by Toye Olori
(IPS) LAGOS -- Disused pits dug by illegal gold miners dot the expanse of land which once served as farmland. Before the gold rush, the villagers in this sprawling farming community, called Igun, used to produce cash crops like cocoa, coffee and cola nuts.
When IPS visited the village in western Nigeria, the illegal gold panners had already left and had moved on to other locations in search of the precious metal.
"As you can see, the pits have been deserted after the miners had finished collecting the gold here. They have moved further to new areas, leaving the lucrative farming business in the village in shambles," says Kola Olabisi, acting as IPS guide.
According to Olabisi, the illegal miners are mostly from neighboring Niger and Chad.
Pointing to some abandoned rusty excavation equipment left behind by the state-owned Nigerian Gold Mining Company (NGMC), a subsidiary of the Nigerian Mining Corporation, Olabisi explained: "The activities of illegal miners became more pronounced in the last seven years when NGMC, folded up and abandoned its mining activities here. With its exit, the illegal miners took over and unleashed havoc on any land suspected to contain gold deposit."
For more than 12 years of its operation at the mines near Igun, the company dug up trenches which now form pools of undrinkable brackish water that constitute health hazards to both villagers and livestock.
The illegal miners followed in the company's footsteps digging up trenches in search of gold, creating more pits.
While the illegal gold diggers make thousands of dollars through their business, the locals get peanuts. And they are continuously faced with the dangers of environmental degradation to their farmlands and other hazards resulting from the open pits.
"We are suffering. The illegal miners have dug up our farms, posing dangers to our lives. Our crops have been destroyed because of their activities. Whenever we tried to question them, they showed us papers (mining rights) which they claimed were obtained from government," complains Olu Ibikunle, a farmer.
"Instead of being a blessing, the discovery of gold has become a curse to us. We no longer have enough good farming land, while our fresh waters are now polluted," he says.
As a result, women and children now walk long distances in search of clean drinking water.
Part of the problem seems to be rooted in poverty. Illegal miners pay -- or bribe -- some unsuspecting poor farmers to allow them prospect for the gem on their land. A lucky miner, who hits some good quantity of gold, could become an instant Naira millionaire as an ounce of gold fetches as much as 40,000 naira (about 400 dollars) in the market.
Femi Adefila, a senior government official in Oshogbo, the capital of Osun State, where Igun is located, told IPS: "Because of the large deposit of gold in the area, the illegal miners have seized the opportunity to perform their illegal acts."
"We recently arrested three illegal miners. They told us they work for a businessman. But when we tried to get to the businessman, he bolted. The three men have been charged for economic sabotage," Adefila said. Each of the men risks five years in jail on conviction.
Adamu Hassan, one of the apprehended men, said: "I work for a big man. Our bosses are businessmen from both Nigeria and abroad. Most of us do this as a means of survival. We sometimes melt the gold and sell to goldsmiths in Oshogbo," he said.
So far, local officials are powerless to stop the illegal miners. Osun State officials say mineral resources fall under the federal government in the capital Abuja, making it impossible for Nigeria;s 36 states to rein in the miners.
"We are helpless. It is a shame that some of those who are stealing our resources through illegal mining and constituting a nuisance to the people are not even Nigerians. But we can hardly do anything because of the policy of government which places natural resources in the exclusive list of the federal government," complains one government official.
Section one and 221 of decree 34 of 1999 vested the ownership and control of all minerals, including the power to issue licenses, collect rents, fees, and royalties, in the federal government. This power is exercised through the Ministry of Solid Minerals Development, established to boost non-oil exports.
Since the creation of the ministry in 1995, officials say investors -- both local and foreign -- have shown interest in Nigeria's gold deposits found almost throughout the Western and Northwestern regions.
Two weeks ago, Kaduna State Governor, Ahmed Makarfi, while receiving the National Steel Raw Materials Exploration Agency officials, expressed concern over the activities of illegal miners in his state. He urged the agency to assist the government in checking the menace.
There have also been reports of physical attacks on persons who tried to obstruct the activities of illegal miners. About two years ago, a traditional ruler in Osun state was attacked in his palace by hoodlums for daring to obstruct their activities.
In the tantalite-rich Kogi state, central Nigeria, investors were driven out of some fields by illegal miners who felt threatened.
Similar incidents of harassments, or ejection of investors, have also been reported in the northern states of Plateau, Nasarawa and Jigawa. In 2001, the Mining Association of Nigeria, led by Dabo Zang, urged the Nigerian government to do something about the illegal miners.
While government is losing revenue, and environments are being polluted, the illegal miners are smiling all the way to the bank. Odion Ugbesia, Minister of Solid Minerals Development, said last week that exploitation of tantalite alone in a village in Kwara state, central Nigeria, was fetching the miners an average of six million Naira (about 60,000 dollars) a week.
Ugbesia announced that government plans to put in place programs for accelerated and orderly exploration and exploitation of the vast solid minerals to curtail the activities of illegal miners. His permanent secretary, Aboki Zhawa, said last that informal mining activities would be formalised to make them economically viable and environmentally friendly.
"Although the informal miners provide massive self-employment especially in the rural areas, their activities constituted environmental degradation due to abandoned pits, polluted rivers, high exposure of radioactive and hazardous minerals. Informal mining is an impediment to the orderly development of solid minerals sector in the country," Zhawa said.
He said government would formalise mining by reviewing the current legislation with emphasis on consultation and interactive discussion with mining communities on mutual preservation of interests.
"Formalizing the sector would yield revenue to government and provide sustainable self-employment for at least 500,000 people. Other benefits included minimizing environmental degradation and social and health problems such as child labor," he said.
September 29, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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