Artisanal and small scale miners in Busia and Namayingo Districts have appealed to the government to revise the mining regulations to enable them to operate.
The miners say that the unfair policies and laws are a government initiative to push them out of business to favour the wealthy and big investors in the sector.
They cited policies like the ban on use of mercury and the fine of Shs 120 million as penalty against those found using it, the surface right against mineral right and the requirement of Shs380 million for investment among others as those aimed at
Engidoh Stephen Paade, the chairperson of Uganda Artisanal and Small Scale Miners in eastern region said that mining employs more than 30,000 people in Busia alone amid challenges like environment destruction.
He said that while it is true that mercury affects people, there is a need for the authorities to move gradually because the blanket ban on mercury use will be counterproductive.
“Let us sensitise the people on the dangers before doing anything to eliminate it and or bringing an alternative and also show them what the government intends to do to protect their livelihoods and the environment,” Engidoh said.
He warned that the blanket ban on mercury use would lead to smuggling but noted that they are determined to eliminate mercury use but gradually after the government has provided solutions.
Josephine Aguttu, a leader at Tiira Small Scale Mining Association in Busia District lamented over the gaps in online system used to apply for license saying it gives speculators a chance to acquire mining licenses on their land leading to disputes.
“It is unfortunate that we had a prospecting exploration that was expiring but upon checking on the cadastral map, it showed that someone else had been given a license on my land where I was earning a living. So the person with a mining license expects me to vacate my land because I am not allowed to mine without permission,” Aguttu said.
She also questioned how the people with mineral rights can harmoniously extract without destabilizing the original occupant of the land as government wants.
According to Aguttu, gold is a commodity that has a ready market but the challenge the miners are facing is how it is valued, the miners are not in a position to determine the purity of their gold.
“At the Ministry of Energy, there are people working in the laboratories where we take our small gold for testing the purity as we pay taxes to government, but why can’t the government bring such people at regional level such that we can take samples and determine out gold to avoid being cheated at the market,” she said.
Stephen Baraza, a miner in Namayingo complained that the Shs120 million fine is an abuse and made out of a misconception that gold mining is a profitable venture whereas not.
“When you look around, people are poor and setting a fine of Shs 120 million for use of mercury yet there is no alternative means you are going to imprison very many people from the community,” Baraza said.
He noted that as the formulation of policies is underway, such punishments should be relaxed.
The miners made the complaints at a meeting held in Busia at the weekend to lay strategies on how to voice out their discontent against the regulations.
Joshua Rukundo, a senior Project Officer at Solidaridad, a regional advocacy body said that mining as a source of livelihood is very essential to the society where it is happening and also to the modern civilization.
To ensure sustainable mining, Rukundo said there is need to consider how to carry out the activity without causing the adverse effects to the environment as well as protecting the rights of women and children but with the community in the lead.
He appealed for stakeholder engagements to ensure that the award of mining licenses is done with the rights of land owners and occupants protected to avoid disputes.
“We have to get stakeholders to a table to understand that you have a right to mine as per the license but the community has a right to live as per their right to own the land. There has to be a clear way by which a licensed entity agrees legally with land owners to relinquish land and hand it over to the mining activities without being cheated,”Rukundo said.
He appealed to authorities to gradually reduce the use of mercury in the gold mines rather than imposing a blanket ban which may not be effective.
“This ban (on mercury) affects the miners directly and their livelihoods. If the case is that we cannot abolish mercury in one night, efforts should be taken to help the miners to gradually reduce the use of mercury as we explore viable alternatives,” he said.
He noted that the current alternatives to use are out of the financial ability that the artisanal miners are operating with, like setting up a plant which is expensive for them.
“By implementing the ban, it is going to increase the number of people in prison because of using mercury. Someone looking at Shs100,000 a day and you want them to pay a fine of Shs 120 million and or three years in prison is not worth it,” he said.
Early this year, Parliament passed the Mining and Minerals Act which President Museveni signed in October and it recognizes artisanal miners who are required to pay about Shs380 million for a license.
However, the miners say that the amount of money for a license is unfair and it will throw them out of business.
Ministry of Energy Senior Inspector of mines, David Ssebagala said in an interview that the NEMA law prohibits any mining within 200-meter radius from all water bodies and it cannot be authorized.
He said that they are doing a lot of sensitization in mining communities on proper mining and extraction methods that do not pollute the environment.
“We also encourage them (miners) to formalize their operations for their security because if you have a mining license, you will not be chased away. We also make sure they work within the confines of the law because where they cause damage they restore after operations,” he said.