By Gabriel EWEPU
Over the years, Nigeria had been a country riddled by illegal mining activities, particularly the solid minerals sector, which had been abandoned for many decades as a result of the 1973 Indigenisation Law that made the Europeans that were in charge of mining sites to abandon these sites for the unskilled Nigerians who were working with them.
Unfortunately, these Nigerians could not operate the machinery and plants left for them, rather, they chose the path of crude methods of mining, which led to the eventual collapse of the mining sector, and also various administrations could not pay attention to the development of the sector for revenue generation. Instead were carried away by the wind of oil boom in the petroleum sector and its politics.
The increasing and frightening poverty also gave rise to the inflow of artisanal miners in the sector as most rural people took to the dangerous and illicit business for survival, and being hijacked by some merchants who sponsored the trade.
It is interesting to know that in Nigeria, artisanal and illegal miners were mainly rural men, women and children, who were without any legal mineral title. The just excavate where they feel has some mineral deposits, and begin mining activities. They are fond of illegally 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.
The implements and equipment they use are simple and crude and in most cases include shovels, pickaxes, hammers, headpans, simple crushers, sluice boxes, rolling mills and sieves. All the mining activities at present in Nigeria fall within the small-scale category, since there are no big corporate miners in the country.
The reasons why these illegal miners engaged in extraction of minerals are not far-fetched. They have been forced by the level of poverty and frustration to engage themselves in the tedious job of minerals excavation. While most of them see it as lucrative, and delved into it to increase their income base and for other business ventures. Others were sponsored by the ‘ogas’ for shipment to other parts of the world, but do it through exploitation and oppression.
According to Dr. Jacob I. D. Adekeye, they often work seasonally, for example, subsistence farmers mine gemstones in the dry season when there is less agricultural work. Some people may also take up mining as a last resort during periods of economic recession e.g. in Nigeria, during the mid 1980s and late 1990s. Illegal mining boomed in Nigeria during this period. Also, many people can suddenly be drawn to these mining activities following the discovery of new mineral resources.
Adekeye also stated that they lack degree of mechanization, who do great amount of physically demanding work, involving low level of occupational safety and health care, others were deficient qualification of the personnel on all levels of operation, inefficiency in the exploitation and processing of the mineral production (low recovery of values), exploitation of marginal and/or very small deposits, which are not economically exploitable by mechanized mining, including low level of productivity.
Low level of salaries and income, periodical operation by local peasants or according to the market price development, lack of social security, insufficient consideration of environmental issues and hence significant impact on the environment, chronic lack of working and investment capital and mostly working without legal mining titles.
They should not be underrated because of some basic required skills and know-how not met. According to Hilson and Potter, Artisanal and illegal miners extract a broad range of minerals. Generally, they produce minerals that have the advantage of being relatively simple to extract, transport, and sell legally or illegally.
Coming to the grave issue of negative and adverse effects on the environment, it is gratifying to know that most states were sitting on a keg of gunpowder set by illegal miners that will soon explode and engulf innocent Nigerians if nothing urgent was done.
It is imperative to state again, the painful and agonising experience in the Niger Delta and everybody knew how it started and how government failed to nip it in the bud when oil and gas activities tremendously increased, and without proper enforcement of the laws guiding oil exploration and exploitation.
Today, the people and the environment are dearly paying for the pollution and degradation in the region. The waters contaminated, farmlands devastated and polluted, the air is seriously polluted and unfit for human, animal and plant inhalation. The level of poverty is very frightening and the agitations refuse to abate despite the amnesty package for ex-militants. Oil theft and illegal bunkering are telling on the federal government’s revenue generation, and kidnapping is on the increase.
Also human lives have been lost in thousands, including animals and plants in the Niger Delta region, while the health of the people is still in jeopardy as it hangs in the balance. Also development in the region is still in limbo as many communities lack basic infrastructure to raise their standard of living, among others.
These are not palatable experiences suffered by the people of the Niger Delta, but all were traceable to the neglect of firm policies to safeguard the lives of the people in that region, and now government is applying fire brigade approach to quell the tension they created consciously and unconsciously.
The solid minerals sector is fast tilting towards the same direction, as the activities of illegal miners has caused the lives of Nigerians in states affected in the northern part of the country.
Zamfara State lead poisoning incidence drew the attention of the world as most of the communities where the illegal mining activity was carried out had their sources of water contaminated, the land for agricultural activities polluted and the air became unfit for human breathing. Eventually, men, women and children lost their lives untimely.
If the government fails to swiftly stop these illegal miners the source of drinking water will be contaminated, farmlands will be affected, the burrowed pits will become death-traps for children and livestock, emergence of possible outbreak of terminal diseases, and devastation of the entire environment.
It was disclosed by the Chairman, Solid Minerals Development Fund, Linus Adie, that the federal government had received $2 million grant from the governments of Canada and Australia for rapid development of the sector.
Adie stated that, the grant received will be utilized to boost human capacity building in artisanal and small-scale mining and provision of strategic infrastructure in the sector.
“Mining remains relevant in the economic transformation of Nigeria. Mining by its structure provide elements of economic contribution, throughout its value chain from exploration, mining, and value addition to marketing.
“The grant will be used specifically to prepare strategic infrastructure corridors in the mining sector, capacity building in artisanal and small scale mining and general governance of the sector,” Adie stated.
The Ministry of Mines and Steel Development said it has registered a total of 570 artisanal and small-scale mining co-operatives across the country.
The Director of the Department of Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining in the ministry, Obiora Azubike, said this, while speaking with the News Agency of Nigeria.
He said that out of 1,600 applications so far received from artisanal and small-scale miners to register as co-operatives; only 570 had been certified nationwide.
In view of this development, the $2 million grant should be promptly utilised for the purpose it was received, because it will help to safeguard the lives of the miners, people in the communities and the entire environment since the impact on the environment is yet to escalate and get out of control.