Villagers turn to gold mining for survival

In this second part of our series on small-scale gold mining, our reporter BOBBY KABANGO highlights the health and environmental challenges facing the miners while panning for gold.

Residents of Namagona Village in Ntcheu District say they have found a way to earn money to feed their families by mining and selling gold.

Some of the gold nuggets mined from
Nyuludzi River in Ntcheu

Although gold mining is illegal, the locals say it is worth the risk.

They say money from gold is good as some sell as much as three ounces of gold in a week in a country where many people are going hungry each day due to excruciating poverty.

The local miners use ancient methods to get dust.

Usually, they collect a mixture of dirt and sand from Nyuludzi River, place it in basins or bowls, slowly pour water over the top, and shake. If there are gold nuggets inside, they settle at the bottom.

One of the small-scale miners Elita Simango has been involved in mining gold in Nyuludzi River for a year. Together with her sons, she can fetch around K40 000 a day.

Margret says hunger drove her to illegal mining

On this particular day, she mined gold weighing 1.51 ounce with a local black market value of K25 000. Yet the same could fetch about K1.4 million on the international market.

Fellow miners call Simango an expert as she is able to use indigenous knowledge to pick a site in the riverbed where she can mine considerable amounts of gold dust.

Simango says finding a market for gold is easy although panning for gold is a risky business, especially to her health.


Public health risks

For the past year, she has been mining gold without protective gear such as dust masks, an air filter or gloves. She says, safety is not on the miners list.

Men remove rocks from Nyuludzi River bed to pave way for gold panning

“We believe that God will take care of us,” she explains. “For now, my major concern is to put food on the table for my family.”

But a case study in Kenya, where small-scale gold mining has taken off, recommends that gold miners should use dust masks, air filters and heavy chemical gloves during mining and mineral processing to avoid inhaling dust that can affect their health.

Another study on 2 209 small-scale gold miners in South Africa showed that there is a significant dose-response relationship between dust inhaled and both chronic bronchitis and airways obstruction.

The chronic bronchitis and airways obstruction symptoms found were similar in smokers, ex-smokers and non-smokers.

Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University of Malawi, College of Medicine, Adamson Muula is even more concerned with occupational hazards.

“How can injuries be prevented and if they occur, how can treatment be organised?” wonders Muula.

He says occupational safety is one of the most important aspects of mining.

He said mining will result in lung problem if appropriate protection is not taken.

“Through gold mining people can suffer from silicosis—a type of lung disease which is particularly associated with dust exposure especially in mines.  The disease makes the lungs stiff and it is incurable,” he explains.

Muula said regardless of whether the mining is legal or not, the miners need to purchase protective gear, and to continue using them for the sake of their health.

Other experts also warn that gold mining harms the health of miners and communities by releasing dangerous substances into the air and water especially in cases where mercury and cyanide, the two most common gold extraction agents that are toxic to humans, are used.

They say public health problems also result from the lifestyle and migration patterns of miners.

One expert says because miners, both men and women, work at remote locations, the circumstances can encourage sexual relationships that can lead to the spread of HIV.

But the most common problem is tuberculosis often linked to the work patterns of gold miners.

Dusty gold mines and crowded living conditions leave gold miners susceptible to the disease.

When miners go home, they spread tuberculosis to their families and communities.

But these challenges do not scare Simango and her fellow miners who say finding gold is all they care about despite the risks.

“We are resilient, we know how to survive to get food,” Simango says who she had a deep cut on her chin, left arm and rib as a result of rocks falling on her.

“I sustained injuries when a rock fell on me while hunting for nuggets. This is what real worries me the most.”

Namagona Village has no clinic nearby. The nearest clinic is some 35 kilometers away. When a miner is injured, the best medical treatment they can get is to buy over the counter painkillers.

“We buy painkillers at the shop, that is it,” she says. “It is risky but if we stop mining, what are we going to eat?” she asks.

Degraded environment

Apart from health risks, the environment at Nyuludzi River mining camp is under a lot of stress due to the sudden surge of people looking for gold.

“Soil erosion, creation of sink holes, and loss of vegetation cover along the river is worrying me. Miners also need firewood for cooking so they cut a lot of trees for fuel wood,” Group Village Mussa says, looking depressed.

He now wants to organise a meeting with chiefs in the area to map the way forward.

“Over 30 villages around this area depend on Nyuludzi River,” he points out.

He says the river is a water source for the 30 villages and fears that mining activities will contaminate the water.

“The water is so bad that even cattle are having problems to drink it because of stones and mud in it,” one of the women miners contends.

The other danger, she says is that the river bed is being dug up, a development that can lead to siltation and floods.

She says Nyuludzi River has been strong for years but last year it dried up during the summer.

“Some miners have been blocking the river when they are panning for gold,” she claims.

Dean Lungu of Chamber of Mines said whenever people are mining gold, environment is likely to be affected.

So far, evidence shows that apart from Nyuludzi River river pollution which includes siltation and coloration has affected other rivers such as Lisungwi Mwetang’ombe in Neno where gold miners are also setting camp.

“This is a big problem and it has to be addressed soon for it will affect many things in future,” Lungu says.

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