Sweet Crude

August 7, 2012

Zamfara mining disaster: Still a human rights debacle

By Oscarline Onwuemenyi

It is a fact that after decades of mining activities in the country, the fortunes of the nation’s mining industry has not necessarily translated into wealth or social security for the communities in which the resources are extracted.

Starting with the Jos tin mines in Plateau State, the Enugu coal mines which commenced operations in 1909, the discovery of crude in Oloibiri community in 1956, in present-day Bayelsa State, and recently, gold mining in Zamfara State, host communities have faced the brunt of greedy exploitation in an environment of lax regulations and laws, construed to keep them at a disadvantage.

Mining communities in the country have historically fared very poorly and have had to contend with government, mining corporations and artisanal miners for the protection and fulfillment of their human rights.

The recent tragic events 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 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 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 government to actively regulate 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 Mines and Steel Development. However, state governments have a 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.

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 Zamfara 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.

Rights violation

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 Zamfara scenario. However, “socio-economic rights such as right to decent work, right to health, right to adequate standards of living, and the right to housing were also violated by the government’s failure to supervise mining in Zamfara State. The presence of children working at mine sites also points to child labour rights violations.”

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.