By Precious Naturinda
Transiting from the use of mercury to a more user-friendly, less harmful and productive methodology of using borax in artisanal gold mining is still slow among artisanal miners especially in Kasanda district.
Despite some of them knowing the harmful impacts of mercury, their mindset is still stuck to the fact that mercury is still the best alternative, perhaps due to lack of enough sensitization on alternative choices.
“I used to work in Mulago National Referral Hospital as a technician before coming here in the mines. We used to ensure that mercury is not poorly exposed because of its harmful impacts on someone’s health.
But when I came here, I found people touching, inhaling and even pouring it on the ground which is very dangerous. But because most of us miners are here to make money for our children, we are aware that we shall not live long but shall leave the families happy,” said Wasswa Ssekalye, 52, a gold miner in Saigon City site in Kitumbi Sub County, Kasanda district.
With the efforts to change this mindset and promote mercury-free gold mining, National Association of Professional Environmentalists (NAPE) organized a learning exchange and experience sharing where experienced artisan mining trainers who have used borax method in Buhweju and Namayingo districts trained their counterparts in Kasanda district.
NAPE, which is working with support from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) Uganda, a small grants program under United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on a project to raise awareness on the dangers associated with mercury, also disseminated awareness materials on sound chemical management to the miners and Kasanda district authorities.
The project also facilitated the construction of a demonstration site which will work as a training centre for artisanal miners in borax use in gold mining which is less harmful.
During the training, over 20 artisanal miners were trained in Borax technology so that they are able to train others in Kitumbi-Kayonza Gold Mining site which brings together over 500 artisanal miners registered under Kitumbi-Kayonza Gold Miners Association (KKMA) in Kitumbi sub county Kasanda district.
Mr. Sande Patrick, an artisanal mining trainer from Namayingo district, said he was ignorantly using mercury to extract gold from iron ore not knowing its negative impacts on health and environment until 2014.
“I started using mercury in 2009 when I joined artisanal gold mining. We used to get challenges like corrosive skin, headache and general body weaknesses not knowing that it’s as a result of absorption of mercury into our bodies,” Mr. Sande told artisanal miners during the training.
He adds: “However, when we met NAPE in 2014, we were sensitized about the dangers of mercury and trained in borax use as an alternative and since then we have never looked back. A few of us who were trained have been able to train others and we have slowly phased out mercury use in Namayingo because we need a life.”
Ms. Jane Ahimbisibwe, another artisanal trainer from Buhweju district said for the time she has been using borax she has observed that the gold recovery from iron ore is high and is readily available in the market since it is not illegal like mercury.
“As women, we are the ones who normally move with children to the mines, who inhale mercury vapour when pregnant and this puts our children’s growth at stake. It's better we spearhead this campaign against mercury use,” she said during the training.
The miners expressed willingness to switch to the use of borax but called for more training to learn the methodology better.
“We need more training for the miners to get acquainted with borax technology. And when we know the big number has been trained, it will give us a basis of fighting mercury in the mines as leaders,” said Mr. Ssempala Herbert Edward, the manager for Kitumbi-Kayonza Miners Association.
Mr. Ssempala hailed NAPE for coming up to train artisanal miners on alternative gold extraction.
“We shall ensure that everyone gets trained and from there it will help us to phase out mercury knowing that everyone has knowledge on the alternative,” Mr. Ssempala said.
He, however, notes that the government is partly to blame for the weak laws to control mercury from being smuggled into the country and lack of enough sensitization on other methods to be used in gold extraction.
“Mercury is illegal in the country but we don’t know how it ends up here. KKMA is against Mercury use but how to control it is a problem. The government should help us by ensuring that it is not smuggled into the country and also promote other alternatives as we work together to promote mercury-free gold mining,” Ssempala says.
Mr. Peruth Atukwatse, the program officer in charge of Sound Chemical Management at NAPE said since the artisanal miner are organized, the association leaders should spearhead the fight against mercury use by embracing the opportunity of getting training on Borax use and slowly phasing out the use of mercury.
She also said the government should ensure that the Mining and Mineral Bill 2019 that is currently in draft form regulates chemicals that gold miners are using.
In this pursuit of eradicating the use of mercury, media support organizations have shown interest and willingness to participate in creating awareness and sensitizing communities using their platforms.
Mr. Akugizibwe Peter Araali, the executive director of Western Media for Environment and Conservation (WEMECO), a media organization that advocates for good nature and harmonious co-existence, said WEMECO will continue to sensitize mining communities on how bad mercury is to human life and the environment.
Mr. Akugizibwe called upon the government and other actors to translate important documents such as Minamata Convention on Mercury into local languages so that even people who do not fully understand English can be able to know the negative effects of such chemicals.
On 1st March 2019, Uganda became a signatory to Minamata Convention, the first global treaty that seeks to protect human health and the physical environment from mercury emissions and its release into the environment.
With Minamata Convention into force, there is a need to raise awareness on the dangers of mercury and promoting less harmful alternatives.