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Mineral deposits in Karamoja deepening human rights abuse

Alepers wife goes through soil to sieve out Gold at Katikekile mines. (Photo by David Mafabi)

KARAMOJA– Peter Aleper, 46, goes down about 15 feet through a risky looking hole he has dug for himself out of the dusty hillside to look for gold every morning.

He disappears for hours deep in the darkness below and then he emerges from time to time with a plastic container filled with soils that are bright, slightly reddish yellow or orange.

He then delivers his container to his wife and children who put water in the container, scours the water for glistering flakes on empty stomachs.

As his wife and an eight-year-old son Lomongin bend over the soil trying to sluice gold from the ore using water, it is clear that Lomongin is helping his mother to mine gold and the 8-year-old has had to abandon the classroom to join his parents at this mine.

Aleper explains that at times he goes underground, comes out with soil in a container and that he finds no gold at all, “This is a wasted day and I have to get back underground for more to help my family survive,” he says.

“We sell 2 grams of gold at Shs 6000 and it is not worthy my effort, I am also aware that we are being cheated by middlemen but we have nothing to do because we need to survive and government is not helping us. And out of this money, I pay rent, pay some money to the individual who owns this mine so at the end I have very little for myself and my family,” said Mr Aleper in some mixture of some poor English and Swahili.

Katikekile, in Moroto district looks a camp for internally displaced people, it is a crowded village scattered with temporary structures; a collection of grass-thatched huts with wooden walls or mosquitoes nets with a few mud-and-wattle structures.

Aleper says that they rent the land where they are staying in Katikekile and also rent the mine because it belongs to someone and not a Karimojong.

The place is devoid of the basic necessities. There are no pit latrines; heaps of smelly garbage and heaps of soil dot the area and there is no safe drinking water but people come here to struggle to earn a living through artisanal mining.

Artisanal mining is now a key source of income for many communities in Karamoja during the dry season and this has become the main lucrative activity in Karamoja besides cattle rearing that not only brings enough food on the table but also ensures families are managed well.

A 2011 survey by the Uganda department of geological survey and mines at the ministry of energy found that Karamoja has gold, limestone, uranium, marble, graphite, gypsum, iron, wolfram, nickel, copper, cobalt, lithium and tin.  The survey indicated that land in Karamoja is owned communally, which makes it difficult for the mining companies to identify the rightful owners for compensation or consultation.

But whereas government surveys have shown the existence of various minerals in Karamoja, people are living in bad conditions not fit for a human being and the indigenous people engaged in artisanal mining are likely to be edged out.

Aleper says that although the huge mineral deposits in Karamoja are expected to regenerate the conflict-ravaged area, they are instead deepening the suffering of the Karimojong.

He adds that besides the artisanal miners [most of whom local people] mining gold with no protective gear, there are also mining companies and powerful individuals in government who have also camped in the place to buy this precious mineral at a cheaper price by cheating those who go underground for before selling at a profit to other companies/individuals.

He revealed that although the land is supposed to belong to Karimojong, someone has grabbed it, “there is land grabbing whenever people hear that there is a mineral, they grab the land for themselves own the mines and start renting the land out,”

From the frayed outposts in Moroto district to Rata in Amudat district and Nakapiripirit, gold lies in every tiny pocket of Karamoja and this has generated huge interest from private companies.

The executive director arid land Development Programme Rev Nelson Awiili says traditional dependence on semi-nomadic cattle-raising has been increasingly jeopardized and that extreme climate variability, amongst other factors, has made the region’s pastoralist and agro-pastoralist people highly vulnerable to food insecurity.

He said as companies begin to explore and mine in the area, communities are voicing serious fears of land grabbing, environmental damage, and a lack of information as to how and when they will see improved access to basic services or other positive impacts.

A woman digs through the earth to get Gold for sale in katikekile. (Photo by David Mafabi)

A report, How can we survive here? The impact of mining on human rights in Karamoja, launched in February 2014 in Kampala, says mining companies have disregarded the region’s indigenous people’s land rights – sometimes fencing off swaths of land without their consent.

“Land in Karamoja is particularly important to the community, which depends on nomadic pastoralism for survival. “Private sector investment could transform the region – providing jobs and improving the residents’ security, access to water, roads, and other infrastructure,” the report adds.

“[But] as companies have begun to explore and mine the area, communities are voicing serious fears of land grabs, environment damage, and lack of information as to how and when they will see improved access to basic services or other positive impacts,” adds the report.

Mr David Pulkol, a former government spy chief and minister says although Karamoja has huge mineral deposits, the people are yet to adequately benefit from the region’s mineral wealth.

“When it comes to the availability of social services, Karamoja is one of the poorest regions in the country where basic services like clean water are lacking but what the region lacks above the ground is made up underneath it, with a number of lucrative minerals such as gold, limestone and marble amongst others,” said Mr Pulkol.

Mr Pulkol, says as government moves to amend the Mining Act and its attendant regulations, as Karamoja sub region they are demanding for an increase in the royalties, so that the people can benefit.

He said there have been discontents in form of complaints from artisanal and small scale miners that are incessant in Tapac, Katikekile and Rupa sub-counties of Moroto District.

Mr Pulkol named some of the mining companies as Tororo Cement Limited, Africa Minerals, Agro-mechanised Company Limited and DAO Africa Limited  which he said have continued to gloat amid the deafening fangs of artisanal and small scale miners comprising of the Tepeth and Matheniko ethnic groupings among others in Karamoja.

Mr Pulkol added that the extent to which Karamoja’s communities will benefit, if at all, remains an open question and that the potential for harm is great.

But reports from Karamoja leaders indicate that although government and development partners have done a lot towards the development of Karamoja sub-region, there are still gaps in the management of natural resources.

Under the current Mining Act of 2003, the central government takes 80 per cent of the net total royalties, a district where the mineral is mined takes 10 per cent, while the sub counties and the owner take 7 per cent and three percent respectively.

Mr Simon Nangiro, the chairman of the Karamoja Miners Association, the government needs to carry out a thorough investigation of the minerals available in Karamoja and the value to protect the Karimojong from being exploited by bigger firms.

He explained that to maximise benefits from mining, the government should also facilitate investors to establish mineral processing plants to provide employment to Karimojong.

Aleper centre with his collegues at the katikekile mine. (Photo by David Mafabi)

Mr Andrew Napaja Keem, the LCV chairman for Moroto district said although Article 39 (2) of the Uganda’s constitution provides for the right to education, this seems not to be applying to the children working in the gold mines in Karamoja here.

He explained that gold mining is arduous work for adults and not children due to the unsafe and unhealthy conditions especially in artisanal mines but no measures are being taken to tackle child labour or to ban children from getting involved in the artisanal and small scale gold mining activities in Karamoja.

Although Lomongin and other children here are engaged in what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) describes as child labour, Uganda’s mining act of 2003 is also silent on the issue.

Mr Napaja is calling for a new mining law and policy to be expedited to allow for stronger government oversight over the sector and regulation of artisanal and small scale gold mining activities in the country and that this will address issues of child labour in the artisanal and small scale mining activities.

According to the Open Society Initiative East Africa [OSIEA] Country Manager, Mr Richard Mugisha, Karamoja has besides gold,  ziricon, gun Arabic, quartz, tarmaline, calcite, talc, limestone, silver, garnet, magnetite and marble scattered all over the region.

The minister of energy and mineral development Ms Irene Muloni said they intend to put in place strong measures to compel the mining companies to rehabilitate and clean up the environment in Karamoja.

“And Tororo Cement is ready to re-construct the roads after the trucks damaged them, and they are also willing to have the local people work with Tororo Cement Industry even at the mines,” said Ms Muloni.

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A 2011 survey by the Uganda department of geological survey and mines at the ministry of energy found that Karamoja has gold, limestone, uranium, marble, graphite, gypsum, iron, wolfram, nickel, copper, cobalt, lithium and tin.  The survey indicated that land in Karamoja is owned communally, which makes it difficult for the mining companies to identify the rightful owners for compensation or consultation.

But Mr Mugisha estimates that 40% of the population survives on small-scale mining using crude methods and that most of them are doing well in terms of social and economic living.

Mr Mugisha added that Karamoja has a special topography and a unique culture, which can also be exploited to promote tourism.

There are reports that over 50 companies have already joined mining of minerals in Karamoja but Prof. Josephine Ahikire, the executive director of the Centre for Basic Research (CBR) says that as companies begin to explore the minerals in Karamoja, voices of land grabbing, environment damage, limited information of land laws and marginalization of women are starting to come out.

Mr Yusuf Masaba, the energy ministry communications specialist said that land in Karamoja is acquired by investors according to the law.

The minister of energy and mineral development Ms Irene Muloni said they intend to put in place strong measures to compel the mining companies to rehabilitate and clean up the environment in Karamoja.

“And these companies are ready to re-construct the roads, build schools for the local people, and they are also willing to have the local people work the mines,” said Ms Muloni.

She explained that Uganda is also reforming its legal sector, to create a robust regulatory framework for the energy and petroleum sector, designed to provide a predictable environment for investment.

 

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