberculosis but she noted the possibility of the workers suffering ill-health later.
“There is no way the dusts would not affect the people around the firm, though they may not know until it get probably worst.”
She acknowledged the vibrations kilometre away from the factory saying leadership of the community and the firm should have considered location of the factory, effects of its operation on the people and perhaps relocated houses that are most vulnerable within the area. “They just started operation last year and it may run till the next five years. Maybe that’s why we don’t have any patient yet but usually the ailment will start with cough.”
Based on data gathered from the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) of Ondo State has been negatively unstable in the last decade. This implied that taxes generated from industries in the state would have contributed positively to a higher IGR. For instance, in the last three years Ondo state generated 10.09 billion in 2015; N8.684 billion in 2016 and an increase of N10.93 billion in 2017 which most likely may be as a result of activities of the marble producing firm.
Moreover, The ICIR gathered that another site has been discovered at Oke-Afo, a different community located between two villages and operation may soon commence. These villages – Owalafo, Afo, Oke-Afo are within the jurisdiction of the Alafo of Afoland, HRH Adegoke Egunjobi aside Ugbe-Afo.
Already, the discovery is reportedly causing contention between the Oba and other respected leaders on whose account payments should payment be made for either lease or sale of the land.
It is estimated that Nigeria annually imports 3.5 million metres of granites, marble, and asphalt from China. But Afo is rich in deposit of this natural resource. So ordinarily, establishing Xiamen Winstones Ltd is to meet 4 million square metres local demands of the commodity, create jobs, reduce imports and boost foreign exchange.
Former Minister of Solid Minerals Development, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, during the commissioning in 2017 believed that the 1.5 million metres annual production of granite marbles and stones would develop the state and boost national revenue, unmindful of other likely shortcomings.
“What is produced locally here will be cut and polished by them and I can see, if not something better than what you can see from China and other places, it will compete favourably with them.
“So you can imagine what this does to a small community like this when it is in full production. Our local people here will be employed, the transport business will be good and the government can also utilise this for construction works……ultimately we would ensure that import is substituted,” Fayemi stated.
Rotimi Akeredolu, the state governor was optimistic of immense benefit of siting the factory to explore the granite in the state but obviously, the interests of the rural dwellers in terms of ensuring sustainable development was not entirely considered.
“How can they generate wastes from the firm and pack the stench out purposely to disturb others. To prevent erosion, they deliberately opened up lower part of their perimeter fence for flood to escape from their compound. They have no drainages, 24 hours noise pollution and unlimited dusts. Who can take that?
“Our borehole collapsed as a result of that. If not that I am well known and being son of the traditional ruler, I would have taken them to court,” Prince Egunjobi said.
Marble Stone export to China
The ICIR further observed large sliced but unprocessed rocks allegedly prepared for exports. Though the destination was not certain but information from the firm revealed that some were being taken to China. An empty trailer container with no registration number was sighted by The ICIR during the findings. It was being guided by a mobile policeman with a rifle.
“Four huge sliced rocks could be packed into the container and when it’s time, the Chinese man in charge will shout China! while workers respond ‘Okay!’ with that, the workers reportedly get to know the destination as it was gathered that a lot of the foreigners do not understand English except for ‘Mardy’ the female interpreter who attended to The ICIR during a visit to the factory.
Are Chinese prisoners expatriate in Xiamen Winstone
Some Xiamen Winstone’s workers were accused of being Chinese prisoners working as experts in the firm. And only one, identified as Mardy has a legal document. Mardy is also the interpreter for the firm. Some community members who spoke separately to The ICIR shared a similar story of how the foreigners fled upon arrival of the Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS) officers who visited occasionally.
Though, there were claims that they could have fled for any other reasons other than not having the necessary legal permit to live and work in the country, especially at the site. However, a woman, an ex-staff of Xiamen Winstone, who pleaded anonymity, narrated to The ICIR how the foreigners jumped into the woods at least on two different occasions when the immigration officers came following intelligent report.
“None of them had ‘passbook’ to stay in the country. If the Chinese had ‘passbook’, they would not have fled into the bush”, she said while obviously referring to the international passport. She advised the government to strengthen the system and fight against corruption as the accused foreigners could not have entered into the country without some help of accomplices.
A male source whose house is close to the new Anglican Church currently under construction alluded to this claim stressing that each time the immigration visits, they chase the accused workers and eventually retreat without arresting any. He was not sure if there was any form of dialogue with the firm or conciliation before vacating the area but he was certain the NIS came about 8 am, the last time they visited.
“The reason I may want to believe it is that there were times immigration officers visited and sighting them, the Chinese ran into the bush. At least if they were clean, they shouldn’t have run. It was only Mardy that stayed behind.”
Nigerian Immigration Service denies claims, uncertain over raid
But a top source from the Nigerian Immigration Service, Ondo State Command who spoke on the possibility of such said NIS officers are always dispatched to the local governments, aside from those at the state office.
As a result, she said it would be difficult to identify anyone or exact group of officers. The source said the Chinese could have run for a different reason and not because they lacked the legal document. However, she advised the host community to write an official petition to the State Command of the NIS, detailing all the practices of the Chinese or group of foreigners on whatever they considered suspicious and send to the command.
“Our men detained a foreigner three days ago. He claimed to have registered in Lagos yet he is working in Akure. Eventually, their Public Relations Officer (PRO) had to plead,” the top immigration source added.
But in his reaction, D.O Okunade, the NIS State Commandant, initially refused to make a categorical statement on the allegation, warning that some of the companies are investors and such allegations could drive them away. Asked if his officers visited Xiamen Winstone in 2018, “I am not sure because I came here this year,” he responded describing the situation as strange.
“Nobody will come here without correct papers. Who brought the information and why can’t they come here and report,” he queried. He claimed ignorance of the allegation stressing that he was posted to the state in 2018 but promised to do further findings.