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Zamfara: A Children Dying Field?

Every rainy season in the north western Nigeria State of Zamfara, at least 300 children die from lead poisoning owing to artisanal mining of Gold in the state.

The Gold industry in Zamfara is large, in both geographic coverage and quantity. For eleven years, there has been artisanal and illegal mining of gold in at least three local government areas in the state, and the industry is rapidly growing, due to the interest of the private sector and the government.

In 2008, the Zamfara state government contracted the services of U.S.-based Greggs Gem and Mining Corp and a Chinese mining company, Gold Concentrator Company, to carry out a survey of the mining areas, and to assess the quantity and quality of the gold in the State.

Though the full report is yet to be released, preliminary reports indicated that gold is embedded in about three local government areas in commercial and exportable quantity. Though the full report is yet to be released owing to squabbles over money issues between the consultants and the government of Zamfara, it is noteworthy that shortly thereafter, the Nigeria President, Goodluck Jonathan officially commissioned the Zamfara Integrated Solid Minerals processing Plant in Gusau, the state capital with a Chinese Firm partnering the State government in the establishment of the Plant that will mine gold.

The President cautioned mining should be done in line with international standards and best practices.

The reverse has however been the case as mining is done with profits as the sole interest and not the protection of the locales nor their rights to safe environment.  The villages of Abare, Daji, and Sunke in the Anka local government area most affected.

The effects of excessive mining by foreign corporations and artisanal mining operations over the past eleven years have been detrimental to these villages and their local populations, especially with respect to the health and lives of the region’s children.

Every year from 2004 to date , reports of  deaths of as many as 300 children as a result of acute lead poisoning associated with gold mining operations have trickled in from various sources. The chief epidemiologist at the Zamfara State Ministry of Health puts the deaths at an average of 115 per year.

In 2010 for instance,  while National newspapers carried varying accounts they all were in agreement  on the enormous number of fatalities.   The Nigeria Tribune reported 215 deaths, The Punch reported 300, and the Daily Trust reported 278. Local populations put the number at over 300 children.

The Medicins Sans Frontieres,  MSF Briefing Paper of May 2012 titled  “Lead Poisoning Crisis in Zamfara State northern Nigeria” states the reason for peculiar effect on children  is because while  Adults and children over 5 are susceptible to lead toxicity,  children under 5 are especially vulnerable as they are closer to the ground than adults, and often crawl, getting dust on their hands, which then ends up being ingested as they eat with those dusty hands, or simply put their hands in their mouths.

The briefing paper states that Young children absorb higher percentages of ingested lead: around 40-50% compared to 10% in adults cause of ongoing development of vital organs in young children which makes them   more vulnerable to damage.

The private sector and government however have done very little in reversing the trend of deaths which spikes every rainy season when the ground is softer for digging and mining.

The financial returns is immense for government and the private sector. Since 2009, the price of gold has appreciated substantially, from around US$800 per ounce, to US$1653 (May 2012) resulting  in  increasingly active artisanal mining industry. Artisanal mining is essentially  digging  up rocks by hand, breaking them into pebbles with hammers, grinding the pebbles to sand with flour mills, and then extracting gold from the sand using sluicing, panning, and mercury amalgamation (and in some cases, cyanidation).

The Nigerian government, under the federal constitution, is obliged to observe, respect, provide for, and maintain civil society and public good in the form of services including—but not limited to—health and education.  Nigeria is one of the few countries in the developing world to have decentralized resource management where a great deal of responsibility lies with state and local community governments.  However, according to the World Bank “there is little systematic evidence on how these institutions… work in in Nigeria See. “Local Government Accountability for Service Delivery in Nigeria, The World Bank – Development Research Group (2004). Needless to add, Zamfara  shows a complete lack of responsibility of these obligations by government.

Lack of democratic tradition, public passivity, low environmental consciousness and knowledge, poor economic conditions, and widespread corruption are key causes of the situation. Poor governance has meant that companies operate with little involvement or inclusion of affected populations in processes relating to how business should be conducted in their communities. Lack of participation and information at every stage of the process paves the way for economic and social rights violations, including violations of the right to water, food, and land.

Unless civil society can actively participate and receive information on decisions and practices that ultimately affect their most basic needs, such as mining for instance, they are unable to exercise their rights. Civil Society must begin to  frame the human rights implications of natural resource exploitation as economic and social rights violations

3) Safer mining practices

As earlier stated, these are desirable but tall dreams as Government and the private sector is yet to appreciate or has refused to appreciate the tragedy of Zamfara, a blind state in Nigeria noted only for the introduction of Sharia.

So as the rainy season approaches, children will again become endangered species in the quiet north western state of Nigeria where Poverty is deep and 75% of its people survive below the $1 per day.

There are indeed rainy seasons in Zamfara

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