Illegal mining in focus as lead poisoning ravages communities in Niger State

*Men work in the mines ouotside of Bagega. they dig deep to find the rock and then crush these rocks to find the gold ore. Inside the rocks there is also deposits of other metals, one being lead which is poisoning many of the children in the village

*Men work in the mines outside of Bagega. They dig deep to find the rock and then crush these rocks to find the gold ore. Inside the rock, they also find deposits of other metals, one being lead which is poisoning many of the children in the village.

Oscarline Onwuemenyi

06 April 2016, Sweetcrude, Abuja – The degenerative effects of illegal mining in the country reared its ugly head once again in rural Rafi local government area in Niger State with reports of numerous deaths of children and women from lead poisoning.

In Nigeria, the most commonly talked about environmental impacts have been in the oil producing region of the Niger-Delta where agricultural, surface and underground water resources have been badly affected. However, artisanal and illegal mining of solid minerals pervades the entire country leaving behind their effects on the environment. Most of these artisanal and illegal miners (men, women and children) are rural and poor and usually work without legal mining title.

Their activities include mining of gemstones like tourmaline, beryl, amethyst, aquamarine and garnet and precious minerals like diamond and gold. It also includes mining of other minerals like columbite, tantalite, and cassiterite. Mining of river sands, digging of burrow pits, removal of topsoil, sand and laterite for building purposes are also carried out. Other activities include removal of vegetation and cleaning of dams to produce dam sands.

These array of activities lead to uncoordinated and unregulated mining which usually result in haphazard extraction of the minerals and eventual destruction of the environment. Evidence of such destruction are observed in the form of soil erosion, and, change in topography, and water pollution and dumps of overburden material. The resultant effects of abandoned pits and other mining sites that become flooded during the raining season pose health dangers to the citizens. All these impacts negatively on and degrade the environment.

The tragic events a few years ago that led to the death of over 450 children from lead poisoning in Zamfara State, for instance, brings to stark focus, the negative environmental impacts of illegal mining on communities across the country. Till date, more than 2000 children are said to have received treatment for lead poisoning, as a consequence of unregulated gold mining activities in the state. The exact number of adults affected have not be ascertained. However, it has been confirmed to have led to higher rates of miscarriages among adult women and impaired livelihoods and health challenges for thousands.

The human rights violations in mining communities are obvious, including the right to life, to a healthy environment and violations of their socio-economic rights. The less obvious social impacts of mining are often ignored, such as increased migration of skilled miners and related service providers which put pressures on limited amenities, increased social security risks and destruction of culture, are other ways through which the human rights of host communities are potentially abused.

Violations occur when the government does not address the strains these incursions put on the communities or does not fulfill its obligations to citizens in host communities. With regards to the Zamfara State saga, many human rights organizations have argued that, while there are regulations for artisanal mining in the country, not much is done by the government to regulate actively these activities. The Nigerian government, they added, was characteristically slow to respond to the Zamfara disaster, coupled with the back and forth trading of blame between the Federal and State governments over whose responsibility it was to respond to the crisis.

The Mining Act of 2007, vests mining within the exclusive purview of the Federal government, through the Ministry of Solid Minerals Development. However, state governments have responsibility for the regulation of the environment through the state Mineral Resources Management Committee (MIREMCO). The MIREMCOs were primarily set up to ensure some level of citizen participation in the governance of natural resources located in their communities. Unfortunately, the various state MIREMCOs have been slow to take up their responsibility and are yet to fulfill the rationale behind their establishment.

However, following lessons learnt from the Zamfara debacle, where the Federal and state governments’ response was deemed to be lax and inadequate, the Federal Ministry of Health has been quick to wade into the Rafi disaster. Last week it confirmed an outbreak of lead poisoning in Rafi Local Council of Niger State which has so far claimed 28 lives from about 65 confirmed cases.

The outbreak is said to be spreading to other localities in the state and neighbouring Kaduna state. All the deaths were of children under the age of 5 and made up of 17 females and 11 males. High serum of leads levels, 17-22 times higher than the acceptable limits established by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is said to have been responsible for the deaths.
Already, mining activities have been suspended in the affected areas. The findings also revealed a serious impact on livestock with cows, goats and chickens most affected.

Minister of State for Health, Fidelis Nwankwo, who briefed newsmen on the development, said, “The devastating impact of this outbreak is associated with new mining sites which were found to contain more leaded ores which are often brought home for crushing and processing.”

Making reference to how Nigeria tackled the Ebola outbreak, Nwankwo said, “This is another battle that must be won.” He stressed however that lead poisoning is not contagious and is amenable to effective and sustainable control, provided safer and healthier mining practises are imbibed.

He urged the public not to panic, calling on miners to abide by the extant mining regulations and emerging guidelines that would be released from time to time by the government.

He further listed actions taken so far to include advocacy meetings with community leaders and youth groups; conducting health education in the communities and sensitizing them on the dangers of their economic activities involving mining, crushing and the processing of ore; sharing with the communities and miners health and mining safety precautions through health talks and film-shows in the local languages.

He said the emergency team had commenced non-specific, palliative treatment of the sick children while local council and state teams have been mobilized and participate fully in response to the outbreak.

The Minister further noted that the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the Ministry had commenced the process of establishing incident command structures to enhance routine coordination of the outbreak response, adding that health facilities in Niger and Zamfara states had been mobilized to commence treatment of the clinically ill children in collaboration with Medicines Sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Federal Medical Centre, Gusau.

Meanwhile, in view of the devastating effects of lead poisoning in Angwan Shakira and Angwan Kawo in Madaka district of Rafi local government area of Niger state, the state government has signed a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOU) with Medecin Sans Frontier MSF- Operational Centre, Amsterdam to tackle the effect of lead on the people.

The MSF representative, Dr. Phillips Haruna, who spoke in an interview with our correspondent after a visit to the area, stated that the lead poisoning was not restricted to Niger state alone but all the states along the belt saying that the experience was devastating to national development. He disclosed that from preliminary survey conducted by MSF 93 percent of the houses in Angwan Shakira were exposed to the pollution of lead.
He said that lead had a long-term devastating effect on the mental health of people especially children as they grow old.

According to him, “When we got to Rafi Local Government, we noticed that the children were intoxicated by the poison; 93 per cent of all houses in Anguwan Kawu were seriously polluted. And in December last year, the report of the exercise was presented to the Federal Government, Niger State government, and the Senate president.” He added that the organization has been working with Zamfara state government that was also experiencing lead poisoning, adding that from the scoping done in the areas affected in Rafi local government area of the state, more children were vulnerable to the lead poisoning.

The Minister of Solid Minerals Development, Dr. Kayode Fayei regretted that the trajectory of the country’s extractive industry has not been without controversy. “We are all witnesses to the challenges in the oil industry over the past few decades. More recently, we have seen significant challenges in the gold, lead and zinc mines of Zamfara where illegal mining without a clear understanding of how to handle poisonous material such as lead has had incredibly devastating consequences.”

Fayemi said the ministry would work to strengthen the institutional support to artisanal and small-scale miners for integrating them into the formal sector. He added that based on the recent update provided by the Bureau for Public Entreprises to the Ministry, an audit of all mining locations will be undertaken to (or “intending to”) streamlining mining practices in the country to enhance health and safety standards in the sector.

In the view of Mr. Abiodun Baiyewu, the Country Director of Global Rights in Nigeria, government agencies at both Federal and state levels have not responded appropriately and adequately to the mining disaster, thereby endangering the lives of citizens. “Their failure is not limited to events after the mining disaster; they in the first place allowed the situation to develop by overlooking dangerous practices and failed to take corrective action once they were aware of the danger,” he said.

According to her, it is the constitutional duty of the three levels of government to respect, protect and fulfill the human right of the citizens.

Baiyewu contended that the violation of the right to life, which is the most fundamental of all human rights, is the most obvious breach in the various mining disaster witnessed in the country. However, “socio-economic rights such as a right to decent work, the right to health, the right to adequate standards of living, and the right to housing were also violated by the government’s failure to supervise mining in the states. The presence of children working at mine sites also points to child labour rights violations.”

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