PAYING A HEAVY PRICE: Kanana Benedicto, one of the villagers living around the Geita gold mine in Mwanza region, says the skin on his face and back became damaged and started to peel away, after he worked in a reportedly polluted river near the village.
The human cost of gold: Geita villagers grapple with pollution nightmare
Dar es Salaam
THOUSANDS of villagers around the Geita gold mine in Mwanza Region could be exposed to serious health hazards following reports that environmental pollution in the area could be 9,000 times beyond the maximum limit level.
According to a report by the independent news service Norwatch, the mine has become tantamount to a poisoned trap for neighbouring communities that are struggling with, among other things, skin and respiratory problems.
The giant AngloGold Ashanti company, which is partly owned by the Norwegian Government Oil Fund � Global, is responsible for the mining operations.
Reports now say the people living in the vicinity of the mine are starting to become aware of the consequences of the gold industry.
According to Norwatch, their food plants contain up to 9,000 times the maximum limit for heavy metals.
In 2000, more than 4,000 farmers were forced to move from their properties in the area, and environmental activists were worried that large amounts cyanide could damage the ecology of Lake Victoria, 20 kilometres away.
One of the greatest critics of the mining project was Kenya�s Prof. Wangari Maathai, who was later to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Now, eight years later, it turns out that the environmentalists could be right.
The thesis report of a masters degree student that is now in the process of being approved at the University of Dar es Salaam, shows sensational new findings on the pollution levels in the area surrounding the gold mine.
Food plants at the village of Nyakabale in the vicinity of the Geita mine contain a level of heavy metals that is as much as 9,000 times the maximum permitted level established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), said the report by Norwatch.
Soil samples show a level that is 6,000 times higher than the maximum level.
The poison level is so high that it endangers the health of both humans and animals, according to the thesis. The whole Lake Victoria basin could also possibly be threatened by the drainage from the mine activity, the masters degree thesis claims.
The investigation has been carried out by Tanzanian student Manfred Felician Bitala, in the field of integrated environmental management.
In his thesis, Bitala also presents photographic material of what is supposed to be damaged crops that will not grow.
When I arrived at the location, I saw that large mounds of stone mass from the mining operations had been dumped not far from the settlements. Whenever there was a heavy shower, brown water would drain down the sides of the mounds, down to areas where people lived, Bitala told Norwatch in a telephone interview.
He said the dumped stones probably contain heavy metals that have been fetched up from deep under the earth�s surface.
About 2,000 people currently live in Nyakabale Village near the mine in Geita District, according to Bitala. Some of them live just 40 metres from the closest tailings. He said since they were told that they were safe there, they therefore were not moved when the mine was established.
Now, however, the people declare that they are struggling with constantly increasing health problems such as pneumonia, respiratory problems, non-bacterial diarrhoea, and malaria. They ascribe the problems to the mining operation, according to Bitala.
They say that none of them had such skin problems before the mine was established in the area, but it is of course up to medical experts to determine the exact effect of the environmental problems on the population, Bitala told Norwatch.
The village people also told Bitala that the rain water they collect from their rooftops has a blackish colour and an irritating effect when they drink it.
However, a spokesman for AngloGold Ashanti disputed the pollution reports and told Norwatch that the Geita mine is built on the same spot where a previous mine was situated during colonial times.
The old mine was supposed to have been operating the first few decades of the 20th century.
According to AngloGold Ashantis Public Affairs Manager Alan Fine: It is unclear to us, given the absence so far of the full report, whether the researcher has used a methodology which differentiates between the products of AngloGold Ashantis mining activities, and the legacy of those earlier operations. There is no suggestion thus far that it does.
Fine said since AngloGold Ashanti did not have more detail on the study, it was difficult for the company to assess the accuracy and validity of the research by the Tanzanian student.
He added that the company carries out its own regular monitoring around the village, and that the results of this monitoring does not coincide with what has so far been explained regarding the content of Bitalas study.
To explain the pollution caused by previous owners of the mine, the AngloGold Ashanti spokesman pointed to a safety, health and environment report produced by the company in 2002, shortly after their production at the mine began.
According to the report, historic records indicate that approximately six million tonnes of material was placed as tailings during the operation of the old Geita mine.
Currently, Geita Gold Mine estimates that there are approximately 1.5 million tonnes in the stockpile, leaving what is believed to be some 4.5 million tonnes that have migrated into Mtakuja River since the mines operation in 1938. These sediments have contaminated the Mtakuja River water and the mine sediments have resulted in high heavy metal levels in aquatic and wetland vegetation, says the report
Pointing out that artisanal mining could also be a potential cause of elevated mercury levels found, Fine said it was important to confirm mining as the source as opposed to other causes of background high levels of the heavy metals.
He said levels of cadmium, arsenic and mercury may be associated with also other sources, such as volcanic activity, fishing and other industries, and that it is possible that the geology causes a generally high level of heavy metals in the area.
At any rate, in order to confirm ill health as a consequence of heavy metal toxicity it would be necessary to confirm blood/tissue levels otherwise the suggested linkage is a leap of faith, said Fine.