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Inside the bitter-sweet lives of Tin miners

A group of five elderly men sit on the edge of a round pit which is over 40 feet deep, sharing the last stick of cigarette. A Coca-Cola bottle containing Ogogoro, a local gin mixed with a foreign power drink passes  from hand to hand, to wash the smoke down. The combination is an energizer needed to keep them digging deeper in the trial exploration of Kuza, Hausa for Tin Ore, a dark substance locked several feet beneath the soil of much of Jos, the Plateau State capital.
 These elders are the last of the generation of young local hands that worked the heavy equipment deployed by the defunct Amalgamated Tin Mines of Nigeria (ATMN), a European mining company that engaged the earth of Plateau State for close to a century, ending in the 1980s. They were laid off by the former Colonial-era company with nothing to take home. But they had acquired adequate skills to deploy on the soil of their communities, to extract the large deposit of this solid mineral.
 One of these communities is Ganawuri, a semi-urban area detached from the rest of Vom, in the Jos South Local Government Area. The mining site sits 13 kms from Vom, and is located at the border with Kaduna State, along the Vom–Kafanchan Road, North of Plateau.
 Ganawuri is the latest Tin deposit discovered by this team of veteran miners only months ago, but the number of pits counted there during this visit is a visible testimony to  the number of people attracted there, to work the earth in the deep dig for Kuza. On both sides of the road, Daily Trust  on Sunday counted no fewer than 25 pits, most of them already hidden because of the thick grass growing around them, indicating they were dug and abandoned months back. Some appear fresh, but have been long abandoned to collect rain, or storm waters from the gullies developing all around.
 During the rainy season, such as the present one, activities at local mining sites drop including the  numbers of the artisanal miners. When dry season sets in, the digging picks up again, with countless local hands determined to extract the substance, no matter how deep it is located. 
 Peter Gyang, one of the veteran miners of ATMN rushed to meet this reporter at the local mining site manned by him and his former colleagues, puffing a cloud of cigarette smoke in the air.
 “I worked five years with ATMN before the company laid us off, and folded up,” Mr. Gyang, who said he worked the heavy machines with mastery in his five years at the defunct mining giant.“I acquired so many skills. I participated in all areas of mining; in exploration, exploitation and extracting. I also took part in processing; I handled some equipment there.”
 Gyang left primary school in 1979 to join the company at about the age of 13 after his father passed on. He was just 18 when the company laid him off, at which time he had already acquired enough skills to start on his own as a local miner, he told Daily Trust, stretching his left hand to his colleagues to grab the bottle of local gin.
 “Since the age of 18, I have worked the soil of Jos South, mining,” Gyang, now close to 60 said. “I have trained hundreds, who are now on their own. And they are all doing well, feeding their families from the pits deep beneath the surface of this earth.”
 Gyang is younger than two of the five elders at that pit, but he has some authority  in his capacity as being the most skilful. In Berom, the local language of the people, he sent  the rest of the hands back to work, pulling at the locally fabricated rollers mounted on the mouth of the pit, to lower empty barrels into the pit, and pull it back with sand extracted from it.
 Deep down this pit, Daily Trust on Sunday observed Gyang  disappearing into a tunnel he said lies about 10 feet in length. “That is where the Kuza is. We discovered it here,” he shouted in order to be heard, his voice echoing from the dark tunnel. 
 
The new cash cows
Not far off from Ganawuri, is another mining community. Danwal, known for a beehive of artisans doing the mining, is home to the largest number of pits around those parts of Jos in recent times. But it is a  much older site than Ganawuri. 
 Ganawuri and Danwal can pass for cash cows. Perhaps, the latest cash streams form the local hands doing the mining. What goes on there on a daily basis is a lucrative business: money changing hands with  the same frequency as the number of times  the digger hits the hard and rocky soil. Every dig by the local implement represents money  into the pockets of the powerful land owners – and they are many. Some drawn from the village council. The old and young men risking it all by going into the surface pit, several feet  down to do  more profound digging from where Kuza is extracted. The women doing the washing of the soil from where it is extracted by sieving, and the old women bearing basins on their bare heads, to do the clearing of the dumps.
 At Ganawuri and Danwal, everyone is a day richer; and government is a big deal here, playing big on these new mining sites in controversial tax collection on an activity not officially licensed. 
 “They (tax collectors) come here, both from the local government, and the state government to force our people to pay tax,” an artisan said as he climbed out of one of the mining wells at Ganawuri. “The taxes never end. They keep slapping them on us. We have no option but to pay, otherwise they will move in truckloads of armed policemen and seal up the sites.”
 The local people here have directly or indirectly suffered from  over a decade of violent hostilities that have rocked the state, especially Jos, since the return of democracy. The people here are no strangers to the sound of guns. But there is a difference between facing the enemy, who one can engage freely; and the law enforcement officers who are not to be engaged, no matter one’s right and might. The sight  of the police  coming around all the  time  means the locals must submit to the tax authorities, whether or not they can point at visible government presence in their lives to account for the payment.
 There are the buyers, the middlemen, who crowd up to buy. Although they never cease coming, once they set their feet on the site, they begin to act as though they have no interest in the proceeds from the ground. This  leaves the local miners with no choice than to beg, in a deal that leaves them selling at  a give-away price.
 “I buy a Kilo of Kuza at N1,600,” Dachang Dung, a middleman still traversing those ends from Jos to buy up the little proceeds during this rainy season, said. He would not speak much about his business, until he was able to pull this reporter out from the midst of the miners. “I sell at N1,800 and above, depending on the grade.”
In this business, there are many middlemen. Dung combs through the communities on an old motorcycle, to buy right from the mouth of the pits. He loads his proceeds unto the trucks that off load at the many Tin markets around Jos. There are many big time buyers picking the proceeds from the stores ,to feed the many processing plants scattered around Jos; many of whom are actually purchase agents for Chinese businesses.
There are vendors of food and drinks, and they are making it big at the mining sites at Ganawuri and Danwal, although most of the time, they are selling on “book me down’’.This refers to   a purely mutual deal that sees the customer’s name entering an exercise book as a creditor after eating and drinking. The miners are famous  for keeping to terms: they pay the food and drinks vendors, as soon as they are paid by Dung, the local middleman.
Reports have said about 3,000 persons of different age brackets from these two communities and neighbouring villages, are engaged in the mining activities there.
Mr. Tambiya Dame is the local chairman of the miners at that site at Danwal. He said the community is surviving through the artisanal activity. He mentioned that every household in the village is involved in the mining.
According to him  some miners could get up to 30 bags of 10 Kg each in a week, during the dry season, adding that each bag fetches about N60,000 when the middlemen are competing among themselves.
Dame would not subscribe to the name “illegal miners” tagged the miners. According to him, government would have kept a distance from them and not come around for taxes ,if their activities at that site were illegal. He preferred to call it “artisanal mining,” that which is licensed so government can earn revenue.
He appealed to government to help the miners with tools to boost production ,and create employment for the youths in the community.
Acting chairman of the Plateau State Inland Revenue Service (PLIRS), Mr. Dashe Arlat confirmed in a brief chat with Daily Trust that the state has been taking taxes from the local miners, although he acknowledged that mining is on the Exclusive List of the national laws, completely putting all activities under the purview of the federal government
Arlat would not speak much on the matter, as he gave this reporter an appointment, rather for  a detailed discussion.
 
Local mining overwhelms regulations – Minister
Earlier in the year, the minister of state for Solid Minerals Development, Abubakar Bawa Bwari visited Jos . He told Daily Trust in a chat that the rising number of local miners has overwhelmed the regulatory  capabilities of the federal government at the moment.
“We have regulations. That is why we are calling them illegal miners. Unfortunately, we have been overwhelmed by the activities of these miners,” the minister told Daily Trust.
“And I want to say that we are handicapped and we are challenged by the fact that we don’t have the capacity to empower the mining directorate to stop these activities.”
The event was the 3rd Stakeholders’ Forum on the Nigerian Institute of Mining and Geosciences (NIMG), which he declared  open, and proceeded to commission a Skills Acquisition Centre of the institute.
He said the federal government will develop the capacity to fully regulate the sector, to end the illegal activities being perpetrated by unlicensed miners across the country.
“Give us this chance and see what will happen in the next few months,” he said.
He also added: “These are Nigerians, whom  we do not want to put out of work. And because we don’t; one of our major efforts in this sector is to create jobs. And what we want to do in this sector is to formalise their activities.
“This is one of our major objectives, and that is what we are doing. We have registered over 600,000 and we intend to register more. It is not that we are not unaware of their illegal activities. We have been able to visit some of these illegal mining sites, and stopped activities in these areas. We intend to do more.”
 
The curse of the land

The deposits are a huge blessing to the state. But the chief of Chugwui,, covering Ganawuri, Da Wakili Gudong told Daily Trust that the impact on the soil is negative, and is affecting farm produce.
“Our land is not good for crop production again because of the local mining activities. The activities are also affecting our health as human beings. They dig up soil containing radioactive substances, and litter the surface to degrade the environment,” Da Gudong said. “With many pits littering the farm lands, people are scared of going into their land for farming. They fear that  they might fall off and die.”
The Publicity Secretary of the Nigerian Society of Mining Engineers (NSME), Engr. Adedeji Adetunji told Daily Trust that Tin mining  has its negative side .
“Good things come with their curses too. The method of mining is crude in some cases. And this is an invitation to direct death, or death by instalment because the communities around these mining sites are exposed to health risks ,because of the chemical composition of the mines,” Engr. Adetunji said.
Studies have indicated that tin ore, one of the several minerals found  in Plateau State contains toxic crystalline silica, which has been associated with lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. For decades, miners have been working with little or no protection against this toxic substance. The miners of Danwal, where this visit was made, may well be risking it with cancer.
In 2012, the then Minister of Health, Professor Onyebuchi Chukwu, told an audience at the 55th Annual National Council of Health meeting that years of tin mining in Plateau State have exposed residents to danger, and the increase in cancer cases is linked to radioactive waste in the area.
A recent report done at the Sacred Heart Community Health Clinic, Gidan Adudu, one of the few facilities catering for thousands in the entire district, indicates this risk. Musa Atang, a medical doctor, confirmed this, when he was quoted to have said: ‘There is indeed increase in mortality from various lung-related diseases, which has given us reason  to believe that there is a relationship between long-term inhalation of silicon dust found in tin and lung cancer. Other respiratory diseases like pneumonia are evident here.”
Environmental degradation comes next on the long chain of curses of the mineral deposit and the methods of extracting them. The abandoned sites at Gidan Adudu, Rafin Zeti, Zawan, Gidan Mai Gandu, Gyel, and Ganan Daji areas in Jos metropolis, and Barkin-Ladi, have over the decades, caved in to create gullies which have worsened the erosion-prone landscape of Plateau State.
A total of N1.6 billion Ecological Fund meant for the state disappeared during Joshua Dariye’s tenure as governor. He told investigators of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), which is still prosecuting him, several years after, that the money was spent on the 2003 campaign of President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The federal government has, since the news of the  scandal broke, stopped disbursing ecological funds to the state.
The cash exchanging hands at Ganawuri and Danwal, may well leave the communities with scars to bear, long after the money has been spent and forgotten about.

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