Health and safety takes the back seat in Eastern Uganda’s gold rush

A miner displays a bottle of mercury which is used to attract gold crystals from sand in Bugiri 348km (216miles) east of Kampala, Uganda’s capital on February 5, 2013. The miners mix crushed excavated soils with mercury which forms a mixture with gold. It’s later heated to separate the gold.

 With red dust all over his body, a short well-built man, probably 40- 50 years steps out of a 50-foot pit, to speak to a group of Researchers about the issues surrounding his mining site. This man is Majidu Musisi, he is the Chairman of Nabwala Gold Mining site in Budde, Bugiri district which has over 500 small-scale gold miners. Musisi works with his wife Nekesa Beatrice and together, they brave the pits and tunnels below the ground in search of the ever elusive gold rocks.

A miner displays a bottle of mercury which is used to attract gold crystals from sand in Bugiri 348km (216miles) east of Kampala, Uganda’s capital on February 5, 2013. Reuters/Edward Echwalu

‘’I have been mining gold in this area since 2006, and even though other people have left the camp believing the gold is done, I still think we can find more if we dig further into the ground ‘’ Musisi says.

In his search for gold, Musisi uses rudimentary tools like a handheld pick axe, shovels, and hoes, Musisi says he knows he needs protective gear for his head while underground and gloves when mixing mercury and that he needs to cover his nose when burning the carbon off his gold find. However he says this protective gear is expensive to buy ‘’ Us here we use our hands, so things like gloves, gumboots, will just slow us down, if we were using excavators, it would be different’’ He says.

When digging tunnels into the ground, we noticed that the miners at Nabwala don’t build re-enforcements on the walls of the tunnels they dig. Batambuze Methuselah the Community Development officer of Budhaya Subcounty where Nabwala Gold mining site is found says the lack of re-enforcements on the walls of the tunnels makes it easy for the tunnels to collapse on the miners during the rainy season.

In the Nabwala camp where Musisi is Chairman, 4 people have lost their lives after mounds of soil they were digging in the search for gold collapsed on them, while at Nsango B gold mining site, in Neighbouring Namayingo district 2 people have lost their lives in the same way.

These deaths would beg the question, where is the hand of government in protecting its people, our inquiries led to the shocking discovery that even with the dangers that come with small-scale mining, there is no regulatory framework from the district, and this leaves the miners on their own.

According to the Acting Community development officer Bugiri District Shafic Butanda, The district has not taken interest in gold mining in the district ‘’Gold mining is a new thing, so politicians in the district have not shown interest in it, we were forced to reach out to the central government, so it can take up the issue of regulatory frameworks for small scale miners’’ He says.

The absence of government in small-scale gold mining has also meant that safety measures are not enforced. Miners enter tunnels without Helmets or gumboots, or they mix mercury with tailings to attract gold particles using bare hands.


According to the World health Organization (WHO) exposure to mercury is the biggest cause of health hazards facing Small scale or artisanal gold miners. The UN organization says in a report on the Health effects of Mercury that due to Mercury’s effects, children and women of child-bearing age are considered vulnerable populations because it says mercury can be passed from a mother to her unborn child.

And yet at gold mines in Namayingo district, eastern Uganda, mercury is one of the vital possessions every miner must have. The liquid chemical is highly sought after as they apply it during the process to extract gold from dust dug ground from the Gold rocks in the mines.

It is a common sight to find men, women, and children searching for gold from a mixture of soil, water, and mercury. However, while the local miners crave mercury to help them get gold, they are also inviting ill health that could cause death with the same measure.

Dr. Joseph Gyagenda of Nsambya hospital last year told Oil in Uganda an Extractives Industry Publication that mercury was a heavy metal that could not easily be absorbed by living organisms, including humans.

“This mercury will accumulate in the kidney, liver, skin and lungs, causing permanent mental disability and a range of other conditions,” he said. He added: “If it gets to the lungs, it is very dangerous because it can get to the blood and easily destroy the covering of the nerves.”

Dr. Jacinto Amandwa, the Commissioner of Clinical Services in the Ministry of Health in Uganda, is quoted in a Redpepper article asking the government to restrict the use of mercury. Saying it is impossible to excrete it once it has entered the system.  He also mentioned that mercury usage poses threats to the environment and could pollute the water system and food chain.

So while Musisi only hopes the tunnels he digs in search of gold don’t collapse on him and kill him, he is unaware that Mercury is killing him quietly. And when I informed him of the dangers he faces daily when using Mercury in the final process of gold extraction, he asks pensively ‘’what else can I do?’’

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