Recently, I visited Kayonza gold mines in Kitumbi sub-county, Kassanda district.
As I approached the area, I was welcomed by noise from the ball mills crushing the ore into powder. In the distance, I could see several open pits, some on the hill and others down in the swamp.
There are just few scattered trees remaining in the area and no signs of farming activities here. From morning to evening women, men and children toil in the mines.
While it is clear that from gold they get money to buy food and other necessities of life, none of them seems bothered about the effects of the chemicals used to extract the precious mineral on their health and the environment.
The purpose of my visit to the area was to interact with members of the Kitumbi Kayonza Mining Association that is registered and licensed to oversee, govern and manage all the activities of the miners at Kayonza/Lubaali Mining Site.
As a member of the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE), I wanted to get first-hand information on what happens in the mines.
Ivan Kauma, one of the administrators, showed me around the mines. He showed me the open pits left by the artisanal miners, some of which have been partially filled with water. He said, "There are so many challenges related to the environment here. Look at all these open pits, they are breeding grounds for mosquitoes and the chemicals used in mining, especially mercury could be contaminating the water we use at home.
"We have had cases of animals dying after drinking water contaminated with mercury and who knows, maybe the food we eat is also contaminated. We are aware of the health risks, but we also lack information on alternatives," Kauma said.
I interacted with many other miners who seemed to be aware of the negative consequences of using mercury in artisanal mining but they repeatedly told me "it is better to suffer the consequences of using mercury than die of poverty".
In Uganda, the use of mercury in artisanal small-scale gold mining is on the rise. Mercury is a known neurological toxicant that damages the nervous, digestive and immune systems as well as lungs and kidneys as a result of inhaling, ingesting, or even just physical contact with mercury.
It can affect speech, sight and cognitive organs in humans, according to the World Health Organisation-WHO, and is equally dangerous for animals, and the environment.
The unfortunate part is that despite mercury being harmful, the mining sector in Uganda is still characterised by uncontrolled use and spillage of mercury. Artisanal gold miners are in contact with mercury at different stages of the mining process, notably amalgamation, panning and burning of the amalgam.
There is no regulation of its use among the artisanal small-scale gold miners and generally, their activities are not regulated under any specific law in Uganda.
The Mining Act of 2003 is silent on activities of artisanal miners and the chemicals used. The process of amending this Act is ongoing and it is our strong recommendation that activities of artisanal miners and how they can be properly regulated be included. We hope Parliament will speed up the process of amending this Act and that views of environmentalists and civil society actors will not be ignored.
There are many technologies that do not involve the use of mercury in the gold recovery process. Among them is gravity concentration, sluice boxes, shaking tables and using borax. Most of these processes are more friendly to human health and the environment in comparison to the mercury amalgamation process, making them preferred options in gold recovery. But for the artisanal miners to be adopted to these safe mining practices, there is need for enforcement by the relevant government agencies such as NEMA.
The Government and agencies like NEMA should put in place regulations that guide the activities of artisanal small-scale gold miners and the use of mercury in gold recovery. Otherwise, the long-term effects on human health and environment will be severe. There is also need for the Government to collaborate with civil society organisations to promote the already known mercury-free alternatives across the country. This could be done by developing education and information materials to enhance awareness on mercury use and alternatives.
The writer is in charge of chemicals management and climate change at the National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE).