Uganda’s abundant mineral wealth if well managed has the ability to enhance the economic fortunes of the country. Indeed, many Ugandans view mineral resources– such as gold in Mubende and the Karamoja region– as critical precursors to the country’s move towards prosperity as well as the means for lifting thousands of people out of poverty. This mineral wealth is captured in the country’s economic blueprint “Vision 2040” as a driver of growth and development.
While, admittedly, the exploitation of mineral resources could bring prosperity to Uganda, they could fuel violations of human, health and safety rights, particularly, the right to a clean and health environment as provided in country’s constitution and environmental regulations.
During a recent field trip by Water Governance Institute staff to the gold mining areas of Mubende district, it was observed that women gold miners were found using Mercury Oxide and Cyanide in gold extraction. These are highly toxic and dangerous substances, which if ingested or gain entry into the human body could result in serious health problems and ultimately death of the affected persons. These chemicals are particularly risky to women, because it is the women that are mostly engaged in extracting the gold from the earth tailings using a mixture of water and any of mentioned chemicals.
In addition, women often work with no or inadequate protective gear, which worsens their exposure to the hazardous chemicals. Women do this usually out of ignorance or mire lack of enough money to buy the protective gear. This is worsened by the low labour wages they are paid for their work.
Laboratory analysis of soils and water taken from selected sites in Mubende revealed pollution levels of up to ten times the permissible levels by the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Similar results were obtained in respect to Cyanide in water. Water Governance Institute is planning a multi-stakeholder dialogue that will bring together government officials, ASM-miners and CSOs to deliberate on the findings a chart a way forward.
According to the World Health Organization, Mercury is highly toxic to human health and inhalation of Mercury vapour can produce harmful effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, including organs like the lungs and kidneys, resulting in death. Similar effects to the human body have been reported by other experts. NEMA puts the permissible levels of Mercury at 2.0 milligrams per kilogram of soil and 0.001milligrams per litre of water, while WHO puts it at 8.0milligrams per kilogram soil and 0.001milligrams per litre of water.
In respect to Cyanide, NEMA’s permissible level is at 10.0milligrams per kilogram soil and 0.1milligrams per litre of water. The WHO’s standard for Cyanide is 0.2milligrams per litre of water. WGI’s search of the WHO records online did not reveal any permissible standard for Cyanide in soils, this is probably because Cyanide is unacceptable in soils by WHO standards or WHO has not yet investigated Cyanide in soils to set a standard.
It is clear that while NEMA and WHO are in agreement on the permissible levels of Mercury in water, their standards differ for soil. NEMA’s standard for Mercury in soil is more stringent and restrictive. Likewise, the NEMA standard for Cyanide in soils and water is more restrictive and stringent compared with that of WHO. In such cases, it is better to enforce the NEMA standards for Mercury and Cyanide.
According to the December 2015 Auditor General’s report on Regulation, Monitoring and Promotion of the Mining sector, the artisanal, small- and medium-scale mining sector employs up to 200,000 people in Uganda of which 50% are women. This suggests that 100,000 women are exposed to the harmful Mercury and Cyanide chemicals. This is not a small number that can be ignored by any administration.
Since the women gold miners are not in position to effectively protect themselves from the negative effects of chemicals used in gold mining, it is important for government to require mining companies and/or individuals employing women in gold extraction to provide them with safety gear and to comply with health and environmental standards and practice. Also, civil society actors and other development partners should come to the aid of such women, including men.
While we recognize the efforts government is undertaking to revise the mining policy and legislation, we think government is slow (or is it reluctant) to put in place a mechanism that will regulate artisanal, small- and medium-scale mining, including the formalization of this sub-sector. The new mining policy and laws should also be guided by the aspirations and principles of the Africa Mining Vision (AMV) and Agenda 2063, which recognizes a mining sector that harnesses the potential of artisanal and small-scale mining to stimulate local/national entrepreneurship, improve livelihoods and advance integrated rural social and economic development.