Mining for a Dime [opinion]

He is all muddy and sweaty but he is in a jovial mood. Everest Ainemujuni, 34, is searching for gold in Mijera stream, Karembe Parish in Bihanga Sub County, in Buhweju District.

Squatting around the opencast mine filled up with water, Ainemujuni picks up a plastic basin, his most important piece of equipment. He is flanked by eight other men equipped with hand hoes for digging the mine, iron bars or pick axes to hit rocks, spades to scoop soil and basins from which they separate impurities from the gold deposits.

He says they all know that they are living a risky life in uncertainty of getting any traces of the mineral and the possibility of a landslide at any time as they usually dig deep into the hills as well.

“We have spent two weeks here without getting any gold, sometimes it can take months,” says Ainemujuni, who dropped out of school after primary seven. But they keep on digging hoping to hit gold at some point. “The more you are here, the more chances you have of getting gold. That is why we have to stick around here.”

Ainemujuni says he has been in the trade for the last five years. Two years ago, he earned Shs 1.7 million as his biggest prize ever. From the money, he was able to pay fees for his four children, built a house with 60 iron sheets and has also bought ten goats. To supplement his income, he has a banana plantation, and has also grown cow peas, beans, tomatoes and onions on one of the hills in Karembe Parish.

Nathan Ahimbisibwe, the Buhweju Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) believes his district, curved out of Bushenyi four years ago, has the biggest gold mines in East Africa but the district authorities are yet to reap any monetary benefits from the “alluvial gold.” But most of it is extracted by artisanal miners on a “trial and error” method or what he appropriately refers to as “guesswork.”

“We are looking for competent people so that we can get royalties,” Ahimbisibwe adds.

Artisanal mining refers to individuals, groups or communities using rudimentary methods or with minimal technology. Official statistics estimate that there are 200,000 artisanal and small scale miners in the country. Half of this number mine or engage in the sector while over one million people benefit from this rudimentary mining.

The journalists were desperate to get a glimpse of the gold. Then two teenagers said they had found gold – two tiny yellowish round nuggets. One of the journalists bought it at Shs 13,000. A gold buyer intimated to us that the total weight of this gold was equivalent to that of one matchstick.

Indeed, using a small wooden weighing scale, the buyer weighed the journalist’s gold with the ‘gold’ on one side of the scale and a match stick on the other. The gold was as heavy as one matchstick.

This money however is neither recorded nor taxed because the buyers and sellers haggle at the mining sites. That is why the local government gets no revenue from the gold sales.

In 2013, the Department of Geological Surveys and Mines (DGSM) under the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD) reported that artisanal mining contributes up to 12% (330 tons) of annual gold production. In Uganda, artisanal gold mining contributed 3.5% to GDP that is about $ 680 million from gold mined in Busia (Buteba, Busitema), Moroto, Abim, Kaabong, in North East, Mubende(Kisita, Kamalenga) and in the South West Bushenyi, Buhweju, Kisoro and Kanungu. That is why Ahimbisibwe said they need big time investors. Currently, only two companies have exploration licenses in the district – Elegant Resources Ltd (Indian) and Hwaseong Mining Co. Ltd of Uganda, a Chinese company that employs nine Ugandans and ten Chinese.

Ahimbisibwe is hoping that these companies start mining soonest so that the district gets royalties. Gold is among 40 out of 3,500 minerals discovered in Uganda that are regarded as commercially viable. Others include salt, gypsum, marble, tin, tungsten, diamond, iron ore, limestone, coal, copper, cobalt and many more. Some of these minerals are present in Kabarole, Kasese and Buhweju in the Western Uganda.

Vincent Kato from the Department of Geological Surveys and Mines (DGSM) says these minerals however are mined mainly by speculators, which has made it difficult to attract investors like the ones in Buhweju.

He adds that this is worsened by some communities that are hostile to mining companies – out of fear that they would take away their livelihoods – while some mining areas are locked up in the hands of individuals who hire out licensed blocks to artisans. For instance, Lake Katwe where government is trying to attract investors to generate geothermal energy from the crater alongside salt winning is owned by individuals. There are over 10,000 salt pan owners at the lake, though some are not registered.

In Kabarole, and Kasese districts where artisanal miners extract pozzolana and salt respectively, their local leaders are anxious for royalties and share Ahimbisibwe’s sentiments on the rudimentary methods the small scale miners use to extract the minerals. It is evident that any able-bodied person can mine pozzolana in Harugongo sub county, Kabarole District. Every house hold has either mounts of the mineral or a house built with or over the mineral. The mines are run by mainly men and children because it requires a great deal of energy. The women concentrate on food production.

The miners told journalists that in the past, they used the mineral as bricks only until they got wind of its commercial value to cement making. The Hima Cement plant in Kasese now buys it in bulk. Transporting the mineral by road during the rainy season is a nightmare the roads are impassable while floods in Kasese sometimes destroy bridges. These affect volumes bought from the mining site to Hima.

The distance by road from the pozzolana site to the Kampala- Fort Portal Road is about 7 Km and on a good day, about 30 to 40 trucks (between 12 – 22 tonnes) transport the mineral to Hima Cement plant in Kasese that is about 50 km via Fort Portal Mpondwe Road.

45-year- old Field Francis Wako has mined pozzolana for over 20 years and sells it to the middlemen who also transport the mineral. He uses rudimentary tools such as iron bars to establish presence of the cement-like mineral and also break the rock. But it’s the middle men who get the lion’s share from their sweat.

Wako says the middlemen purchase a full lorry of pozzolana between Shs 120,000 to Shs 150,000. Each miner can extract between 100 to 200Kg per day and about 700 to 14,000 kg by the end of the week to fill a lorry. The miners claim the middlemen sell a full lorry at Shs 700,000.

However the miners say Hima Cement contracted Royal Transporters to supply it with pozzolana, a move that has sparked off a rift between the firm and the Harugongo Pozzolana Transporters Association that was selling each tonne at Shs 45,000 while the former charges Shs 37,000 per tonne.

The miners say they do not mind who transports the mineral from their individual mines as long as they are willing to buy.

But Richard Rwabuhinga, the Kabarole district chairperson, says the row has affected local revenue collected from the mineral as each truck of pozzolana is charged Shs 10,000 through a contractor that remits between Shs 9.5 million to Shs 10 million a month. At least 65% of this revenue is sent to Harugongo and Kichwamba sub counties and the rest to the district.

Rwabuhinga says this money is about Shs 3 million monthly and Shs 36 million per year when all factors were or are favourable such as dry weather. But when it rains or there are poor roads or disputes amongst the miners or middlemen like the transporters or suppliers, fewer than ten trucks pay these charges.

“Currently, there has been infighting among the middlemen over rates so we have not received any money for about two months now,” Rwabuhinga said. “The miners have no buyers because the some of the middlemen have blocked the roads to the sites till their issues are resolved.”

The money the district gets is used for routine maintainance of the 7Km Harugongo-Kichwamba murram road affected by the heavy tonnage of the trucks that sometimes transport pozzolana to and fro 30 times a day. He adds that the annual amount that accrues from charging pozzolana transporters is not enough since every two weeks during the busy days the roads must be repaired or else tucks would get stuck.

Tarmac roads are the only permanent solution to the poor state of the roads, which Rwabuhinga says would cost over Shs 20 billion – almost impossible to raise from local revenue.

Pozzolana is a vital ingredient in making Portland cement that can be used in both general purpose and structural concrete applications.

Statistics from the energy ministry show that annual production of pozollana since 2002 has increased from 12,388 tonnes to 280,522, 440,292 and 690,911 tonnes in 2007, 2009 and 2011 respectively. Out of a total of ten minerals produced in the same period (iron ore, pozzolana, limestone wolfram, gold, gypsum, vermiculite, cobalt, and columbite -tantalite,) pozzolana contributed 12% – several times more than the other minerals – making it the second most -produced after limestone. But due to high fuel prices, pozzolana surpassed limestone production in 2008 by 57.9 tonnes and was the most produced mineral.

Though energy officials say volumes of pozzolana have not been established and that government no longer invests in the sector directly, the Mineral Policy of 2001 provides for exploration and mine development by providing a competitive investment environment to attract local and foreign investment through stimulating private sector participation.

Among the objectives of the policy are stimulating mining sector development by promoting private-sector participation, regularizing and, improving artisanal and small-scale mining. Also, adding value to mineral ores and minimizing and mitigating the aerse social and environmental impacts of mineral exploitation are key objectives – but they are far from being realized. Ahimbisibwe, Rwabuhinga and the small scale miners and potential investors can only continue to wait for these objectives and the policy to be operationalised.

Source : The Independent

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