Deep down in the rural village of Tiira in Busia District, Mr Robert Wafula, pours ore onto a sluice.
“When this ore, which is mixed with water, is poured on this sluice, the gold sediment sticks on the blanket,” Mr Wafula says as other miners look on.
After that, he gathers the gold sediment, which he then sieves in a plastic basin using mercury.
“It’s tedious work, but we earn little from it. What you have seen is the lighter part of the gold mining work,” he says as he points to his colleagues, who are digging ore from a nearby gold pit.
The miners say they excavate about 300 to 400kgs of ore to possibly extract one gram of gold.
The excavated ore is then carried downhill from the mine for processing. Though the work is slow and tedious, it’s gold dealers seem to have a big say on how much to offer.
Mr George Kweboli, the chairperson of Tiira Small Scale Mining Association, says most of the dealers buy a gram of gold at Shs150,000 or less.
The price also depends on the bargaining power of the seller. “We know they cheat us, but there is no way out. The prices are not commensurate with the work,” Mr Kweboli says.
Daily Monitor learnt that middle men, most of them not licensed, sell their gold to traders, who are mostly Indians based in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb, between Shs230,000 and Shs250,000 per gram.
There are about 1,300 miners in the Tiira area who make their living from gold mining. The local leaders interviewed say gold mining in the district has existed since the 1930s.
So far, there are four associations dealing in gold mining in Tiira, which include Tiira Small Scale Mining Association and Tiira Landlord and Artisanal Miners.
Others are Busia United Small Scale Mining and Uganda Association of Small Scale and Artisanal Association.
Ms Josephine Aguttu, the secretary of Tiira Small Scale Miners’ Association, says on average, the association produces up to three kilogrammes of gold in a year.
“But the challenge is, we don’t have a streamlined market and due to that, it’s the middlemen earning more from our sweat,” she says.
Ms Aguttu says the miners incur a lot of expenses, especially during the rainy season, when the pits get flooded.
The miners say setting up water pumps to help drain the water is expensive.
Mr Paul Angesu, the chairperson of Tiira Landlord and Artisanal Miners Association, says due to the effect of Covid-19 pandemic, middlemen keep on reducing the price.
“Covid-19 has also affected us in terms of accessing market for gold and this has resulted into low prices,” he says.
One of the middlemen, Mr Micheal Mugeni, says they buy a gram at Shs150,000, but said the price changes depending on the exchange rate.
Another gold dealer, commonly known as Willy, who is based in Busia Town, says the price at which he buys gold from miners is not anyone’s business. “This is my personal business and there is nothing I can tell you,” he says before he switched off his phone.
Important to note, however, is that many of the miners at Tiira sell their small gold quantities to on-site traders.
Mr Thomas Wadiha, a miner, said apart from low prices, the high taxation and tiresome process of acquiring and renewing licences from the Directorate of Geological Surveys and Mines discourages them.
“We are paying a lot of taxes to the government but they only look at us as destroyers of the environment, which is true but we also try to minimise such through covering up abandoned pits and planting trees,” he said.
When Daily Monitor visited Tiira, Amonikakine and Akobwaat, our reporter found miners extracting gold with bare hands due to lack of protective gear such as glasses, masks, gumboots, helmets, and gloves.
There were also hundreds of residents, including children and women, in open pits, which measure up to 100-feet deep, searching for gold without protective gear.
The miners use mercury, which they mix with gold-containing materials to form a mercury-gold amalgam, which is then heated and vaporised to obtain the gold.
In 2018, the National Association of Professional Environmentalists in conjunction with Uganda National Association of Community and Occupational Health (NACOH), carried out the survey in gold mining areas including Busia and Karamoja and established that the miners use mercury, a neurological toxicant, which affects the nervous systems of the people, who get exposed to it.
Ms Jane Ujaala, a miner, says despite mining one of the precious minerals, their living standards are still low.
“We are engulfed in abject poverty despite the fact that we deal in extraction of one of the highly valued minerals in the country,” she says.
Though there is some development, Tiira remains with high school dropouts. The mining sites have poor hygiene and massive environmental degradation.
Mr Basil Oketch, the technical adviser of Morulem Gold Mining Association in Abim District, says from February to June this year, the price of gold per gram in Kampala was between Shs250,000 and Shs260,000 but the middlemen in Karamoja were buying at between Shs120,000 and Shs170,000 depending on the location.
“The dealers cheat miners. They don’t disclose the actual price. The mining method is by trial and error. This is why numerous pits are opened but the miners find no gold.
Gold mining in Karamoja is carried out in several districts including Moroto, Abim, Nakapiripirit, Nabilatuk, Karenga, Amudat, and Kaabong.
“The Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development has not done much to create awareness about the value of gold so the miners just give it away,’’ Mr Oketch said.
He, however, says the government is also losing a lot of revenue for failing to reorganise the miners .
“The sector needs regulation. Most of the dealers are not licenced,” he said.
According to the Auditor General’s report, minerals worth Shs34.6b were, between 2017 and June 2020, exported out of the country without being declared, which resulted in the country losing billions of shillings.
Mr Moses Ongom, the chairperson of Morulem Gold Mining Association with about 100 members, says most of the buyers of their gold are Ugandans, who claim to be based in Kampala.
“They come and station here for a month, buying gold from the miners. Other buyers are from Kenya,” he says.
Mr Ongom says as an association, they mine about five to 10 grams of gold per month.
“This is because we use rudimentary means,” he said.
At Nakabaat Village in Rupa Sub-county, Moroto District, about 1,500 households eke a living from gold mining.
One of the middlemen found at the mining site declined to comment, but the miners said they were being cheated.
Ms Mary Napeyok, a miner at the site, said they are developing a strange skin diseases because they bath with contaminated water in River Nakabaat, which miners use to wash their gold.
Ms Sandra Aleper, another miner, says they are mistreated by men when they get money from selling gold.
“Whenever we get our gold and sell it, they [men] take the money from us and they use it to buy alcohol,” the mother of one says.
Findings on abuse
A survey carried out by Ecological Christian Organisation, a non-government organisation, between July and August, 2018, indicates that children and women working in the mining and quarrying centres are exploited and girls are sexually harassed.
The organisation is implementing the Karamoja Mining Governance project funded by Democratic Governance Facility.
Ms Dylis Ndibaisa, a senior programmes officer at Ecological Christian Organisation, says there is need for more transparency and accountability in the mining sector.
Ms Ndibaisa says the legal and policy frameworks should be strengthened to effectively support sustainable management of the mining sector and safeguard interests of local communities.
Mr Sam Loumo, a researcher and advocacy officer working with Karamoja Development Forum, says most of miners and gold dealers are operating illegally.
“The entire sector needs reorganisation. For instance, sometimes, the buyers offer little in excuse of dollar depreciation, when it’s not true,” he says.
The Moroto natural resource officer, Mr John Lotyang, says they are working hard to ensure the mining activities are organised and legalised.
“We want to ensure the mining activities are in order, so that miners and buyers obtain licences,” he adds.
The chairperson of Busia, Mr Stephen Mugeni Wasike, says the government should construct gold refineries and airstrips in gold mining districts.
“We need a mineral processing centre and this is the only viable way of eliminating middlemen in the sector,” he said.
Mr Mugeni says the government should create a mining department at the district level.
Mr Hanns Kyazze, a communication specialist at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, says it’s mandatory for all dealers to get licenced before embarking on the business of buying gold.
“Those buying gold without licences do it illegally. The government only works with licenced dealers,” he say.
According to the Directorate of Geological Surveys and Mines performance report for the Financial Year (FY) 2019/2020, there was an increase of 5.6 per cent in the number of valid licences by close of FY2019/2020 compared to FY2018/2019. This was mainly attributed to the e-government licensing system, which was established.
The production of minerals including gold dropped by 25.6 per cent in FY2019/2020 compared to that of FY2018/2019. This was attributed to a ban on export of unprocessed minerals, which is one of the local factors affecting mining and exploration activities.