The space for artisanal miners in Uganda is slowly shrinking. As the country tries to strike a deal between artisanal miners and a developer of a gold mine in Mubende, a similar problem is playing out in Buhweju district.
A Chinese company, Hubei Jiu Zhou Geological Exploration Company Limited, has sued artisanal miners for encroaching on its gold site. In a suit that Hubei has filed, the company says nearly 10,000 artisanal gold miners are operating illegally on its site, and, therefore wants them evicted.
The suit, filed at the High court in Mbarara in July, is filed as Jiu Zhou Geological Exploration Company Limited Vs the Attorney General, John Muyambi Mururi, Rwamwojo Willy, Butongirize Richard, Buhweju Small Scale Miners Association and Buhweju District Local Government.
Hubei also wants court to fine the miners Shs 400 million for mining, prospecting and exploring minerals without a license, on top of the damages and costs of the suit. The Chinese firm says government granted it an exploration license in December, 2016.
"Shortly afterwards, John Muyambi, Rwamwojo Willy, Butongirize Richard (artisanal miners and Buhweju Small Scale Miners Association started carrying out prospecting, exploration, and mining activities in the license area. The miners do not have any license authorizing them to carrying out the mining in an area," the company states in its plaint.
Hubei argues that artisanal miners entered into the exploration camps the company had built, hurled stones at its employees and threatened to kill them if they didn't back off.
"They [artisanal miners] threatened to cut off the heads of the camp supervisor if he did not abandon the mining sites," the Chinese firm claims.
Hubei further claims that the artisanal miners use mercury and cyanide while mining.
"... the use of mercury in illegal mining activities leads to mercury poisoning and exposes the... fertile soils, water sources, livestock and the defendants themselves to poisoning," the plaint reads in part.
The country is also losing money since the artisanal miners do not pay tax or royalties, the Chinese firm noted.
Hubei officials feel the security officers have let the company down for not reining in the artisanal miners.
Also, its complaints to the directorate of Geological Survey and Mines about the activities of artisanal miners were not adequately addressed, the company said.
ENTER ARTISANAL MINERS
In their defense, through their lawyers, Godfrey Ojok, the artisanal miners deny the allegation that they are processing for minerals and mining without a license.
The artisanal miners argue that on January 30, 2017, Buhweju Small Scale Miners Association obtained a prospecting licence to the area and consequently applied for an exploration licence on July 3, 2017 but the same remains pending.
The artisanal miners argue that the Chinese firm found them when they were already prospecting for mineral activities in the same area.
They claim they conducted a search and found that the Chinese firm's application was not endorsed by the chief administrative officer (CAO) of Buhweju. Therefore, they say, the Chinese company's license is fraudulent. Instead, the artisanal miners want court to cancel the investor's exploration license for alleged fraud.
The miners further intend to rely on the report of the directorate of Geological Survey and Mines of March 2017 that pins Hubei Jiu Zhou Geological Exploration Company Limited for operating under false pretence.
The report, according to the miners, notes that the Chinese company is instead harvesting a local aphrodisiac herb for export, locally known as mulondo, for export and not engaging in any mineral operations.
The report is said to have recommended that 10 square kilometers of the disputed land be left out to artisanal miners. The artisanal miners also deny they use mercury and cyanide in processing gold.