Busia — Ms Jane Ujaala, a resident of Tiira Village in Busia District, has for the last four years toiled in the mines on a daily basis, searching for gold.
Despite her deteriorating health, Ms Ujaala cannot quit the activity because she has no alternative source of income.
"They [medical doctors] have advised me to stop coming here but I cannot stop because I have a family to fend for and I have no alternative sources of income," she says.
Ms Ujaala had sought the doctors' advice after developing chest pains.
"At the beginning of the year, I started feeling chest pain and incessant coughing, which has affected me because I no longer work as I used to," she says.
Ms Ujaala says she was told that her ailment is as a result of inhaling gold dust and exposure to mercury vapour.
In artisanal mining, mercury is mixed with gold-containing materials to form a mercury-gold amalgam which is then heated and vaporised to obtain the gold.
Ms Ujaala is one of the artisanal miners risking their lives in Tiira, Amonikakine and Akobwaat mining sites by extracting gold with bare hands due to lack of protective gear such as glasses, masks, gumboots, helmets and gloves.
On our visit to the mining sites, hundreds of residents, including children and women, are found in open pits searching for gold.
Despite the depth of the pits which measure up to 100-feet deep, the residents have no protective gear.
Mr John Wafula, another miner, claims his wife developed fistula due to spending long hours in dirty water in search for gold.
"The health workers said they have diagnosed her with fistula," he says.
However, Dr David Okoth of Pallisa General Hospital, says exposure to mercury or dirty water cannot cause fistula.
"Mercury or exposure to dirty water cannot cause fistula because the most common cause is childbirth and obstructed labour," he says.
Ms Rebecca Opolot, another miner, says some of her colleagues, due to the effect of mercury, have developed dark shades on their hands and fingers. "We recognise [the effect of mercury] and we are aware of its effect but we have nothing to do," she says.
Mr Alex Okello, the Tiira Village chairperson, says 95 per cent of the residents are now artisan miners and are at risk of contracting cancer and other respiratory diseases.
"They have been exposed to grave health risks because they have no protective gear," he says.
Mr Johnson Erenyu, the district natural resources officer, says the small-scale miners have been sensitised to stop using mercury in vain.
"Women and children are dying in the mines and others are contracting respiratory diseases. We have tried to do our part but the miners have persisted," he says.
Mr Erenyu explains that after purification, the miners dispose the waste into the streams, which has also puts the lives of other communities at risk.
"This has polluted the water sources and endangered residents who use the water for crop cultivation, domestic use and livestock," he adds.
According to Dr Mackay Odeke from Mbale Regional Referral Hospital, mercury is very dangerous to humans.
"Mercury can cause brain and organ damage, especially in children; it is a poisonous metal that can eventually kill in a gradual manner," he says.
"Because they have to work for long while panning soil, their eyes are strained to distinguish gold fragments as tiny as grains of sand from soil texture and later make it into one solid peace. This has resulted in escalating cases of eye problems among those staying in or around villages where mining is intense," Dr Odeke adds.
Mercury also causes tremors, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular effects and headache, among others.
Mr Okello says residents of Tabong, Nakoola and Angaram villages have since abandoned gardening for gold mining.
"Majority of the residents think the business is profitable, forgetting that it is harmful to them and the environment," he says.
Mr Moses Puko, the councillor for Mawero Parish, says every month, at least one person is buried in the mines.
"This has turned out to be a death trap because we have lost more than 10 people in the mines after soils carved in," he says.
Similar deaths have occurred in Tiira, Amonikakinei and Syanyonja with some sources putting the death toll at 60 in the past four years.
"And majority of the deaths are of children who are lured into the mines because of the rush for quick money yet they do not have safety gear," Mr Puko says.
Mr Paul Oguttu, the district chairperson, says gold mining activities have polluted the environment and water sources.
"Water sources have been polluted; this is caused by artisan miners because large-scale miners are organised," he says.
The district education officer, Mr Barnabas Muniala, attributes the poor performance and increasing school dropouts in the area to gold mining.
"Many children have dropped out of school while a bigger number absent themselves to go in the mines," he says.
The district police commander, Mr Elia Eletot, says they have set a unit responsible for educating small-scale miners on the dangers of illegal gold mining.
"Formerly, we used to register many cases of death of miners, who were buried by soil in mining areas. To combat it, we decided to set up a special unit to sensitise them on dangers and now, the cases have reduced," he says.
Gold mining and its downside in Uganda
According to the World Health Organisation, exposure to mercury is the biggest cause of health hazards facing small-scale and/or artisanal gold miners. The report further outlines that exposure to mercury can be passed from a mother to her unborn child.
While National Environment Management Regulations 1999 recognise the harmful effects of mercury and its associated compounds and provide guidelines for the handling as well as transportation of such chemicals, mercury oxide is imported to the country unregulated or as a smuggled good. A recent study estimates that more than 400,000 people in Uganda are directly engaged in the activity, and an additional 1.5 million are benefitting indirectly.
Uganda is home to substantial gold deposits scattered across the country but its mining story is one that leaves a lot to be desired; the industry is mainly run by speculators, smugglers and artisanals: and is riddled with corruption and illegal mining licence holders. The UK-based environmental NGO, Global Witness, last year released a report documenting corruption, mismanagement and high level political influence in gold business in the country.
Gold was first reported in West Nile in 1915, but commercial mining did not start until 1933. By 1965, only 148,043ounces were mined in Ankole, Kigezi and Bukedi sub-regions, producing 68, 15, 16 per cent respectively.
Buhweju plateau was the most productive area; producing 17,511ozs valued at £700,000 (Shs5b) and employing more than 5,000 Ugandans. Other gold deposits were along the Kashasha River in Kigezi region. Busia gold mines discovered in 1932 were an extension of the Kavirondo mines in Kenya. Deposits have since been reported in Mubende, Busia, Namayingo and Karamoja areas.