Men and women of various ages are busy, some going into ditches, and others crushing stones.
By Geofrey Kimani
It’s an hour’s drive from Katoro Town to Kihesa mining camp at Lwamgasa Village in Geita District.
Upon reaching the site, you are met with an environment that has almost been torn part. Hundreds of people are busy, a number of them in torn and dirty clothes.
A huge section of land has been cleared away. The mostly notable features are heaps of soil and open mouths of ditches.
The multitude here is seeking for only one thing–gold. Men and women of various ages are busy, some going into the ditches, others crushing stones that have already been collected and others moving here and there.
There are at least 2,000 artisanal miners who have invaded this area, according to village chairman Lumumba Salvatory.
He says the environment at Kihesa Camp is under a lot of stress due to the sudden surge of people starting from early July. Soil erosion, creation of sink holes, and loss of vegetation cover as miners need firewood for cooking and logs for getting into the mines.
Water sources are also in danger as both groundwater and surface water are threatned with contamination due to chemicals that miners use in separating gold from other impurities.
According to Mr Lumumba, River Kihesa, that over 20,000 people from the village depend on for their water needs has been contaminated, thus putting at risk lives of the villagers.
“For decades, this river has been the main source of water for villagers here. But, with the current development, people have turned to other sources, which are not safe,” he says. In a very short time, tree felling has more than tippled.
“Miners need logs to get into the holes they have dug out in search for gold. Some of these holes are about four to five metres deep. So, each hole needs a number of logs that they use as ladders,” he says.
According to the chairman, there are over 60 mining holes at the camp. Apart from using tree logs for making ladders, miners use the same materials to prevent the side walls from caving in. He says each hole needs at least 300 tree branches for the ladder and support pillars.
For his part, village environment chairman Zakayo Wankio says, at least 30 trees are felled everyday around Kihesa Camp.
“Unregulated gold mining is taking its toll here at the village. The environment is the biggest victim,” he says.
He argues that the mining activities bring in a little business to the local community, but the environmental loss is greater than the gains. “The water table is currently being affected, and with this rapid loss of vegetation cover, we could end up having less rains in this entire area,” he expresses his worries. .
According to him, even the water catchment zones have been invaded by the artisanal miners thus contaminating water while human activities in such points could lead to loss of water sources.
Lwamgasa Ward Councilor Joseph Saesembe says the area has a population of over 38,000 people and that over 20 per cent of the residents engage in mining activities at different mining camps.
He urges the government to work out a permit issuance system that will be used for artisanal miners, and it should give conditions that will ensure protection of the environment.
Mr Saesembe says that the government allocated the camps that were earlier operated by the East Africa Gold Mines jointly with the State Mining Cooperation (Stamico) to the residents.
He says, currently miners are supposed to pay between Sh150,000 and Sh300, 000 to land owners, which is non-refundable. “We came here (in the mining camps) after obtaining information that the area was rich in gold. Some are successful, some are not,” narrates Rashidi Ali, a resident of Sengerema who has been undertaking artisanal mining for nearly five years now.
He says they don’t have equipment to detect where the minerals are, but only use experience and guess work.
An official in Geita Region mineral department, Saidi Ali, notes that it is the duty of local authorities to control the environment and ensure that it is free from degradation activities. But he says that artisanal mining was more seasonal, and therefore sometimes difficult to control, particularly when resources are lacking.
After renting a plot, Saidi explains the hustle they go through to get a gold piece.
“Armed with a hoe, spade and the like, we start digging downwards until we reach a soft rock that we believe contains gold,” he says.
He notes that if they reach a whitish rock or soil before getting to the softer rock, it is a sign that there is no gold in that area. He says, on spotting a rock they think contains gold, they use hammers to break it into pieces. Then, they hire the services of a grinder, most of the time stationed in the vicinity.
Steve Gondu, 42, a resident of Bunda District explains that they wash the powder with water in a basin and sieve it to filter mercury from gold.
He says that after placing what has been sieved in different containers full of water, the powder is washed thoroughly so that the gold particles would remain in the water. “Gold always floats on water but sometimes some smaller particles may remain at the bottom. This is when we apply mercury to collect and raise all of it,” he says.
Gondu says that gold stone is measured in order to convert its weight into money.
“A point of gold is sold at Sh7,000. Ten points make a gram,” he says.
Locating gold buyers
“Sometimes customers wait for us until we find the mineral. Gold stones are not so hard. They are light and so can be easily carried. But, they can also be broken easily. This too is a sign that a particular rock carries gold,” he says.
He notes that it costs Sh2,000 to grind a small container full of rocks.
It is not always that a miner can get gold.
According to Gondu, on lucky days, a miner can make up to Sh1 million.
He says, they spend the money for sustainance and for sending back home where it is spent on school fees and other development plans.
Gondu says he has been using the proceeds from his mining activities to pay school fees for his three children and has built a house for his family.
He says, the activity is full of challenges. The main one being accessing water, especially when the same is located far from the mines.
“Sometimes the water boreholes we have dug do dry up and we are forced to fetch water from the neighboring sources,” he says.
Gondu says that water is highly needed to wash the rock powder to be able to secure gold.
Meanwhile, he says that they use water from the bore holes for drinking, bathing and other domestic purposes.
“Water from the boreholes is unsafe for human consumption many miners suffer from water borne diseases like dysentry and even cholera,” he says.