The renewed gold rush in the Ife-Ijesha axis of Osun state is fast transforming what had hitherto been an artisanal industry to a major one. The current scale in all probability trumps the first rush which had occurred over five decades, in the early part of the last century - till crude oil gained prominence and shifted attention away from solid mineral. Now the miners are back with a vengeance!
Led by the ubiquitous Chinese and employing young labour-hands largely from the north, heavy duty machinery and equipment tear down the landscape day and night, unrelentingly. Farmlands, including cocoa plantations, are not spared. The rumour mill suggests that the “lease agreements” on the lands typically have a life-span of about 10 years, hence the desperate rush to make hay while the sun is up.
Now, it is freely suggested by all and sundry, that gold mining is at the root of the ongoing crisis rocking one of Nigeria’s foremost educational Institutions, the Obafemi Awolowo University, here at Ile-Ife. The simple process of choosing a Vice Chancellor which initially appeared commendably transparent and rancour-free is now fast turning into a Nollywood horror movie. The emerging stories have it that it is actually the mind-boggling vast land resource of the University that is more the subject of interest than the desire to be on the driving seat in steering the Citadel of learning to higher glory.
This is quite plausible, considering the severe passionate agitations that have attended the subject in recent years. At the peak of the wrangling, some people actually went as far as deliberately poisoning the drinking water source of the University community to prove their point! What’s new now is the suggestion that the interest in the land is neither for farming or real estate potentials, but for the gold mining prospects. Again indicators are emerging to confirm this suggestion.
However, as important as these politics-laced socio-economics issues obviously are, they are not the main considerations here. At the LivingScience Foundation, our primary interest is in the oft-neglected Environment-Health leg of the Economic – Socials – Environment/Health tripod on which “Sustainable Development” rests.
Sadly, it is all too evident that both the people and the leaders in the various communities under considerations do not appreciate the plain fact that factoring Environment-Health issues into their golden adventure is simply a matter of life-and-death. It was Satan who pointed out to the almighty God (in the Bible, Job 2:4), “Skin for skin, yea, all that a man hath will he give for his life.”
To begin with, it should be self-evident that the countless hectares of land being excavated at a mind-boggling rate aren’t going to be available again for farming or real estate for a long time! On the Jos plateau, it took a major intervention by the FG to restore portions of the landscape under the Mine land reclamation project. What’s going on here might make the plateau experience a child play, especially considering the terrifying rate things are shaping up here – every week introducing fresh humongous devastation. The DG of Amotekun in Osun State could hardly contain his emotions as he described the devastation he witnessed in the course of arresting some Chinese nationals involved in “illegal mining” in Osun State:
“It is too bad….The degradation we experienced in their various sites, God will never forgive them for that. For any right-thinking Nigerian seeing what they have done to our land, it is unspeakable…”
It is ironic that while Nigerians in the Eastern region of the country grapple with erosion and gullies, begging for assistance from the ecological fund, our people here at the Ife/Ijesha are tearing down the landscape in exchange for pittances paid to private pockets by the ever-cunning Chinese.
Beyond this physical degradation (with its long-term economic and social implications for people) is the equally devastating impact on the ecosystem and the consequent disturbance of the subsisting delicate balance in nature. By Law, such operations ought to have been preceded by detailed Environment Impact Assessments (EIA). But where this is done at all, all the necessary components, including townhall consultation with the local stakeholders are hardly ever conducted.
As previously indicated, the ultimate considerations in these matters are the effects on human health. Some twelve years ago, to the date, the gold mining industry in Zamfara State (and later on also in Niger) came into international attention as hundreds of children were noticed by MSF personnel to be dying of what was later shown to be lead toxicity. Yes lead is a frequent travel-mate of gold, and as gold is extracted, some measure of lead is inexorably brought up together with it to the surface. Whereas the lead level in many gold-rich deposits might be minor or marginal, a time eventually comes that deposits with dangerously high levels of galena and similar lead-rich gold ores are reached. And there would be nothing to warn anyone of those levels except systematic routine testing of deposits before mining has been incorporated into the standard operating protocols. At Zamfara, the communities at first refused to accept that the deaths of the children had anything to do with an industry that had been ongoing for 11 years without any major incidents!
Unfortunately the deleterious health effects of lead go beyond even the attention-grabbing horrific deaths of hundreds of children! Literally, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) are today succumbing to well-known, but subtle chronic effects of lead poisoning. These include negative reproductive outcomes (infertility, spontaneous abortion, malformation, etc), and neurotoxic effects such as reduced IQ, autism, ADHD, violence and crime, and so on and so forth!
In the ongoing unregulated gold mining operations, apart from lead contaminating the water bodies where the ore is washed as well as the surrounding soil, there is also mercury contamination. Should the miners engage in further beneficiation of the ore by onsite refining, release of mercury into the air is involved. Such mercury is known to persist in the environment for decades! Thus we have the double trouble of mercury synergistically interacting with lead leading to aggravated health scenerios!
All these problems have been shown to actually exist at Ife/Ijesha axis. Primarily to test the capability of then newly acquired TXRF facility at the OAU, (unfortunately now out of action), LSF-affiliated scientists investigated the chemical impacts of the sparse artisanal gold mining then ongoing around Ile-Ife. The results were amazing and deeply concerning. A few years later we further demonstrated increasing impacts as we compared environmental-health parameters from Zamfara, Iperindo, and Ile-Ife gold-mining operations. The clear correlation of lead levels in blood and breast milk of lactating women demonstrated beyond doubts, the contribution of mining operations to this highly toxic situation.
However, the LivingScience Foundation (LSF) has always been careful in joining the bandwagon of those espousing blanket condemnation of environmental exploitation in the course of boosting the economic fortunes and social values of Society. Of course, the environment is provided for the good and benefit of Man! Only that this must be done responsibly. Our emphasis has always been that sustainable development is possible if sound risk-assessment is practiced and the two sectors of Socials and Economy are integrated with the Environment-health dimension via basic common-sense considerations.
It should be understood that the problem discussed here in the context of gold mining at Ife/Ijesha region exists in other forms in other regions of Nigeria. The take-home lesson is the dire need for local common-sense risk assessment and an understanding that problems would not just disappear if we could somehow manage to ignore them. Unlike the hyped COVID situation where society responded sheepishly to unfounded and indemonstrable dangers (which, sadly, is still ongoing as Nigerians are being coerced/mandated to receive a dubious experimental vaccine which other nations are now rejecting in droves); such environmental-health issues as these are the real places to “follow the science”. Rather than an obsessive attention to vaccines (even real vaccines, not to talk of the gene-therapy contraption disingenuously labelled “mRNA vaccines”); or an interminable pursuit of expensive therapies, a sizable fraction of diseases plaguing society could be outright prevented by a little more attention and pro-activeness by society to Environment-Health issues.
Unfortunately, governments (all over the world) now only respond to issues where Society has bothered to express concerns. So at the end of the day, the ball is solidly in our courts, we the people.
Till next week, by God’s grace.