Continued from last edition
‘We may be rendered homeless’
Rajahu Alahji Oumarou, a 21-year-old mother of two children, stands at the doorway of her three-room thatched house in the Zirgene neighbourhood of Colomine, lost in thought. Just 10 metres away, bulldozers belonging to Chinese miners are working in a huge hole. While the excavators continue to dig the over 70 metres deep hole, trucks stand by ready to be loaded with the soil which is carted away to the Chinese miners’ camp to be washed for gold.
Like others who make up the 71 households in Zirgene, Rajahu’s forefathers lived in the area for decades. But now she says they, mostly of the Mbororo minority ethnic group, are about to be rendered homeless. Their thatched houses, which now perch on the edge of the large hole, may end up falling in. To add to this, children and even adults run the risk of falling into the hole which may end up being filled with water.
“I am not happy seeing this. My child almost fell into the hole the other day. If I was not vigilant to rush and hold him from behind, it would have been a different story,” Rajahu recounts.
Oumoul Abdou, a 27-year-old mother of four, laments: “We are living in fear as we stare death in the face on a daily basis. There are several of these holes surrounding where we live. We can no longer use our latrine because a hole dug by the Chinese miners has ‘cut it off’. They destroyed our groundnut farm when they dug one of the holes.”
‘This hole belongs to us’
As I talked to Rajahu and Oumoul, I hear loud arguments coming from where the bulldozers were digging. When I got there, I found out that the machines have stopped working. A group of local youths have gathered around and are in a heated argument with the workers of the Chinese miners. Some of the youth had used logs of wood to block the loaded trucks from leaving and others from coming in.
Some of the youth were claiming that they have been carrying out artisanal mining here to earn a living and now, the Chinese have come with machines and want to take over the place.
“If they want to continue their activity here, they must compensate us financially. This area belongs to us,” some of the youths shouted.
The situation, which almost led to a brawl, was only brought under control when an elderly man from the Colomine community, after negotiation with the Chinese through their interpreter, assured the youth that they will be compensated the next day. But one of the youngsters told me such promises have been made severally but never kept.
Such clashes between the Chinese and the locals, Honore Sirgho, a local vigilante leader says, are the order of the day.
On the opposite end of the town, some pupils of Government Primary School Colomine are playing football behind one of the classrooms. But less than 60 metres away is a hole, about 30 metres deep, that has been dug by miners. Some of the pupils say they are aware of the danger the hole poses but have learned to live with it.
Officials of the school, which counts some 1,400 pupils, were not available for comment.
The mining activities have also left behind death-traps in some areas like Ngoe Ngoe, a village in East Cameroon with about 2,600 inhabitants. In the night of January 1, 2017, nine people were killed in an abandoned mining site when they went in search of gold. The site collapsed and buried them in 33 feet of earth in the mine excavated by Lu and Lang, a Chinese mining company banned from operating in Cameroon in April because it lacked a license.
Yaya Moussa, head of Ngoe Ngoe village, recounts the tragedy.
“The Chinese arrived with (Cameroonian) law enforcement to drive the villagers out of the mine sites to better exploit our resources,” he explained. “So, the villagers were forced to come in the night, in the absence of the Chinese, to extract gold and find food for their families. It was during one of these nocturnal outings that the earth fell on them.”
However, the deaths in this gold mine in Ngoe Ngoe have not deterred locals from venturing into it. When I visited the area in October 2018, some young men could still be seen digging in the ill-fated pit in search of the precious stone.
Oumarou Haman, president of the Ngoe Ngoe vigilante group, says the lure for gold still attracts people to the mine site, which is yet to be rehabilitated.
“If nothing is done to refill this site, I fear that many will still die there,” he says.
Students drop school to chase gold
The lure of the gold is also having a toll on school attendance in the East region of Cameroon. Justin Chekoua says many students are dropping out of school to go to the sites that have not been refilled or closed by the Chinese miners to dig for gold. Women, some pregnant and others with babies on their backs, are also attracted to the mining sites.
Government authorities have told locals to stop digging in the abandoned sites. But the need for income is so high that many ignore the order, including kids who should be in school.
Yves Bertrand Awounfack, Senior Divisional Officer of the Lom and Djerem Division, sometime ago, launched a drive during which he went from village-to-village asking locals to leave gold mines alone and for parents to return their child miners to school.
Vincent Atangana, a Cameroonian official at Chinese mining firm EXXIL, blames parents for allowing their kids to work in the mines. He argues Chinese mining has helped develop the area.
He says many houses are being constructed with modern materials. Several years ago, fuel was sold in cans but today, says Atangana, there are fuel stations. He says these developments are coming when gold mining is still at a working stage – they will do even more when it reaches the industrial level.
Billions of francs CFA in gold lost
Under Cameroonian law, minerals in the ground belong to the state. The state grants concessions to mining companies in return for 15 percent of the gold they extract.
This 15 percent is supposed to be paid to a state-owned institution known as Artisan Mining Support and Promotion Framework with French acronym CAPAM. But Justine Chekoua of FODER says some of the miners declare less than what they mine, causing the Cameroon government losses in billions of francs CFA.
On January 8, 2018, CAPAM declared that in 2017, it channelled a little more than 255 kg of gold to Cameroon’s Ministry of Finance.
Nyassi Tchakounte Lucain, Executive Director of Transparency International Cameroon, says they have read several reports from NGOs in the area about the deadly holes left behind by the miners.
“It is a very sad situation. We hope that while undergoing a deep study on the situation especially on the issue of transparency, we would be able to come back with concrete information and results about what is actually going on and what we can propose as a civil society organisation,” he says.
As to holes left behind by miners, Nyassi says “if verified, I will call on the government of Cameroon to ensure that the laws are applied for these holes to be filled because the government is the guarantor of the security of humans and properties”.
‘We can’t encourage destruction of environment’
Meanwhile, Ndouop Njikan Ibrahim of Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, EITI Cameroon Permanent Secretariat, says: “I have myself been to some of these areas where semi-mechanised mining is being carried out by the Chinese and I discovered that the activities are very harmful to the environment.”
“EITI has the objective to better the lives of the population and we cannot do so by encouraging the destruction of the environment. So, we persuade mining enterprises to respect the norms of environmental protection. We regret the fact that the local authorities in these areas, who should be acting like watchdogs, are not doing so,” Ndouop says.
“It is also regrettable that most of the Chinese miners are not acting through formal and identifiable enterprises in a direct relationship with the state. Most of them have got the authorisation to act on the field after having bought the license that an individual happened to have acquired from the administration. Now that the license acquired by an individual has been sold to another person, who is responsible for the environmental destruction? That is the issue that should be handled by the state. EITI Cameroon can only act like a whistle-blower to indicate that there is a problem here that should be resolved, or it may deteriorate the living condition of the local populations”.
On the losses the government suffers financially, Ndouop says: “The only way the government can control quantities of gold mined is to go into commercial relationships with formal, identifiable companies on the field. The government should create and multiply control instances.”
While some of the Chinese miners who were suspended by the government have continued in defiance, Ndouop blames this on “laxity” on the part of administrative authorities.
“The Chinese are doing this in complicity with Cameroonians,” Ndouop states. “Something really has to me done in the semi-mechanised mining sector as it was done with the petroleum sector.”
Need for strict regulation
On her part, Evelyne Tsagué, Africa Co-Director of Natural Resource Governance Institute, says: “From the work that we have been doing, we know that the semi-mechanised mining sector in Cameroon has a lot of problems; the problem of impact, regulation, problem of effectiveness of the rule in place. There is the need to strictly regulate activities in the semi-mechanised mining sector.
“There is a huge gap between the mining rule and what is practiced. The government should ensure that if a regulation already exists to guide activities of people in the mining sector, this should be respected to the letter. Where there is no rule, the government should pass a law so that there is a kind of policy and regulation in this sector.”
Government moves to stem the tides
However, the government of Cameroon has not been lying on its laurels. It has taken several steps to stem the tide as far as the activities of the Chinese miners are concerned.
In April 2018, the Minister of Mines, Industries and Technological Development suspended the activities of three Chinese mining companies for non-compliance to regulations.
In a statement suspending Hong Kong, Peace Mining and Lu and Lang companies, the minister said they were no longer allowed to perform gold mining activities in the East Region of Cameroon, and that their officials have been asked to pack their bags and leave.
It appeared from the statement that Hong Kong Company did not have documents authorising it to carry out mining activities while Peace Mining and Lu and Lang companies’ suspension was linked to a series of conflicts recorded between their employees and local populations which resulted in deaths, in addition to a lack of respect to the environment, according to the statement.
Cameroonian government mining officials said they are trying to address the situation by using drones to investigate claims of other illegal mines, according to two officials who asked to remain anonymous because they did not have permission to speak to the press. They also said most of the Chinese mining companies do not have permission to work in the country.
The divisional delegate of mines for Lom and Djerem division, East region of Cameroon, William Djoulde, says artisanal mining contributes significantly to the national economy. He says there are over 20 authorisations and, with the measures being put in place, many clandestine miners will be flushed out.
“We want to professionalise this sector and send away clandestine miners who help neither the state nor the local populations. The measures are being implanted in the field,” Djoulde adds.
By Solomon Tembang
This work was produced courtesy of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand