Site icon Conservation news

Tense neighbors: Chinese quarry in Cameroon takes a toll on locals

The dilapidated home of Ambroise Ondoa, local leader from Nkol-Bifouan, damaged by vibrations from the Febe village quarry. Image © Yannick Kenné.

The dilapidated home of Ambroise Ondoa, local leader from Nkol-Bifouan, damaged by vibrations from the Febe village quarry. Image by Yannick Kenné.

  • Vibrations from explosive blasting operations carried out at the Chinese company’s Jinli Cameroon LLC stone quarry have impacted homes located next to the site which are beginning to show cracks.
  • Local communities accuse the company of air and water pollution and not respecting its local development commitments.
  • The quarry manager denies these allegations, pointing to their new road development leading to the mine which has increased the value of land in the village.
  • Local authorities receive money from the quarry through taxes but are not responding to local demands to reinvest in the area.

FEBE, Cameroon — In Febe, just six kilometres (about four miles) from Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé, a stone quarry overlooks a mountain slope and the bustling life of the village. Twice a month, the ground around the mine operated by the Chinese company Jinli Cameroon LLC vibrates as it launches huge explosives. A cloud of white dust soon fills the sky and several homes near the quarry tremble.

One of these homes belongs to Ambroise Ondoa, a local leader. His house, not far off from the quarry, has seen better days. Severe weather damaged the roof and the walls are covered with deep cracks. The sixty-year-old is hunkered down with his family in the only room that still has a partial roof, desperately waiting to be able to save enough of their farming income to repair his home.

His dilapidated home is partly the result of vibrations from intense quarry activity, he tells Mongabay.

Homes on the slopes of Mount Nkol-Bifouan. Image by Yannick Kenné.

“The after-effects are noticeable almost everywhere on the houses in this area. You only have to look at the impact on my house, with the roof destroyed and cracks all over the place. I’m not even the closest to the quarry,” explains Ambroise Ondoa.

“We feel vibrations when they blast. It’s powerful enough to even knock down small children.”

The company uses explosives to blast rubble before crushing it into various materials for sale. Basalt is a common stone mined in the quarry and is made up of several minerals, including heavy metals. The quarry carries out blasting operations at least twice a month and has set up an alert system to warn residents to vacate the village during explosions.

Schoolchildren from G.S.B Maristan, a primary school located less than a kilometre (about 0.6 miles) from the mine, are often forced to suspend classes and evacuate, only to return hours later under the supervision of teaching staff.

“When they want to carry out explosions, they give us an hour’s notice. We stop classes then and evacuate the students to avoid any more inconvenience,” says school manager Julienne Song.

Several hours after the explosions, once the white dust spreads in the sky, it is inevitably inhaled by the local residents.

Village residents collect water polluted by the quarry at a water collection point they have developed at the foot of the mountain. Image by Yannick Kenné.

“The crushing is done with nitrate and dynamite, which are composed of chemical substances,” says Auberlin Maffo, an organic chemist. “When the dust rises, it carries away waste nitrate and dynamite left in the rock during the blasting, dangerous substances which people near the mines are inhaling.”

The resulting ecological disaster is also worrying, according to Professor Émile Temgoua, environmentalist and teacher at the University of Dschang, in western Cameroon. Quarry activities have had a very strong impact on biodiversity. Forests, savannahs and wild animals (across nearly 25 hectares of land) have disappeared, he says

“The dust spreading in the air is damaging to more than just human respiratory systems. It’s also toxic for local plants, which are withering and dying. The dust is also impacting local water quality,” he tells Mongabay.

In 2015, environmental health and safety specialists H&B Consulting conducted an environmental and social audit on behalf of Cameroon Cement (CIMENCAM), which conducts similar activities in Cameroon.

They found that in the short term, fine dust particles less than one micrometer can reach the alveoli in the lungs and enter the bloodstream. The dust can transport other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and heavy metals that are absorbed into the lungs. In the long term, these pollutants can cause respiratory diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema or lung cancer.

Stone crushing operations at the Febe village quarry. Image by Rural.info.

Despite the quarry’s impact on the area, residential houses continue to sprout up in violation of the 500 meter (1,640 feet) safe distance advised in the country’s mining code. It’s enforcement, however, is still subject to a decree from Cameroonian President Paul Biya.

The locals have no intention of moving, claiming they were there first and have not received compensation to relocate. They are also demanding compensation for the quarry’s environmental pollution. However, they fear their efforts may be in vain.

They still lack substantial support to back them up in this conflict. Local authorities, specifically those in Yaoundé II, which administers the village, haven’t taken action to address angers and did not respond to requests for comment from Mongabay.

Jinli Cameroon’s broken promises

Along with several other areas with semi-mechanised artisanal mines, the region suffers from a serious lack of infrastructure. The mountain village is in an arid zone, and supplying people with drinking water is a real challenge.

A manually constructed water point releases a stream of water at the foot of a steep slope, providing water to the village. This was built with a modest monthly fee collected by local leaders of $1.60 (1,000 CFA francs) per home. The village has no hospital, let alone drinking water supply points, and is mainly served by a cracked and unpaved road.

These infrastructure projects were among the promises made to the locals by Jinli Cameroon when it started its quarry activities in the village three years ago.

A landlocked road in Febe village still awaiting development. Image by Yannick Kenné.

In the past, angry local communities marched to protest the Chinese company’s lack of transparency, forcing it to redevelop a bridge in the village. There is less conflict now, but there are still underlying tensions.

The company instead boasts about having opened up the area by building a road running through the village to the mine.

“Before we came, a square metre of land here (Febe village) was worth $0.81 (500 CFA francs), but now it sells for $20 (12,000 CFA francs), thanks to our road developing the area,” states Kevin, the Chinese head of the quarry at Febe.

Indifference from local authorities

At Yaoundé II’s town hall, questions related to local development are constantly bounced back to the Chinese company. Local authorities do receive money from the quarry, collecting a tax on quarry products at a rate of $4.90 (3,000 CFA francs) per truck. Nothing is reinvested in return to local communities.

Local officials have also declined all requests for comment from Mongabay.

The Ministry of Mines, Industry and Technological Development has also not commented. They are responsible for ensuring the company complies with commitments in the environmental and social management plan drawn up before mining activity commenced.

Main entrance to the Febe-village quarry. Image by Yannick Kenné.

“This plan requires someone to oversee the implementation, as well as someone to follow-up and monitor it, which is the responsibility of the administrative authorities,” argues Professor Émile Temgoua.

In Cameroon, enthusiasm for new quarry projects has dropped considerably in recent years. Cameroon’s Ministry of Mines 2020 statistics reveal that over the period 2018-2020, the number of quarries fell by 13%, from 434 in 2018 to 377 in 2020.

 

This article was first published here on Mongabay’s French site.

Banner image: Homes on the slopes of Mount Nkol-Bifouan in Febe, Cameroon. Image by Yannick Kenné.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: A conversation with Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland Institute, and Christian-Geraud Neema Byamungu, a Congolese researcher, about how resource extraction is impacting human rights and the environment in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Listen here:

Chinese companies criticized for mercury pollution in Cameroon

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.