ZAMFARA STATE, NIGERIA— There is literally gold in the ground under and around many villages in Zamfara State, in northern Nigeria. And since the price of gold has spiked, many local people have been digging without a license. Government officials blame their operations for a massive lead poisoning outbreak. But activists say punishing miners would make the health crisis worse.
Gold mining in this part of northern Nigeria is not glamorous. But these men say it’s more dignified than extreme poverty, which used to be the norm around here.
Sani Bila heads a local mining association. As he perches on a pile of rocks laced with gold, he says nowadays business is booming.
“We used to sell a gram of gold for 1,000 or 1,500 Naira ($6-$9). But now we sell one gram for 5,000 ($30),” Bila said.
Other miners say success is coupled with fear, as the government continues to call their operations illegal.
At a news conference in the capital, Abuja, State Minister of Health Muhammad Ali Pate says a lot of small-scale mining is illegal because it is dangerous. He blames the small operations for the lead poisoning outbreak that has crippled the Zamfara region and killed hundreds of children.
“People do illegal mining and bring their mining products home and process it. Inadvertently they poison their environment with lead which ends up in their children,” Pate said.
Pate says the lead poisoning is caused by dust emitted as gold is processed. But activists say the threat of mining bans only aggravates the crisis.
Ivan Gayton, of Doctors Without Borders, says miners don’t invest in safety measures because their incomes could disappear at any time.
“As long as you don’t have legal title to what you are doing of course you can’t invest in better and safer techniques. You have to go for the short-term gain. You go for the cheapest way to do it possible,” Gayton said.
Gayton says small-scale mining will continue, deep in the forest, legal or not. And if it’s a crime, he says, miners may not seek help if their children are poisoned by lead.
When asked if their operation is legal, these miners are silent. Hassan Haruna, the secretary of their mining association pushes through the crowd to respond:
“We don’t know those who own the mine here. We are doing it, let me tell you, illegally. Henceforth we don’t have any single paper to go and mine. But they told us to form an organization and we did that,” Haruna said.
To mine legally, they not only need to stave off a ban, they also need to buy the rights to their mines. A 2007 law gave all mineral rights to the federal government and mining leaders say they are trying to organize so they can buy titles before international corporations move in.
These men say they fear neither bans nor licensing laws and they will continue to work in peace. But before they would allow a camera on site they insisted that their exact location be kept a secret.