Raheem Akingbolu who was part of a three-day tour of minerals-bearing communities in Osun State and the training for local miners, writes on the importance of the scheme to the economy and the environment
From Ibodi to Epe, Iyere to Igun, the story was the same; huge presence of hardworking Nigerian youths, who were struggling to earn their living in the most hazardous manners. Through local techniques, with little or no regard for their safety and degradation of the environment, they ply their trade with enthusiasm.
Welcome to Osun gold deposit communities, where residents live with mix-feelings; residents are happy for the gift of nature but sad because of the method of exploration.
As a team from the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development embarked on a three-day tour of gold mines in various communities in Ijesha part of Osun State recently, farmers, hunters and the local miners recounted their challenges in the midst of the abundant wealth. While leaders of various communities spoke on how the activities of local miners have made farming, hunting and other agricultural activities difficult, the miners also painted gory pictures of how many of them were injured or died as a result of their archaic method of exploration.
Safer mining project
In what looked like a pragmatic approach to end the ugly situation, the ministry, through its Safer Mining Project, was in Osun State recently to inspect, train and reward stakeholders in the gold deposit communities. According to the ministry, the project was aimed at achieving three things; protect individuals, protect the environment as well as encourage local miners to practise safer mining.
The coming of the federal government team therefore signified the beginning of another regime. According to a former president of the Artisanal Miners Welfare Association, Chief Friday Israel Mmecha, the decision of the ministry to intervene at this crucial time would further enhance the potential of the sub sector.
“As a stakeholder, who has spent years in mining gold in this part of the country, this intervention programme on safer mining, signifies the beginning of a new dawn. Over time we have complained about the porosity of the system, whereby some opportunists just emerged from the blues and start looking for gold. With federal government now keen on supervising and monitoring, the economic potential of the sector will be better harnessed. I must confess, the country is losing so much because of lack of regulation and poor method of mining,’’ Mmecha said.
At a Town Hall meeting held at Ibodi, the federal government team took community leaders and other stakeholders through the importance of the project to the economy, environment and individuals who are working in different communities for mining activities.
Speaking on behalf of the team, a safety professional, Dr. Adebola Odunsi, charged the small-scale miners to always prevent illegal miners into various reserves as well as protecting the environment. He stated that anybody carrying out mining activities should either get a license or be registered under an agent.
“On behalf of the Federal Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, I want to use this opportunity to appeal to our miners to report any illegal miner to the police. Let me give you the good news too that government is set to reward diligent and registered miners, who carried out their jobs in the best manners.’’
Odunsi therefore listed the two types of mining to include; the one that is harmful and another that is harmless. He pointed out that mining is harmful if it endangers the lives of miners or dilapidates the environment, adding that harmless mining leads to safety of miners, sustainability of environment and generation of revenue to economy.
“In harmful mining, everybody loses; the miner, the community and the country but in harmless mining, it is a win-win situation for all the stakeholders.’’
Earlier, Odunsi had told journalists that the project was informed by the increasing rate of heavy lead and mercury poisoning associated with gold mining, especially in Zamfara State, which led to the death of about 400 children.
Even though government had intervened promptly to control the situation and give adequate treatment to people affected, Odunsi stated that the ministry thought of something preventive and struck a deal with Michael H Limited to design the Safe Mining Project, to sensitise and raise the level of awareness among local miners.
“Federal government is aware that small-scale gold miners are exposed to occupational and environmental hazards at work. Government is also aware of the negative impact of some of their activities on the host communities, hence the need to educate the miners on the modern techniques. For instance, Mercury is commonly used for gold mining to remove the gold from the hub and this can be harmful if necessary steps are not taken,’’ he said.
The medical expert however admitted that Osun State gold reserve is more sedimentary, with migrant miners and that it poses lower danger compared to places like Northern part, where the gold is attached to rock.
This notwithstanding, he urged miners at the various reserves, who are exposed to mercury to take precautions to prevent poisoning themselves and their families.
Speaking at the meeting, the Oloja of Ibodi, Oba Omisade Agboluaje, told the government delegation that efforts must be made to always carry along the host communities before major mining activities commence in their environment.
He said this would enable the host communities relate very well with miners, adding that this kind of relationship would be beneficial to all the parties involved.
“We want to know the number of agents mining in our community and we have asked them to meet with our youths. We are not against the Yoruba and non Yourba people mining here but we want to know all of them so that there will be better relationship between us.”
He also told the miners, who were mainly northerners that the community was ready to cooperate with them, adding that they too should try and reciprocate the gesture.
Import of the training
A fellow and former President of Nigerian Society of Mining Engineers, Mr. Olusegun Oladipo, who retired 10 years ago from the then Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, after 35 years, said the project has been long overdue. He pointed out that over the years; stakeholders in the mining sector have impressed it on successive administrations on the need for training and retraining of local miners to avoid accident and environmental degradation.
While taking the small scale gold miners through basic tips that would enhance effective and safe mining, Oladipo emphasised the need for them to carry out their mining activities in a way that it would benefit all stakeholders; the miners, the communities and the government.
He tasked the miners to always make sure that they fill their pitch after digging, to prevent accident and environment deprivation. He also advised them to acquaint themselves with modern ways of carrying out the job so as not to expose themselves and families to danger.
“As miners, you should naturally love yourself and therefore avoid steps that would expose you to danger, your host community should be your friend, so protect their lands, then be loyal to the government by abiding by the rules that guide mining activities in the country,’’ he said.
On basic precaution that must be taken during gold mining activities, the expert said it was necessary for miners to always make sure that work clothes are cleaned very well. He also urged miners to always bathe thoroughly and change into clean clothing before leaving the job site.
Oladipo also advised the miners to always make sure that soiled clothing are stored in containers and must be washed after use as well as avoiding keeping work and street clothing in the same locker. The expert further warned the miners from keeping their food in any place where it can be contaminated with mercury.
Setting the pace
Beyond the stakeholders’ forum and training, another interesting part of the three-day tour was the visit to various gold reserves where the team led a demonstrative exercise to acquaint the local miners with modern techniques.
For instance, in Ibodi, miners on site were assembled and given practical tips on how to carry out their jobs in the safest manner. Also at the site, the team, led by Odunsi and supported by Mmecha kitted Zamfara State-born Aminu Isah with all the necessary gadgets and protective materials for personal safety.
A highly elated Isah, who looked like a certified Civil Engineer after the exercise, told THISDAY that it was his first experience since eight years ago when he came to the village for mining. While admitting that such move will help them avoid unnecessary accidents while at work, he appealed to government to make it a regular exercise to further equip miners.
“I have been in Ibodi for eight years but this is the first government that would demonstrate that it cares for us. With all these equipment and the overall given to me, it will be easier and safer for me to go about my business. My request therefore, is that government should endeavour to make this a regular exercise to further equip more of our members across the country,’’ Isah said.
Addressing the miners at the reserves, Odunsi stated emphatically that the federal government was determined to end hazardous practices in the bid to boost safer mining, which would help the miners, the communities and the nation’s economy.
He advised them against digging without wearing protective clothing, adding that they must stop the use of chemicals such as mercury and cyanide in their mining activities in order not to expose themselves to grave health issues and pollution of the rivers as well as the flora and fauna.
The medical expert said poor mining activities could lead to serious health conditions such as infertility, severe cough, itching, and can also damage internal organs like the kidneys and the liver. “So you must do everything to protect yourself and to protect the environment.”
He said operating in a safer environment would boost the productivity of the miners, which in turn would lead to better revenue.
He said, “We want you to start safer mining from now on, this will guarantee your well-being, it will prevent environmental pollution and the host communities and the nation will be better for it.
“Miners should always wear helmet, goggles, face mask, overall, hand gloves, and boots. You must wear these before you start digging and you must not wear them at home. Make sure you remove the protective clothing; take a bathe and wear neat clothes back home after work. This is very important. If you go back home with the dust from the site, you can cause trouble for yourself and the people in the community.
“You must also make sure that you cover up every hole you dug while searching for gold. If you divert a river to another place while digging make sure up you return it back to its normal course after your activities.
“Bad mining activities cause breathing problem, cough, itching, infertility and can also damage internal organs like the kidneys and the liver. So you must do everything to protect yourself and to protect the environment.”
The highpoint of the event was the presentation of gifts, gadgets and certificates to participants. Aside certificates, miners and their supervisors were given protective items like; helmet, steel toe-boot, rain boots and hand gloves. Other items were; nose mask, reflective jacket and overall.
Meanwhile, for effective monitoring and supervision, three persons, including a traditional ruler, Chief Sunday Ogunsiji, the regent of Epe Ijesha; the patron of the Artisanal Miners Welfare Association, Chief Friday Israel Mmecha and one of the oldest miners in the state, Abubakar Aliyu, were presented with brand new motorcycles.
Ogunsiji, who spoke on behalf of others applauded the initiative and pointed out that the intervention would go a long way in redefining the sector. He traced the commencement of mining activities in the area to 1980, when government established the Federal Mining Corporation in Igun.
“We are happy this is happening now because we have clamoured for government attention for years. The journey, if I may say, began in 1980, when government established a Federal Mining Corporation in Igun, which geared up young men and women within and outside the state on the potential of the area. At the peak of the activities, a Gold Refinery was put up in Osu, beside the local government secretariat. Few years into the activities, with successive administrators and managers, operations at both the corporation and the refinery suddenly stopped and equipment worth millions were left unutilized.’’
Ogunsiji called on the current Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, to impress it on government on the need to further open up the communities and the gold reserves to drive the economy.
He said: “we can only call on government through Dr. Fayemi to focus on the communities and the activities of the miners. Few years ago, a former Minister Obiageli Ezekwesili, visited Igun and we were excited that government had finally heed our call but that was all we saw. Nothing happened afterwards.’’
The traditional ruler appealed to government to assist the affected communities in the area of infrastructure, especially roads and health facilities. He pointed out that most of the areas are cut off entirely from the rest of the country because of bad roads and that the surge in population has made the existing health facilities inadequate for the residents.