For over 50 years now, Buhweju has been mining gold- one of the precious minerals in the world. However, this western Uganda mountainous district is still grappling with poverty and poor social services as gold continues to ‘flow’ from this area.
I took a weeklong trip to this relatively new district to establish the contribution of the mining industry to the local government economy.
Buhweju district has eight sub counties and half of them have huge gold deposits. Nine companies are today operating in this area but all the nine gold dealing companies have prospecting licenses.
As the name of the license type suggests, these companies are involved in assessing the gold potential of the district. As the licensed companies go on with their work, the small scale individual gold miners are also busy looking for livelihood from the ground.
In 2013, the Ugandan president directed that these small scale miners should stop but this fell on deaf ears.
Unlike in Tanzania (Geita District) where gold mining is in the highlands, gold mining in Buhweju is in swampy areas- something that raises key environmental worries.
On my trip I first stopped in Bisya Sub County and the area is Bukoto village where a wetland is steadily vanishing as hundreds of energetic men and women search for gold.
Every morning these people come to this swamp to mine gold. With their rudimentary tools, they dig -some as deep as 8-12 metres to extract sand which they sieve to get gold.
“I come here every day to look for money. Using my hoe and spade, I dig the ground to extract the sand where I get gold from. Sometimes the sand is too deep in some areas so I dig much deeper”, a determined Byarugaba Alexander of Bukoto Village told me.
However, not every day is good for Byarugaba and his colleagues. Richard Matsiko, a miner in Bukoto’s neighboring gold mining village of Kyenjogyera told me that it’s not surprising digging the whole day and one fails to get anything. “Sometimes we work the whole day and fail to get anything but we must go on the next day”, he explained.
Apart from failure to earn a penny, these determined Ugandans have to also cope with flooding of their mining area since it’s a swamp, ‘harassment’ from Environmental officers, fluctuating gold prices as offered by the local dealers in the area as well as unfriendly weather conditions during the rainy season. Despite all these hardships, those involved in the industry are happy with the way things are moving as they have been able to earn a living from the trade.
District laments gold money loss
Local miners are smiling on one hand as district leaders lament over the little contribution of the gold mining industry to the economy of the area.
According to the district chairperson Sebastian Kerere, the district does not get taxes from the gold dealing companies operating in the area neither are they engaged in any activity as part of their corporate social responsibility.
“These companies are not giving us any money because they are only prospecting according to their licenses. They are also not involved in any pro-society act like road construction yet they use the district infrastructures. I can honestly say that as a district, we get nothing from them and from our gold”, he elaborated.
A visibly unhappy Kerere explains that the licenses given to these companies ought to be clear to the district. “We are not getting any money from these companies because they claim to be prospecting in our district. What is unclear to us is where they take the gold they get in the process of prospecting. If we knew the amount of gold they get, we would be in position to levy something like a tax on them” a worried Karere elaborated adding that government ought to explain the duration of the prospection and the handling of the resource got in the process.
Other leaders also agree with the district chairman on this. Alison Ayetoranire Byamukama, the Special Presidential assistant on Buhweju affairs wants government to revise the current law on mining to allow local governments to have an extended say on licenses, production and sharing of the benefits rather than all these powers remaining at the responsible Ministry level.
In every mining area I visited, over 70 percent of the miners were energetic young men of school going age. Olive Koyekyenga, the district Woman Member of Parliament says that many youngsters have abandoned schooling to join the gold mining industry where they get ‘quick’ money.
“We have high illiteracy levels here because our children abandon school to join the mining industry. These young energetic youth should be the one involved in agriculture but this sector has been left to the old people. This is a bad trend that must be checked for the good of the future of this country” Mary Bashongoka- the district council speaker explained.
What the district has got from gold
Apart from providing a source of income to hundreds, in the financial year 2011/2012, Buhweju district got four million shillings (about 1600 US dollars) from government as its share from the resource.
“Yes we got this money but we are asking ourselves, this is a portion of what/how much? This is too little money and cannot do anything tangible in this vast district of ours” Kerere, the district chairman noted while speaking to me at the district headquarters in Nsika town. This amount is far less than one percent of the district’s 2013/2014 financial year budget. For the last (2012/2013) financial year, Karere notes that they are yet to get any penny from the government.
Perhaps this explains why Buhweju still has many infrastructural problems like poor roads, poor hospitals, poor schools, poor electricity coverage as well as a big portion of the district population without access to clean gravity water.
Compared to other gold rich districts with in the East African, region, one sympathizes with Buhweju leaders when they cry of injustice.
For example, in August 2013, when I and fellow journalist under the Revenue watch Institute oil gas and mining fellowship visited Geita district in Northern Tanzania, the district commissioner Manzie Mangochie told us that Geita gold mining company which extracts gold from the area was paying 200,000 Dollars as loyalty yet according to him, this is peanuts.
According to the Buhweju Member of parliament Ephraim Biraro, all hope is not lost and the district is optimistic that once something changes, the area will benefit more.
“First of all there is a need to review the current mining laws so that we also get a say on the management of our resource. We need to know who is doing what here and also we ought to be aware of how much gold comes from our land. If this happens, we will be able to know how much is our share and how we stand to benefit from the companies operating from our area”, Biraro elaborated during a lengthy chat with him at his Parliamentary office in Kampala.
One issue that is of concern to many people in Buhweju is about the companies in the area that are prospecting. The Buhweju district council speaker Mary Bashongoka wants more transparency in the operation of these companies. “We want to know what these companies are doing, how they are doing it, what they are getting from our land, where they put the gold they get in the process and how do we benefit” Bashongoka observed adding that the companies in the area are involved in mining gold yet they do not pay taxes. This claim was raised by the local miners in all the sub counties I visited but all the companies operating in the area say they are only involved in gold prospecting.
According to the Department of Geological Survey and Mines in Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development In order to participate in mineral exploration, one must acquire a Prospecting License. The license is area specific and gives authority to the holder to look for mineral occurrence of interest in Uganda, and then demarcate it. This helps to make others aware that the area is exclusively booked and nobody else should go in. The Prospecting License is not renewable and lasts only one year from date of issue.
Like any other mining area on the continent, Buhweju is facing serious environmental concerns as a result of the ongoing gold mining activities. Swamps have been destroyed as a result of the open cast mining method and it seems little is being done to halt this trend.
In fact miners at Nyakishana, Bukoto, Bihanga and Kyenjogyera swamps told me that they rarely see environmental officers ‘interfering’ with their work.
They told me that they have an understanding with environmental authorities that they will always cover the pits they dig in the mining process to minimise on the damage to the natural swamp eco-system.
However this is not the case. When I went to Bihanga, I visited a swamp that was used by miners almost two years ago but the open pits can still be seen and the vegetation has not recovered.
When I asked those involved, they confessed that what is on the ground is the opposite of what was agreed upon. “Yes, we are supposed to cover our pits but most of us do not follow this and no one is there to enforce it”, Kakuru Everist one of the miners in one of the swamps in Bihanga sub county told this site.
According to the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) there should be an environmentally friendly mining. “We need the two resources. “As we do mining, we must also protect the environment for today, tomorrow and for the generations to come”, Jeconious Musingwire, a NEMA officer notes.
By Cliff Abenaitwe- 2013/2014 Revenue watch and ACME Oil Gas and Mining fellow