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Thursday, June 8, 2023

How illicit Chinese mining destroys livelihoods, fuels conflicts in Cameroon

Nagbayanga Valentin, a widow in her late thirties, sits on the earth floor of her thatched two-roomed house she shares with her four young children in Haya Haya, a mining encampment with about 2,000 inhabitants in Longa Mali village of Betare Oya sub division, some 200 kilometres from Bertoua, headquarters of Cameroon’s East region.

Artisinal mining in Cameroon
Locals carrying out artisinal mining in Cameroon. Photo credit: Solomon Tembang

Dirty pots, pans and other old household paraphernalia are strewn all over the tiny house. Outside, the laughter and chatter of her children and those of other neighbours is audible enough as they play a local game, virtually ignorant of the weighty problems their mother, and the community, are going through.

Poverty is discernible in the community whose inhabitants live in thatch houses, but just metres away, Chinese machines are rumbling as they mine away millions of francs CFA in gold.     

Conflicts had, over the years, been brewing between the local population and Chinese miners until it boiled over on November 15, 2017 when there was a confrontation and a Chinese pulled out a gun, shot and killed a local. The population rose up in anger and beat the Chinese to death. Since then, relations between the local community and the Chinese miners have been frosty as tension continues to simmer.

“My husband was shot and killed by a Chinese and now I am left with four children to fend for,” Nagbayanga Valentin says. “Things are not easy as life is becoming very difficult in this community. The little money my husband made from artisanal mining is no longer there and so I wonder how I am going to feed these children or even send them to school.”

Her husband, Issa Paul, was shot dead by a Chinese whom the locals simply knew as Bouboul. 

Beleke Andre, brother to Issa Paul, was there when it all happened.

“We were seven of us digging in our hole. The Chinese also had their hole not far from ours. But later, the Chinese, maybe realising that our hole was producing more gold, insisted that they must dig where we were already working. As they continued to insist, we said they should wait since we had our ‘stones’ in the hole and when we take them out, they can go ahead,” Beleke Andre says.  

“They wanted to pay us money to take over where we had been digging. But we said since we were seven of us, they should wait until we agree among ourselves before we can strike any deal with them. That is how we continued digging to take out our ‘stone’. But the Chinese, whom many villagers simply called Bouboul (we don’t even know his real name), was insisting on closing the hole. When we did not allow him to close the hole, he called the Chinese camp, which is close by, on the telephone.

“Three Chinese then arrived at the scene. At this moment, Bouboul went to one of their vehicles, took a gun and shot three times in the air. When he came close, I am the person he wanted to shoot. As my pregnant wife was also at the scene, I went and stood behind her.

“Bouboul then fired another shot in the air and then shot at my elder brother, Issa Paul. As my brother died, we overpowered the Chinese and took the gun. All I remember is the population coming out in anger and beating the Chinese who later died.”

The case has been dragging at the judiciary and the chances for them to find justice over the death of their loved one, Beleke says, are very slim. He says at the court, the Chinese maintain that if they have to pay for the death of the Issa Paul, the locals also have to pay for the death of the Chinese.

“But we are not the ones who started the conflict. He was the one who first shot and killed our brother,” Beleke laments.

A community in Zirgene
A community in Zirgene neighbourhood in Colomine threatened by mining activities. Photo credit: Solomon Tembang

‘This land is our livelihood’

Some of the locals have been mining in this area for decades after inheriting the land from their forefathers in accord with local traditional law (droit coutumier), only for them to get up one day and see Chinese brandishing a mining concession on their land.

This was the case with Doko Habraham in Colomine, some 100 kilometres from Betare Oya.

“This land is our livelihood. If taken away from us and given to the Chinese, we won’t have any other means of earning a living. My ancestors have been on this land for several decades. I went to where my mine was one day, and it was like I wasn’t even on my own land anymore,” Doko says.

“No one came to tell me that my land was going to be taken over by Chinese miners and if I was going to be compensated for the said land,” he adds.

Doko Habraham says he later found out that the Chinese miners who were working with machines on his land had bought a concession from a Cameroonian who had secured exploration rights in the area. Doko has no land title and so he is no match to the Chinese miners, whom, he claims, “could easily buy their way around”.

How the Chinese miners came here

For years, the local people had been mining for gold on their ancestral lands, through artisanal means using spades, buckets and hard work until the Chinese companies arrived with excavators and powerful pumps and are now practicing semi-mechanised mining. The Chinese have been devastating the environment and the locals say they’ve received no compensation.

The Chinese are in brisk business, mining away hundreds of millions of francs CFA in gold. But those bearing the brunt of the mining bonanza are the native communities who continue to live on the edge of the precipice.

But how did the Chinese come about carrying out semi-mechanised mining in this area? Justin Chekoua of Forêt et Développement Rurale (FODER), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in the area, explains that semi-mechanised mining came to the East region of Cameroon in early 2000 when the Cameroon government was planning to build the Lom Panga hydroelectric dam. He says when the government realised that a lot of gold would be lost in the area that was going to be flooded by the dam, it set up what was christened “Programme to Save Gold in Lom Panga Dam Area”.

Cameroon’s mining code does not allow non-nationals to acquire mining authorisation for concession areas. Chekoua explains that because the artisanal miners would have been slow and not be able to save all the gold before the dam floods the area, the government allowed semi-mechanised mining to be carried out.

“But since the nationals carrying out artisanal mining did not have the expertise and finance to save the gold speedily through semi-mechanised mining, the government said Cameroonians could enter into technical-financial partnership with expatriates. That is how many Cameroonians brought in expatriates, majority of who are Chinese, to come into partnership,” Chekoua discloses.

The authorities conceded the move would violate mining laws but said the situation was an emergency.

“However, instead of going into technical-financial partnership with expatriates for the semi-mechanised mining, Cameroonians are now instead getting the authorisation and selling to the Chinese. They are now selling mining space to Chinese,” Chekoua regrets.

He elucidates that because the area around the Lom Panga Dam was going to be flooded, the semi-mechanised miners were not compelled to carry out any environmental impact assessment. They were also not forced to fill the holes their activities left behind.

“The mining code specified that each individual could have a maximum of four hectares to mine in…and instead of staying within the area where gold was to be saved, those who are acquiring authorisation and their Chinese ‘partners’ have gone beyond this zone,” Chekoua adds.

Environmental hazards

Since the Chinese miners went beyond the area to save the Lom Panga gold, the environment and local communities have continued to suffer. 

“Previously when the locals were carrying out artisanal mining, there was little or no impact on the environment. But since the Chinese came in with semi-mechanised mining, the environment has been devastated,” Chekoua says.

Many waterways have been disrupted and streams silted.

“Because the Chinese need a lot of water to carry out the semi-mechanised mining, they have deviated almost all the streams or rivers into their mining camps and local communities downstream have no water for household and other uses,” Justin Chekoua notes, adding: “In some areas such as Longa Mali and Ngoe Ngoe, mud from the activities of the Chinese miners has silted streams and rivers. The use of mercury by the Chinese miners has also polluted streams and rivers. Fish and other aquatic animals are dying. Oil and petrol from the Chinese machines are also polluting streams.”

Pristine forest is also being cut down to make way for the Chinese mining activities.  

Loud, vibrating sounds of excavators accompany the back-breaking work of the mine workers, just a kilometre outside of Colomine. Covered in mud, they sway around in the mining pits as they pan for gold, dig more holes, or use the noisy machines on the edges of the mining pit to fill trucks with quantities of the gold-containing mud that will later be processed with mercury. At this exact spot, there used to be a forest, but many layers of vegetation have already been removed by miners.

There is no possible coexistence between mining and forests, says Justin Chekoua. “All lands dedicated to mining and, in particular, to surface mining, will be a terrain where forests are sacrificed because it requires the removal of large amounts of land. This sacrifice of the forests represents an irreparable loss of natural capital.”

‘Misery is our potion’

Despite all the millions of francs CFA being mined away in gold, the inhabitants of these localities are living in abject poverty and lack the most basic of social amenities.

Hamadgoulde Bouba, the traditional head of the Haya Haya settlement, is not a happy man.

“We don’t have water. Where they throw their sand was where we used to fetch water. Now they have blocked it. Other places we have created to get water they have also destroyed them. Even the road is deplorable. Their trucks have completely destroyed the roads. In fact, all we know here is misery,” he laments.    

“They do very little for the population. And to worsen things sometimes, we go to our farm only to discover that the farms have disappeared, with the soil having been dug by the Chinese and taken away to their camp to wash and get gold. How do we live if our farms are being destroyed?”  

Many inhabitants of Haya Haya refused to talk on record, saying they were afraid of being victimised by the Chinese. The Chinese have instilled fear in the inhabitants of Haya Haya. One simply said, “The fear of the Chinese here is the beginning of wisdom.”

Deadly open tombs

The semi-mechanised mining activities of the Chinese have left behind deep holes which have been filled with water. The localities of Longa Mali, Colomine, Ngoe Ngoe, Ngoura, Ngoyla, Batouri, Yokadouma are littered with such holes, some as deep as 50 metres, many of which have been filled with water.

People are said to have lost their lives in these deadly tombs. According to statistics from FODER, at least 47 persons died in 2017 on the former mining sites. About 250 mining sites opened between 2012 and 2014 have not been filled, the NGO added.

Cattle and other livestock have also been falling into these holes, locals say.

“We cannot even rear livestock because they will all fall into the holes Chinese miners have dug everywhere. The situation is very pathetic,” Hamadgoulde Bouba says.

No compensation

According to Cameroonian law, the mining companies are supposed to pay compensation to local people who owned or were making a living on the land.

But Pilo Michel, traditional ruler of Longa Mali, says there is nothing to write home about the activities of Chinese miners in the area.

“They have not done anything good for my village that they are exploiting. The state of the road to the village is bad. I don’t know of what use the Chinese are here,” he says.

“Since the days of my parents before I took over as chief, the Chinese have done nothing here in terms of corporate social responsibility; not a school, not a health centre, not water supply, not even to repair the road they use to evacuate what they mine here. They have instead continued to destroy sources of livelihood in our village. They continue to exploit us. Longa Mali village is rich in minerals but has nothing to show for it,” Pilo regrets.

“Even the holes they dug, they have not refilled. Water has filled these holes and they are posing real danger to the community. People have been dying in those holes.”

Pilo says the government of Cameroon must force the Chinese miners to construct schools, health centres, repair the road and provide potable water to the community and even build a market. 

As for the open tombs they have left, Pilo says: “they should fill them. We insist on the Chinese closing these holes they have dug, if not, humans and livestock will continue falling into them.”

By Solomon Tembang

To be concluded

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