- Commercial-scale gold miners are wreaking havoc in southwestern Nigeria’s Atorin-Ijesha region.
- Local officials largely condone these often illegal activities, while the federal authorities have been slow to crack down.
- Affected community members say the miners are destroying their crops, polluting their land, and contaminating their water sources with mercury and lead.
- The gold rush is profiting a small handful of local elites and their Chinese partners, at the expense of local communities and the environment.
LAGOS — Across Atorin-Ijesha in southwestern Nigeria, the clatter of stones fills the air as excavators aggressively dig into the soil. Gold miners work from dawn till dusk excavating the earth. There are fortunes to be made here in the Yoruba heartland — but at a terrible cost to communities in gold-producing areas, and the lands they call home.
Alluvial deposits of gold have been mined in this part of the country since 1980. Until recently, the industry was dominated by artisanal miners, mostly Hausa migrants from the northern part of the country. Host communities say the Hausa have expertise in finding gold, and the miners’ activity coexisted with the small plantations of cocoa and oil palm tended by other migrants from various parts of Yorubaland who had leased land from native residents, turning over a part of their harvest to the land’s owners.
Babatunde Ajayi is the traditional chief of Aye Aluko, a village about 10 kilometers from the ancient town of Ife. Until recently, this village and many others like it exported cocoa and palm oil from small stands cultivated by farmers who also grew food crops.
Ajayi himself is a successful farmer, wealthy enough to be locally famous for granting generous loans to friends and kinsmen.
“But on July 15, 2021, gold miners encroached on a portion of my land on the order of the Ooni of Ife,” the paramount traditional ruler of Yoruba land. “All the cocoa and oil palm trees were brought down because of gold,” Ajayi told Mongabay.
Meager exchange: Gold for mud and dirty water
Ajayi took Mongabay on a tour, steering his motorcycle along a narrow, unpaved path around the outskirts of his farm. Just two years ago, this was a thriving plantation. Today, the land is scarred with deep pits filled with stagnant, brown water. The miners have diverted a nearby stream onto his land to use for processing ore.
Villagers from both Aye Aluko and nearby Alapaede find deep canals have been slashed into the earth, dividing their homes from their farms. Farmers have used trees felled by miners to construct dangerous makeshift bridges, but these channels become impassable when it rains.
They say they can no longer sit outdoors to savor the evening breeze before sleep; thirsty hordes of mosquitoes rise from the flooded mining pits at nightfall. More than a nuisance, the mosquitoes threaten the health of communities across Atorin-Ijesha in a region where malaria and yellow fever are endemic.
The villagers had relied on streams for water to irrigate their farms, as well as for drinking and other household use. These streams have now been contaminated by mining activity. During the rainy season, residents are able to collect rainwater in clay pots, but during the long months of the dry season, it has been hard to find enough water even to drink.
Sunday Omotosho, a resident of Alapaede, said the quality of water from a well drilled to address this problem is suspect. “The well smells and also tastes offensive. It is not like the freshwater we used to rely on at our streams before the mining started,” he said.
But, like communities all across the country who find themselves living on top of reserves of gold — or oil, or coltan — the people of Atorin-Ijesha have had little success preventing the destruction. In fact, they are more vulnerable than most.
Across Osun state, the dominant occupation is farming. Many of Atorin-Ijesha’s farmers moved here from other parts of Nigeria’s southwest to cultivate annual crops like maize and cassava as well as oil palm and cocoa.
The patterns of migration that brought people from these other regions where land is scarce or unproductive, in search of less-crowded places to settle and live, are common across Nigeria. Residents of villages like Aye Aluko are a mixture of natives to the area and others who leased portions of land from traditional rulers. In many cases these tenant farmers have been established in Atorin-Ijesha for three or four generations.
Odunola Olaposi is one of the latter. The middle-aged widow said she and two of her older children harvested only half as much oil palm fruitlets this year compared to what their farm in Itagunmodi village produced just four years ago. She said miners dug up her farm, leaving it a wasteland of mud and gaping pits.
Where is the government?
Under Nigerian law, the federal government owns all mineral resources in the country. Prospective miners are required by law to submit an environmental impact assessment (EIA) before getting approval for mining activities. They also have to obtain a consent letter from the host communities.
They may then apply for an exploration license, a small-scale mining lease (lasting five years and allowing mining of a maximum of 300 hectares, or 740 acres), or a full mining lease granting rights to mine a larger area for 25 years, once a feasibility study and other regulatory requirements have been completed. Environmental laws require a water use permit before a mining license holder may abstract, divert or discharge water or effluent into any watercourse.
In practice, traditional rulers and local government authorities frequently grant permission to miners to operate in exchange for payment, despite having no legal right to do so. There is also frequent confusion over state governments’ powers to enforce environmental safety regulations and levy taxes.
Further simplifying miners’ access in this part of the country, on much of the farmland in the area, the land’s occupiers are not its formal owners. Miners are easily able to reach agreements with owners against the wishes of the farmers.
Tenants are entitled to compensation for damage to crops, economic trees, or buildings. Olaposi grudgingly accepted 30,000 naira ($65) as compensation for the damage to her oil palms from miners she identified only as “Chinese.” Farmers in other parts of Atorin-Ijesha told Mongabay they were paid a meager 500 naira ($1) per tree affected in the course of mining.
But this is scant compensation for the decades that tenant farmers like Olaposi have invested in establishing cocoa or oil palm plantations.
The Ministry of Mines and Steel Development has carried out a series of high-profile interventions against mining operations in Osun, frequently targeting Chinese gold miners in Ijesha.
“They are illegal and the moment we see them we arrest them,” Francis Bayo, the Osun state representative for the mining ministry, told Mongabay.
But, he said, his work is being undermined by other levels of government. “Some of those mining sites were approved by the state government to these Chinese without our awareness. So, what are we going to do?” he said.
Leeway for Lee Wei Wei
The national register of mineral titles shows that the Omoluabi Mineral Promotion Company Limited, a company belonging to the Osun state government, holds the largest number of exploration licenses in the state, covering 2,225 cadaster units, a total of 445 square kilometers (164 square miles).
The company has sublet these licenses to private operators. The most prominent is a Chinese investor, Lee Wei Wei.
A document from the ministry of mines seen by Mongabay suggests that Omoluabi and its sublessees are currently mining gold illegally in Atorin-Ijesha. The letter, dated May 27, 2022, suspended the company’s operations and ordered it to convert its exploration license, EL 18837, to either a small-scale mining lease or a mining lease.
The exploration license it holds grants the company the right to extract only samples of gold-bearing ore in Atorin-Ijesha. But converting this license into an actual mining license would be costly, and Omoluabi has not moved to do this.
As the owner of his land, and a traditional chief himself, Ajayi has stronger rights than neighboring tenants. But this hasn’t protected him so far. Surveying his devastated farm, Ajayi said that under the protective wing of local politicians and the Ooni of Ife, Lee has been able to seize land from him and his neighbors. But he’s fighting back with a lawsuit.
“It is the singular fact that I didn’t sign the consent letter, which they later brought after destroying my farmland, that continues to give me hope for justice in court,” Ajayi said.
Reviewing documents from the Osun High Court, Mongabay found that Lee isn’t the only Chinese gold-mining operator in Ijesha facing legal action. A source within the court revealed that Innovative Mining & Exploration Nigeria Limited was sued by some residents of Ilesha town.
Innovative, registered as a private enterprise in 2014, is mining for gold near Ilesha, even though it currently holds no license to mine anywhere in Osun state. Its directors are a Chinese national, Wang Shi, and a Nigerian, Paul Ogbe Kaizer.
The battered landscape around Alapaede and Aye Aluko bears witness to how various levels of government are failing to protect citizens or the environment.
Anthony Adejuwon, team leader of Urban Alert, an NGO that tracks mining activities in Osun state, said artisanal miners poison watercourses by processing gold-bearing ore on riverbanks.
“But as much as they pollute the water, the impacts of [artisanal] mining on the environment is not as consequential as that of the commercial operators that recently whelmed up the entire Ijeshaland,” he said.
The miners use excavators, mechanical crushers, and pumps to channel water from the nearby river to their rapidly expanding sites. Widespread and poorly regulated use of mercury to amalgamate the gold is also contaminating soil and waterways.
The Osun River and its tributaries are the lifeblood for millions of people in the region and for the ecosystems they depend on. As a result of unregulated gold mining, large parts of this river basin have become polluted with cyanide, mercury and lead.
Tests conducted by Urban Alert in 2021 found mercury and lead levels in Kajola dam were respectively eight and 12 times higher than permitted under Nigerian regulations. Water sampled at the Osun grove, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the outskirts of the state capital, Osogbo, found mercury levels 20 times higher than deemed safe to drink. Lead levels were 10 times over the limit.
“Water is life and you cannot do without it,” Adejuwon said. “If you say it is a runoff and you don’t take it directly, you consume indirectly from plants and animals.”
Ismail Omipidan, the chief press secretary to Osun Governor Gboyega Oyetola, directed all questions on mining to the deputy chief of staff, Abdullahi Binuyo, who oversees mining activities in the state.
Binuyo didn’t answer calls to his line or reply to text messages asking about the state government’s role.
While the state government ignores media inquiries and orders from the federal ministry of mines, Aye Aluko’s chief, Ajayi, presses on with his court case. “I am a very determined man though not influential,” he said.
For the moment, no one is holding the miners or their protectors accountable for their actions. Taking advantage of political cover at the state level and an apparent lack of capacity by the federal ministry to enforce regulations, the miners continue to damage farms and watercourses with impunity, threatening the lives and livelihoods of farmers in Atorin-Ijesha and beyond.
When they have exhausted the ore on one patch of earth, they move on to the next, unconcerned, leaving pits flooded by the streams they’ve illegally diverted to facilitate gold processing.
In the farms and along the rivers, Omoluabi and its proxies show no signs that they’re listening to the complaints. Mukaila Adio, a resident of the village of Oja Tuntun, told Mongabay that miners in his area sometimes hire local vigilantes, or even police officers, to surround the mining sites.
“They work with armed men on guard, so we cannot even speak with them directly,” Adio said. “Since the landowners told us that the miners will do water projects for us, we just fold our hands watching them until they leave without doing anything.”
This is a gold rush that is profiting a small handful of local elites and their Chinese confederates at the expense of the environment. For the people of Atorin-Ijesha, whether native to the area or tenant farmers, the question that looms is what will be left once the gold is gone.
Banner image: Mukaila Adio, a resident of Oja Tuntun, one of many villages affected by gold-mining, points at the polluted water. Image by Gabriel Ogunjobi for Mongabay.
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