Zamfara lead poisoning: Matters arising

Oscarline Onwuemenyi

24 November 2011, Abuja, Sweetcrud, Abuja – Even as news that hundreds of children and women keep losing their lives due to massive lead poisoning which occurred since March, 2010 in Zamfara state, the Federal government has insisted that its handling of the Zamfara lead poisoning was meticulous and proactive.

An annual immunization programme in Northern Nigeria last year led to the discovery of a high number of child deaths in the area. An investigation showed that they had been digging for gold at the times of their deaths, in an area where lead is prevalent. It was thought by the villagers that all the children had contracted malaria but the international medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières found unusually high levels of lead in the blood during tests. Reports suggested the contamination of water may have contributed to the high mortality rate. Blacksmith Institute was called in by the Federal government to assist in the removal of toxic lead.

It is thought that the poisonings were caused by the illegal extraction of ore by villagers, who take crushed rock home with them to extract. This results in the soil being contaminated from lead which then poisons people through hand-to-mouth contamination. Others have been contaminated by contact with contaminated tools and water.

According to officials of the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development, reports in the press about recent loss of lives in the vast mining areas of the state have not taken note of the vast amount of remediation work going on in the state, as well as efforts by the administration to effectively organise the small-time miners into cooperatives to ensure efficient supervision and regulation of their activities.

A statement from the Ministry noted that, “The report was based on the illegal mining and inappropriate mineral ore processing methods adopted by local miners in Abare, Dareta, Unguwar Yargalma and some other villages in Zamfara State that led to lead poisoning emergency in the State. The Ministry and other Government agencies as well as some international agencies have made concerted efforts to have the situation brought under control.”

In this regard, it noted, the Ministry had embarked on vigorous sensitization campaign in the state using both the electronic and print media to enlighten the public, especially the rural people in the mining communities of Zamfara State of the inherent dangers associated with inappropriate mineral processing and illegal mining. “In the same vein, the Ministry issued a suspension order on all manners of mining activities in Zamfara State for sometime which helped in the initial containment of the emergency. Similarly, in order to assuage the water needs of the people in the affected communities, the Ministry provided 15 water boreholes that spread across the affected areas,” the statement added.

The Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Arc. Mohammed Sada, recently admitted to challenges government is facing in curtailing activities of illegal miners across the country, which was brought into sharp focus some last year with the death of over 300 people, including women and children in Zamfara State. He noted that activities of illegal miners was becoming increasingly rampant, adding that even the entire forces of the Nigeria police would not be able to contain the menace of illegal miners in the country.

Sada pointed out that investigations carried out by his ministry and other officials revealed that the deaths of the villagers in Zamfara State were entirely the handiwork of illegal miners.

According to him, “The issue of illegal miners has become one that is increasingly difficult to contain. This is because of the very difficult terrains in which mining activities are carried out. Some of the locations of the illegal mines are remote and almost inaccessible. Also, whenever these illegal miners get wind of the presence of the authorities, they easily disappear into thin air leaving the hapless villagers and other locals to bear the brunt of their nefarious activities.”

He added that, “It is important to note that these illegal miners abound everywhere across the country, and it would be practically impossible to attempt to check them all. We can’t stop them from operating, but we can find ways to harness their efforts and create better value for them and the economy at large.”

The Minister explained that the government was doing its best to enhance the education and enlightenment of the mining communities, especially on the dangers involved in the improper handling and processing of crushed rocks from the illegal mining sites. “We are also working with the village heads and traditional chiefs to organize and formalize activities of the miners. We also encourage the artisanal and small scale miners to join co-operatives for effective mobilization as well as ease of access to extension and other support services,” he noted.

Officials of the Ministry explained that they are also providing extension services to the artisanal miners in Zamfara State who have organized themselves into mining cooperatives. The artisanal miners are being exposed to standard best practices in mining operations especially as it applies to gold mining and processing. “The Ministry is collaborating with community leaders, security operatives and the local authorities to ensure that artisanal miners in the State are compelled to adhere to the guidelines as stipulated in the Nigerian Minerals and Mining Act 2007 by formalizing them into mining cooperatives in order to enable them acquire small-scale mining license,” one official in the Ministry told Sweetcrude.

At a recent meeting with stakeholders in the sector, the Minister warned in very strong terms that mining in any form without express permit from the Ministry will not be condoned. He said miners should desist from the use of inappropriate ore processing methods as they are harmful, not only to them but to the entire mining community and the environment.

To this end, he stated, the Ministry has directed that prospective miners should use the safety gadget as provided for in the Mining Regulations to enable them carry out mining activities with minimum risk. “Artisanal miners in Zamfara State are therefore urged to avail themselves of the formalization process currently being undertaken by the Ministry to form mining cooperatives for the purposes of securing small-scale mining lease and to benefit from the extension services, the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development is providing in order to boost their operations in the field,” Sada noted.

Meanwhile, the Federal government has advised the Zamfara State Government to step up its sensitization and public enlightenment campaigns on the inherent danger to the lives of children, women and men in the prevalent areas. Similarly, Local Government Authorities should support Government efforts in this regard to help mitigate the danger posed by these harmful and unwholesome practices as necessary steps to enforce the law and sanction violators will soon be embarked upon by the Ministry to check illegal mining activities.

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