By Ugonma Cokey
El-heazah Kanu was born into a mining family and started visiting the mines with his father as early as 10 years. Through visiting the mines with his dad, he was able to learn surveying at age 12. Through observation he learnt a lot about mining to the extent that at a point he supervised and helped with the payment of the labourers.
Ultimately, El-heazah read Mining Engineering and started working officially in year 2000. He worked in several northern states including Plateau, Niger, Katsina, Nassarawa, Taraba and Zamfara (where many have died of lead and gas poisoning).
In 2013, El was diagnosed and was said to be suffering from blood cancer as a result of lead poisoning. Before he came down with blood cancer he never had major ailments apart from Malaria.
But gratefully today, he has a medical report to show a clean bill of health. But despite having had health challenges as a result of his involvement in mining, he still does feasibility in mineral smelting towards harnessing the full benefit of the country’s minerals.
Mining in Africa
Africa is richly endowed with mineral resources. The US Geological society ranks it as the largest or 2nd largest reserve of bauxite, cobalt, industrial diamonds, manganese, phosphate rock, platinum group metals and zirconium.
Africa has a history of acting as a feedstock for the world’s mineral hunger and contributed 6.5% of the world’s mineral exports during 2011 from mining 20% of the world’s land area.
Botswana is the largest diamond miner in the world and has well-known coal reserves, and coal production is likely to become of increasing value to the country. The country is estimated to have more than 200-bn tonnes of coal reserves and the development of the coal sector has become a key priority.
Gold is the most important mining sector. Ghana is the second-largest gold producer on the continent after South Africa.
Merits and demerits of mining
Mining when well-structured provides jobs, raises living standards, revenues generated from mining activities help in developing facilities, such as schools, hospitals and other social amenities, promotes business enterprise in the mining regions, supplies raw materials like metals that are needed to build and maintain modern industries and economies, are important foreign exchange earners and contribute significantly to gross domestic product.
In spite of these advantages mining depletes resources rather than the reuse of existing ones, or use of materials readily available on the surface .It also damages both underground and surface environments.
It also poses health dangers to men like El-heazah who engage in mining, this can happen through cave-ins, explosions, gas, black-lung disease, asbestosis, silicosis, and radiation sickness
One wonders then why a man who almost lost his life as a result of mining encourages it.
El believes in the industrial, pharmaceutical, aeronautic etc. potentials of mining which he says is “mega and cannot be allowed to waste”
“In Taraba State alone, I discovered 150 different valuable minerals unexploited to say the least. Nigeria has some of the best zinc and lead in the world, over 45-55 % zinc and over 60-75 % lead talking of mineral content.
In Plateau State alone, and specifically the Lead and zinc mines in Zurak, Nigeria shipped over 9.2 billion naira worth of minerals in 2012 alone. In 2001 alone, Nigeria exported over 30billion naira worth of Tantalite ore from Nassarawa ,Kaduna etc”
According to him, “mining like oil, like road construction and farming has its occupational hazard, safety measures like helmet, nose or gas masks and other safety gears is the solution.”
El is not alone in this thinking, the President of Miners Empowerment Association, Mr. Sunny Ekosin had in an interview with Vanguard newspapers last month said that Nigeria loses a whopping N8 trillion annually in unexploited gold alone and that Ajaokuta remains the key to Nigeria’s industrialisation.
Little wonder then those 7 firms licensed to mine gold and other solid minerals in different parts of the country are set to commence operations.
On Wednesday, during its sensitisation forum tagged “investment opportunities in the solid minerals sector”, the Bank of Industry put its total loan portfolio in the solid minerals sector of the economy at N24.6 billion.
The Managing Director of the bank, Rasheed Olaoluwa, said the decision to improve funding to the sector was necessitated by challenges facing the economy following the decline in revenue from the oil glut in the international market and to stimulate private sector investment in the solid minerals sector.
But while economists, geologists and surveyors are determined to explore whatever means possible to increase and boost mining, environmentalists differ based on ecological and health and crime issues.
According to Mr. Nnimmo Bassey, the Executive Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation, ”Every mining pit is a potential crime scene.”
In Mali, mining without the involvement of officials has led to anarchy which has sometimes brought conflicts. It has also has health consequences and affected social life while environmental damage has become a real threat to the population. Mining has lowered attendance in school and increased school drop-outs as many children and youths, especially young males leave school to go and make money.
Extraction, crushing, grinding and milling machines into fine powder which produces poisoned dust has led to several health issues resulting in death. Workers are exposed to flying debris, falls, crushing, scratches and even buried alive as a result of mines collapse.
Workers are also affected by exposures to various toxic and life threatening chemicals during mining activities. Between February and April 20 Children in Shikira community in Rafi Local Government Area of Niger State died. Between 2010 and March 2013,734 under-five children died in Zamfara, when the worst case of lead poisoning was reported.
Money at the expense of health
But El-sees it things differently, he says “most of our mines are not properly designed, and ecological experts are not part of employed staff and safety regulations are often not enforced. I recommend enforcement of safety gadgets and devices and protective gears and gas mask etc. as a must, ecological and health experts as compulsory part of mining teams and periodic inspections. Ministry of environment should insist on mineral return updates and inspection”
“There are acceptable designs and plans for effective exploration and mining, for instance there are open cast mining, pad docking, loto, underground mining etc.”
According to El, Topography, soil structure, mineral formations etc .play a key role in mines designs and operations.
“Currently we have dominantly local partisan mining operations, many even illegal and mostly manual operations and very few organised, mechanised mining and mineral operations. Government should come into this area so it can buy and control local products and harness valuable and more refined elements which we sell off unknowingly to China and Europe” He appealed.
In spite of the provision in the Nigerian Mining Act for employers to provide its staff with proper mining equipments including protective boots, hand gloves, helmets, protective goggles etc, few companies implement the law exposing workers to dangerous working conditions.
To boost the Mining law and ensure compliance and protection of workers, the Senate on September 27,2012, passed a law to compel employers to pay a fine of N5 million or face 3 years imprisonment for any person killed or who suffers injury resulting from contravention by the employer but implementation is not being enforced.
It is for this reason that Bassey says “Seeing solid minerals development as a way out of our economic malaise is just another way of digging into predictable problems. Extractivism always holds a lot of promise, but like the black gold, they seldom deliver. The major issue is with the massive environmental pollution and the externalization of costs to impacted communities. Mines are poisonous pits, especially when they impact water bodies.”
“I compare mining to cash cropping for forex rather than growing crops for food and local/regional markets. There is nothing like sustainable mining. All mining is destructive. There must be no go areas. Heritage sites. Fragile Eco systems, etc. Could it bring “good” income? “ The Executive Director queried. “Yes, if no one is paying the ecological costs. Some States could begin to earn revenue through this sector.” He replied
Can the dead benefit economically? Who is the economic benefit actually for?