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Story Publication logo December 18, 2023

The Hidden Toll of Open Cast Gold Mining on Health, Environment: The Case of Uganda and Burundi (French)

opencast mining site

Opencast gold mining leaves behind ecological degradation and health and social upheaval.

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Multiple Authors

Bare-chested miners dig pits to look for gold in Odupi sub county, Uganda. Image by Richard Drasimaku. Uganda, 2023.

Whether in Uganda or Burundi, gold mining remains predominantly artisanal and rudimentary. Many miners do not care about their health, less about the environment.

From the far horizon, the serene edges of the meandering Ore River project captivating scenery. But inside the serendipity, the scale of environmental destruction unfolding along the river’s shores as gold miners frantically dig in search for the precious metal is stomach wrenching.

The majority of the more than 200 opencast miners are South Sudan refugees from Imvepi settlement. They say they are pressed into hardship by dwindling support from the World Food Programme and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

Without protective gears, bare-chested and bare-hand miners are drawn into gold mining under the guise of exploration by Kyekahoma, a company whose operational status is flagged as non-compliant on the Uganda mining cadastre, an open-source public service portal operated by the directorate of surveys and mines.

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Ore River starts from the North Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and flows through the districts of Koboko, and Terego and Yumbe where it forms the boundary between Odupi and Odravu sub counties.

The ministry of energy and mineral development has licensed 10.5 square kilometers of the section of the river for gold exploration to Kyekahoma.

Uganda Mining Cadastre Map Portal showing the non-compliant status of Kyekahoma company. Image courtesy of West Nile News.

However while the company’s chairman and executive director, Ismail Isingoma, insists that for two years the myriads of holes he has expensively sunk into the earth’s crust have yielded no gold, the diggers tell a contrary story.

On a sun-soaked afternoon, my team was greeted with a rude reception from Isingoma, the boss of the non-compliant company, as we arrived at his field camp about a kilometer from the point j, a famous road junction in the refugee settlement.

“Chairman!” he shouted, referring to Jackson Amayo, the area local council chairman of Yinga village, Lugbari parish in Odupi sub-county who accompanied us to the field camp.

Ismail Isingoma, the boss of the non-compliant company at his bush camp in Odupi sub county, Terego district. Image courtesy of West Nile News.

“Why have you brought people to fight me again? This is Kyekahoma, a company. It is illegal to take photos here. This is crime,” he continued.

“I am Isingoma, a senior intelligence officer.  I’m calling the police now,” Isingoma yelled as he exited a grass thatched mosque erected by him in the bush-camp.

However, after a few minutes, the bravado gave way to a more civil talk and soon we sat down for frugal discussion before a walkabout around the rugged area littered with gaping holes left unfilled after excavation.

Such gaping mine hole with stagnant pools of water are a common site dotting the 10.5 square kilometre area licensed for gold exploration in Terego and Yumbe district. Image courtesy of West Nile News.

Isingoma says they leave the mine holes unfilled because after excavation they take samples for testing abroad, mostly in Japan or China to avoid what he claims is tedious bureaucratic procedures in the United Kingdom. 

He adds that after testing, if they establish the presence of gold in any of the mine holes, they will come back with the coordinates to locate it.

But the miners, many of whom have accumulated experience and knowledge of gold from years of mining in South Sudan testify that the gold they have been finding is their lifeline.

Job Osman, a Kakwa refugee in Imvepi narrates that he gets an average sh280, 000 from selling gold to Isingoma, which money he spends on buying food for his family.

Job Osman, a refugee miner explains the huddles they go through while searching for gold in West Nile, Uganda. Image courtesy of West Nile News.

The proprietor of Kyekahoma reportedly buys a gram of gold at sh70,000 (USD$18.43), far lower than sh200,000 (USD$52.67), that Asian middlemen pay in Arua town, just some 60km away from Imvepi.

To get the gold, the miners in groups of ten to 15 people open 3×3 metres or 3.5 x3.5 metres wide holes at the entry points of rainwater channels to the river Ore.

Using chisels, hand hoes and spades, they spent three days to one week digging and scooping the gravels out of the holes after which they slosh the gravels in a water basin and sieve the gravels on an improvised bed covered with disused sacks.

“If you scope 100 to 150 spades of gravel, you might find 0.1kg of gold. We have been doing this since January 2023,” he says.

Isingoma claims the open mine holes are no threat to his workers and cows that roam the area but says nothing about the millions of mosquito larvae inside the stagnant pools of green and yellowish water trapped there.

Similarity to Cibitoke in Burundi

The situation around the Ore mining site is similar to the panorama of destruction around Cibitoke, a gold mining province in Burundi where deaths of artisanal miners trapped inside collapsed mine holes have even been registered.

At least 15 people were reported killed in gold mine collapse blamed on flooding due to torrential rains in Cibitoke province in April 2023, and six more deaths in June 2013 in the same province said to be experiencing rebel activity and instability.

Miners in Rugeregere, Burundi. Image by Renovat Ndabashize. Burundi, 2023.

In fact the provincial authorities have reported 74 deaths of miners trapped in mine collapses since 2017 in Cibitoke.

Such accidents are more frequent, especially in mining sites where gold miners are forced to go deep into wells measuring several meters. 

Worse still, gold miners do not even hesitate to dig next to their houses. This increases the frequency of accidents, sometimes fatal. 

“Yes, accidents often happen here or at other sites. Luckily, we escaped death but there are also cases where there are deaths and injuries,” says Japhet Bukuru, a veteran gold miner from Rusororo. He indicates that in the event of a mine collapse, the chances of survival are slim. 

Deo Habonimana is a miner in Rugeregere in Burundi. Image courtesy of West Nile News.

In the Rugeregere mining site, Rugombo commune, in the Nyamagana river marsh, open holes and displaced stones and pebbles litter the place. This is where several cooperatives extract gold, including the Duterimbere Rugombo Mining Cooperative. There are young people, old men and a few women and young girls.

We also see people under 18 who, normally, should be in school. Some dig with their bare hands, others try to push the water away, while on site, lunch is also prepared. A simple dish of cassava, vegetables and fish.

Gold miners have no physical protection equipment. They only have beads in their hands, others hoes. No gloves, no boots or helmets to protect their heads. They are mostly shirtless and barefoot. In this rainy period, the holes are filled with water. Motor engines try in vain to drain the water away.

It is very hard work but less profitable for the little gold miner. “We, the miners, don’t earn anything. It’s tiring work. It’s our leaders who benefit a lot,” laments Déo Habonimana, 23, a young gold prospector, native of Bukinanyama, Cibitoke province. 

He indicates that if he manages to have some quantity, it is purchased at 90,000BIF (USD$31.68) or 100,000 BIF (USD$35.2). 

“When we have not had any production, we return empty-handed. They don’t give us food. Today, I want to return to my town if I manage to get a ticket.”

In the event of illness, this young gold miner confides that it is an ordeal: “You can tell your boss that you have fallen ill. You ask him for 5,000 BIF (USD$1.76) to get treatment. He gives you 2,000 BIF (USD$0.7) even though you don’t have a mutual card. How can you get treatment with this money and buy medicine?

A river bank left bare by mining in Burundi. Image courtesy of West Nile News.

In Rusororo, another mining site in the Rugombo commune, located in a mountainous area, the situation is pitiful in terms of environmental protection. The rocks are left bare without tree cover. It feels like a tar extraction site and quarries for road asphalting. The only difference being that on site, no machines, no skips for transport. 

Young men re-emerging from the mine holes with sand and gravel bags. Destination: the Nyamagana river where sieving in order to recover even the smallest particle of gold is done.

The miners do not even hesitate to dig pits next to their houses. This increases the frequency of accidents, many of which are fatal. 

“Yes. Accidents often happen here or at other sites. Luckily, we escape death but there are also cases where there are deaths and injuries,” says Japhet Bukuru, a veteran gold prospector from Rusororo. 

He indicates that in the event of a mine collapse, the chances of survival are slim. This is because the mineral exploitation practices still remain traditional, artisanal and the miners do not have adequate protective equipment. 

“We just make do with hoes and picks to dig. No protection of hands, feet or our head. But we have no choice. Because this is where we look for ways to support our families, educate our children, etc.” 

Recipe for instability

Many scholars have asserted that countries where artisanal and small-scale mining is prominent are often struggling with political instability combined with a weak governance of the mining sector.

The extraction of minerals is then linked to conflict and human rights violations.

This is explored by Church and Crawford (2020), Andrews et al. (2017) among others. They

highlight that there is a need for increased transparency in supply chains and sourcing from mineral-rich fragile nations to be conducted in a way that would promote stability and sustainability.

Although there is no instability in Northwestern Uganda compared to what is happening in

northwestern Burundi, in Odupi in Terego district, Uganda, Ayoma complains of exploitation by the mining company, saying that Kyekahoma officials came to his village in March 2022 and they have been digging for gold ever since.

“The company officials tell us that they have not found gold up to now. So, we are not benefitting as landlords and host local governments,” he lamented.

Jackson Ayoma is the LC1 chairman of Yinga village in Lugbari parish, Odupi sub county. Image by Richard Drasimaku. Uganda, 2023.

According to the new Mining and Minerals Act 2022, owners of land with minerals including

customary owners as well as lawful or bonafide occupants are entitled to 5% royalty out of the total value of the mineral extracted.

The law spares small-scale and artisanal mining for Ugandan citizens as a way of ensuring citizen participation in mineral prospecting. 

John Efema, an experienced gold dealer along Duka road in Arua city discloses that despite the local mining picking up steam, most of the Gold in West Nile comes from Eastern democratic Republic of Congo through illegal and informal means (smuggling). 

This view appears to correspond to official Bank of Uganda figures which showed that Uganda’s gold exports have steeply increased from 2014 to 2021. 

Some experts have attributed the steep jump from a USD$ 230,000 low of 2014 to USD2.2 billion high of 2021 to cross border flow of gold into the country despite low local production.

We were unable to obtain export figures for Burundi for the same period but local production levels provided by the United States geological surveys shows that Uganda has had higher production of gold than Burundi.

With the exception of 2018 when Burundi beat Uganda in terms of gold production by over 300kg, it has trailed Uganda in the rest of the years from 2014 to 2021, owing to political instability and governance issues.

Efema says gold is of two types- alluvial gold which is preferred because it has higher percentage concentration of gold than the second type upland gold found in hills and rock formations.

”Gold business is an open market in town and to verify that what has been presented to you is gold, buyers most of whom used also to deal in apparels and general merchandise use nitric acid to purify it, especially alluvial gold,” he says.

Efema explains that alluvial gold is put in nitric acid and boiled on a charcoal stove. After a short time, impurities in the ore will burn and evaporate, leaving the glowing yellow gold.

For upland gold, the dealers crush the ore into powder and then use mercury which binds the gold powder into a compact crystal to separate it from the other impurities in the stone.

“We buy one gram of gold at sh150,000 (USD$39.74) but Asian traders who disguise themselves as pharmacy operators in town pay as much as sh200,000 (USD$52.67),” he added.

That is twice more than Isingoma pays the refugee diggers who are toiling about 60km away in Odupi.

However Efema complains that Asian traders mostly from India and China have taken over

the business by paying higher price for gold brought into the Arua city and many buyers have shifted operations across borders to Ariwara in DR Congo, pushing the local traders into standby mode.

Health risk

Undermining the health of miners is the use of certain products such as dynamites to explode hard rocks containing gold that often result in injuries or even deaths in humans

Another risk factor is the common use of mercury which has the unique property of forming an amalgam with gold. According to specialists in environmental chemistry, this product is one of the dangerous metals commonly called heavy metals. It has a negative impact on human and animal health. The use of mercury has terrible consequences on the environment overall. 

Both mercury and fumes of the nitric acid have very adverse health hazards. The World Health Organization has warned in an advisory that mercury use in gold processing has significant health implications for miners, wildlife and aquatic life.

Gold mining leaves a trail of destruction along the shores of Ore river in West Nile. Image by Richard Drasimaku. Uganda, 2023.

This observation has also been corroborated in a recent media missive by Lynn Gitu, the overseer of the Planet Gold project, she acknowledged that mercury contaminates the soil, water, air and equipment that is used leading to long-lasting ecological damage and health effects.

“It is highly toxic to miners and others such as children and pregnant women who come into contact with it, particularly when vapourised,” she wrote.

She added:”mercury emitted into the air can circulate around the rest of the country and the world, contaminating Uganda’s water, fish and wildlife.

Gitu however alluded to an earlier article on the organisation’s website that promising solutions exist to reduce and eliminate the use of mercury with the potential to improve health of miners and the ecosystem.

She highlighted the use of retort to capture invisible mercury vapour, working within designated areas away from water sources and wearing protective gears to ensure safe handling.

She said techniques such as gravity concentration and alternative chemicals can eliminate mercury from gold processing, but often lack of finances, legal mechanisms and training keep some of these options beyond the reach of many miners

Planetgold Uganda project aims to reduce mercury use by 15 tonnes over five years and support 4,500 artisanal miners at 11 mine sites.

This plan informed the Uganda National Action Plan 2019 on artisanal and small-scale mining that 73% of the country’s artisanal gold is produced using mercury, resulting in 15 tonnes of mercury released annually.

The use of mercury in mining is prohibited under the mining and minerals (licensing) Regulation 2023 (section 255).

Unfortunately the PlanetGold’s project which effectively kicks off late this year focuses on Karamoja, Eastern region, Central, Kigezi and Ankole regions, leaving out West Nile and the rest of the country.

More worrying is the nitric acid challenge which unlike mercury has no particular project to tackle it.

Regarding the use of nitric acid (lead nitrate), researchers have generally agreed that it may have adverse effects on the blood, gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, liver and nervous system.

This may result in anaemia, hypertension, kidney impairment, liver impairment, convulsion and paralysis.

Efema says this is why when you use nitric acid, the content must be boiled in the open or inside a house with a chimney and one must drink a lot of milk after treating the gold to offset the health implications. 

He says this could be the real reason why Isingoma is rearing cattle for milk production, not his claim to just keep himself busy!