Karamoja — Having lost their traditional herds, the local people of Karamoja, Uganda, increasingly turned to small-scale gold mining as a meager but fairly steady source of income. But with large mining interests moving into the region, even their gold could soon be taken from them.
As a child, Livingstone Ekiru's world revolved around cows. His family's herd was large, over 100 animals. Ekiru lives in Karamoja in northeastern Uganda, and his people, the Karimojong, have long been semi-nomadic pastoralists. Livestock is at the heart of their culture, and a man's worth is counted in cattle.
But more importantly, explains Ekiru, cows have kept his people alive for centuries in a harsh, dry land.
"When you have animals, there you can shed blood of the animals and you eat, you can eat meat there, you can get milk there," he said. "So there's no hunger there. They can survive if the animals are there."
But a combination of forced disarmament, drought and disease has taken its toll, and the cows of Karamoja are disappearing. Ekiru's family has only a handful of animals left, and he was forced to find other ways to survive.
Like tens of thousands of Karimojong, he turned to gold.
Now Ekiru spends his days hacking away at the bottom of a dry riverbed, mixing the earth with water and painstakingly sifting the mud for tiny gleaming nuggets to sell at the market. Sometimes he makes up to $3 a day. Other days, he said, he finds nothing at all.
"Like now, for example, if you have not already worked, that means that you will sleep here hungry. If you have not found it, no food. It is not easy also to get the gold itself. You use a lot of strength, energy, and it is not every day that you can go and get it."
Simon Nangiro, head of the Karamoja Miners Association, estimates that around 80,000 people in the region make a living panning for gold. Crops in Karamoja often fail, and there is little industry. Without the gold, he said, he does not know what else they would do to survive.
"You know, the Karimojong really didn't know about any other thing apart from looking after their animals," Nangiro said. "So people looked for alternatives. More and more numbers are going for mining, because it's the easiest way to get money."
But change is coming fast. Recently international mining companies have begun exploration in Karamoja, looking for limestone, marble, iron ore and, of course, gold.
A Human Rights Watch report released February called attention to the threat these companies could pose if communities are not properly consulted. Because land in Karamoja is communally owned, it said, the potential for land grabbing is very real.
Nangiro is certain it will soon become impossible for the Karimojong to mine their own gold.
"They are unlicensed -- they are what we call illegal," he said. "So definitely once the legal regime is in properly, they will be squeezed out. Even the buyers themselves are illegal when they come -- they don't have the licenses. We are seeing ahead that in the long run, we shall get squeezed out."
In the meantime, fear is in the air. The Miners Association has been educating the Karimojong about their rights, but many feel powerless against the government.
One former herdsman says rumors are circulating about the forced disarmament of the Karimojong several years ago. The disarmament was officially to stop cattle raiding. But, says the man, people think the government took their guns so the companies could later take their land.
Karamoja has always been marginalized by the rest of the country, and its people considered wild and uncivilized, Nangiro said. All he wants now iis for the Karimojong to enjoy their rights as Ugandans.
"The land belongs to us, the mineral belongs to all of us, and we must all enjoy the benefits that God gave us," he said. "Government has to be fair. Give room for your local people also so that they have something that they can survive on."
Outside investment does not have to be a bad thing, and could eventually bring development to the region, said Nangiro. Change is inevitable, he adds. It is just a question of how it is done.