“He was digging and I was watching.
But before I knew it, he was gone.
A segment of the hole collapsed, trapping him.”
By Emeka Inwerogu
Those were the words of Chungwom Ishaya, a second-generation miner in Plateau State, as he narrated the incident which led to the death of his father who fell into a pit he was digging, while in search of Tin – the rich mineral resource of Plateau. The unprecedented loss of lives occasioned by the artisanal mining of tin in Plateau State, far outweighs its benefits, but many of these local miners who work in very hazardous conditions, choose to ignore the risks while engaging in the practice of mining the mineral stones.
Tin-mining in Plateau, began in October 1904, when the British colonial government sent a mineral-survey team to assess the mineral deposits within the region. Tin deposits were discovered in the Jos-Plateau area and foreign companies were allowed by the colonial regime to operate in the territory and mine the resources, using mechanised equipment which helped to curb the risks and prevent the death of the mine workers.
Engr. Olusegun Oladipo, a retired Director from the Nigerian Ministry of Mines and Steel, recalled that these mining companies employed indigenes of Jos-Plateau as workers in the mining sites. “Minerals that were being mined on the Plateau then, were taken to Makeri Smelting Company (which was the only smelting company in West Africa at the time). The advantage there was that the by-products that came with tin, were harnessed there”, he said.
However, there soon occurred a “policy change in the 1970s and 1980s” which saw the workers massively retrenched from the companies. Narrating further, Oladipo stated that “these people (the sacked workers) had the experience of how to reach the mineral deposits and bring them out (extraction). It was only a matter of time, before they started recruiting youth to assist them and that formed the nucleus of informal (artisanal) miners in Nigeria”.
Although the local mining was often carried out by able-bodied men and young boys, the women were not left out of the process as they helped to carry the unrefined tin extracted from the pits, to places where they could be washed and made ready for local refining.
In many parts of the world where there has been illegal and unmechanised solid mineral extraction, the resultant effects have posed grave challenges to the health of the people and the environment. Deaths often occur when people fall into a pit while digging it. Some also lose their lives while fetching mineral stones inside a pit, and the pit suddenly collapses, closing in on them. The pits became death traps, as they could collapse at any time, killing as many as five or more miners inside. In addition to the death-consequence, is the devastating effect which artisanal mining has on the environment. Open-pit mining, also known as surface mining, destroys the land. Having not acquired any form of professional training, the informal miners lack the expertise and also the equipment needed to enable them decipher the location of these solid minerals. Hence, they arbitrarily dig the ground in search of the minerals, leaving the landscape riddled with deep gullies and abandoned pits, which have made gully erosion a recurrent threat to the ecosystem of aerial and subterranean habitats in the region. Jos has been described as a lunar landscape because of its deep-sided mounds and multi-coloured lakes.
Nonetheless, the baffling reality of the situation is the seeming lack of interest or capacity of the Nigerian government, to engineer strategic and positive changes to the regulatory regimes for mining in Nigeria by making it a fully-regulated sector. Nnimmo Bassey, an environmentalist of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), put it succinctly, when he stated that, “if Nigeria wants to consider re-opening mines, like the Tin mines of Jos and the Coal mines of Enugu, there has to be very strict regulations”.
It is the responsibility of the Nigerian government to ensure that the industry is adequately-mechanised and international safety standards are observed by the miners. It is also the responsibility of the government to put adequate measures in place for the nation’s Internally Generated Revenue (IGR) to be significantly boosted with proceeds from a properly- regulated solid mineral sector. There is an urgent need for the diversification of Nigeria’s mono-economy from petroleum to other mineral resources as well as agriculture.The Nigerian government must therefore demonstrate the political will needed to revamp the solid mineral sector into an organised sector that can stimulate significant growth that is sustainable.
Of equally great importance, is the need for the government to embark on the reclamation of lands which were mined years ago and left abandoned. These portions of land have several pits which are no more in use and which need to be closed.
Furthermore, the government must make conscientious efforts to domesticate the Africa Mining Vision (AMV) which has been adopted by the Heads of State of the African Union since February 2009, but has not yet been domesticated in Nigeria.The AMV underscores how mining can be used to enhance development in Nigeria while ensuring the environment is protected. The AMV if domesticated, will integrate into the nation’s industrial and trade policies, mining activities which include not only the extraction of raw materials but also activities relating to the manufacture of finished products from raw materials, in order to further boost the nation’s economy by discouraging the importation of these finished products.
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