Bolstered by historically high gold prices, a lack of viable alternative livelihoods and a ready – if expensive – supply of mercury, Artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) has long been practiced in Nigeria and around the world.
However, there is a resurgence of ASGM activities in northern Nigeria most especially in Niger State in recent years. This resurgence, however, has come at a price – namely, devastating lead poisoning of children and others from lead-contaminated gold ore, in addition to extensive mercury exposure (whose effects have not yet fully materialized) and significant emissions of mercury into the air and soil.
A medical practitioner, Dr Isa Bala, noted that mining continues to be a dangerous activity, whether large-scale industrial mining or small-scale artisanal mining.
He said, ‘’Not only are there accidents, but exposure to dust and toxins, along with stress from the working environment or managerial pressures, give rise to a range of diseases that affect miners.’’
By cadastral map of Nigeria, Niger State is one of the states in Nigeria with a high deposit of Gold but like any other solid mineral deposit, the exploitations are not formal.
This development has left the huge resources in the hands of illegal and artisan miners who engaged in undercover deals with no records for authorities to maximize the benefit for national growth.
Basically, to extract the gold, local miners crush rock ore, releasing lead dust into the air, onto their clothes, and sometimes all over children who assist in the process. This dust is dangerous for adults, but for children it can be fatal or lead to severe lifelong disabilities.
The US National Institute of Health said lead poisoning is most dangerous for the youngest of children, especially unborn babies. In addition to death, it can lead to kidney damage, loss of developmental skills, lowered IQs, seizures, comas and a host of other problems.
LEADERSHIP can report authoritatively that children and women in Rafi, Munya, Shiroro parts of Chanchaga, Katcha, and Bosso local government areas of Niger State are at the moment exposed to the danger associated with the search for gold.
LEADERSHIP findings revealed that though the cadastral licences were issued to many firms to exploit gold in Niger state, few of the firms are on the ground to formally exploit gold.
Further investigation revealed that some of the sites which were abandoned by allottees who were given license are overtaken by illegal miners while some sites were leased to artisan miners.
In the mining site over 50 artisan miners were seen mining. One of the artisan miners Abdullahi Ibrahim said they pay N3,000 daily to the owner of the site notwithstanding what may be the proceeds from the daily routine.
To make profit they, in turn, engage vulnerable host communities mostly women and children to do the hard labour for them.
Recent development however revealed that the vacuum created by lack of organisation in the exploitation of gold mining has made it easy for them to attract vulnerable children and women to engage in illegal mining.
A villager Mohammed Salihu told LEADERSHIP Weekend that it has become a daily and usual practice for them to engage women, children and even hawkers.
‘’We are all aware that gold mining is one of the most destructive industries in the world. It can displace communities, contaminate drinking water, hurt workers, and destroy pristine environments. It pollutes water and land with mercury and cyanide, endangering the health of people and ecosystems. We are helpless and can’t stop them.
‘’As you can see, even young boys who are below 15 years are in the mining sites digging and using crude tools for open cast mining of gold without knowing the dangers.
‘’In most of the sites, women and children who are at the sites to hawk are either engaged as labourers or on their own beg for the job.
Another villager, Yusuf Mohammed, said some of the miners who are foreigners also engage children and women as cheap labour for artisan mining while also carrying out their activities without the requisite documentation.
He told LEADERSHIP that some foreigners working in a construction site around Zungeru Dam allegedly took to Mining without following due process.
“They pay tokens to the women and children they use as cheap labourers to mine gold for them.
‘’Because of the nature of gold, they easily conceal this heinous act from authorities. We are the moment at the receiving end of the deadly impact of the environmental hazard,” he said.
Speaking exclusively with the chairman, Miner Association of Nigeria, Niger State Chapter, Alhaji Mohammed Mambo, told LEADERSHIP that those foreigners allegedly engaging in such activities were doing so illegally.
Mambo who is the Tambarin Bosso said by his records the association has 836 members, and the government has banned mining activities in bandit-prone areas like Rafi, Shiroro, Munya, and Mariga.
He confirmed that the association discovered that children and women are used in illegal mining in some of those dangerous mining sites.
According to him, ‘’We have cases where children and women are used in illegal mining sites. This is condemnable and highly unethical. According to our records, we have just 836 members, and the government has banned mining activities in bandit-prone areas like Rafi, Shiroro, Munya, and Mariga.
“Niger State Government last year announced the commencement of gold exploitation in the state because the state was ranked by the nation’s cadastral map as one of the states with high deposits of gold cutting across the twenty-five local government areas of the state.’’
Also, the commissioner for Mineral Resources, Mr Daniel Kolo, when contacted was not assertive on efforts by the state government to curb the rising involvement of women and children in gold mining.
It would be recalled that the federal government recently gave the 36 state governments the go-ahead to venture into the exploitation of the mineral resources in their respective states based on a defined term to curb illegal mining but in Niger state, it is taking new dimensions as vulnerable women and children are used for illegal mining unchecked.