Residents in Ethiopia's Oromia state have long claimed that contamination from a gold mine owned by an Ethiopia-born Saudi tycoon has led to health problems. Journalist Tom Gardner spent weeks collecting their testimonies amid talk that the mine could be set to re-open, even though the government has not publicly addressed local grievances. During his reporting, Gardner was given access to unreleased studies commissioned by the government and the mining company that reveal, among other things, that the area around the mine has the highest number of birth defects recorded in Ethiopia, and that serious environmental concerns about the operations were raised back in 2018.
Shakiso - In the villages around Shakiso, children have been born with deformities, and women have had so many miscarriages they believe they are cursed; the bones of cattle have snapped like twigs, and men's bodies have crumpled and collapsed without warning.
Residents who live near Ethiopia's largest gold mine, Lega Dembi, say that for the past 15 years or so, life-threatening illnesses, disabilities, and mysterious ailments have become so widespread that almost no household has been left untouched.
"We are the walking dead," Dembela Megersa told The New Humanitarian, describing the unaccountable pain in his back that has afflicted him for years.
His 25-year-old wife, Jibo Buno, sitting beside him, recounted the misery of five miscarriages in as many years, followed by a stillbirth. The lifeless baby's body was mangled by deformity when she delivered it seven months into her sixth pregnancy, she said.
Both blame their health troubles on Midroc Gold, a private company belonging to Ethiopia-born Saudi tycoon Mohammed Hussein Al-Amoudi.
The company operates the mine, which was closed shortly after its licence was renewed in 2018, following local protests over the alleged health risks.
At the time of the closure, the government promised an independent investigation into the allegations and yet, despite persistent community concerns, there are indications the mine may soon be allowed to open again.
In an investigation that spanned several weeks, The New Humanitarian interviewed dozens of residents in villages around the town of Shakiso, in the south of the country, and gained access to reports that raise questions about the mine's environmental safety record.
The sum of those reports - which have yet to be made public - paints a worrying picture: the area around the mine has the highest recorded incidence of birth defects in the country, and water that has long been used by locals contains high levels of mercury and cyanide.
Midroc officials replied to repeated queries from TNH by asking that all questions be directed to the mines ministry. When asked about the health allegations, the mines ministry referred questions to the prime minister's office, which re-directed questions back to the ministry.
'Talk with the local community and answer our questions'
In the villages around Lega Dembi, anger is mounting.
The community's concerns over the mine have added to other long-standing grievances and a sense of alienation throughout this part of Oromia, Ethiopia's most populous and restive region.
Local rebel groups have been emboldened and pose difficulties for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in his bid for re-election, which had been scheduled for August but is now postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The deepening unrest in the region over the past year has driven 80,000 people from their homes in the Guji area of Oromia, which includes Shakiso; robbed communities of their livelihoods and access to food and markets; and sharply curtailed aid operations, according to the UN's emergency aid coordinating body, OCHA.
Local Oromo activists claim enduring marginalisation despite being the country's largest ethnic group, and rebels demand greater autonomy from the central Ethiopian state.
Community leaders - as well as environmental and mining experts - say establishing the source and scale of any toxic contamination, determining responsibility, and formulating a response with community buy-in are necessary before a decision is made to re-open the mine.
Felix Horne, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: "The Lega Dembi mine is a powerful example of how the government should develop its mineral resources only after proper transparent environmental assessments and community consultation."
As Aagaa Tenteno, an Abba Gada (traditional elder), explained: "If the government wants to re-open the mine, first of all it must talk with the local community and answer our questions."
On a recent visit to the area, TNH observed livestock drinking from streams, which - due to the unusual design of the facilities - flowed through or near the tailings ponds. Residents told TNH they had never been told to avoid the water.
"I didn't know it was dangerous," said 38-year-old Dube Udisa, who used to bathe in the water and has been unable to walk for six years. He now lies crippled inside his mother's cramped shop. He said his bones are weak, and his fingers have collapsed into the shape of a claw.
"There was no sign at the time," he said of the water near the mine.
In late 2019, the government established a committee consisting of representatives of the federal government and the Oromia regional government - as well as representatives of Midroc - and tasked it with developing a plan to re-open the mine. The committee contained no representatives from Shakiso or the community around Lega Dembi.
In March 2020, local media reported that the committee had devised a plan that Midroc described as "win-win", and that the mine would re-open as soon as an unspecified amount of compensation was paid, although who would be compensated was not made clear. The proposal is awaiting a final decision from the government.
Birth defects, dirty water, and few jobs
Shortly after Abiy came to power in 2018, the government renewed Midroc's Lega Dembi licence for a further decade.
But following at least two deaths connected to protests around Shakiso, the government suspended Midroc's licence in May 2018, and promised an independent investigation.
A mines ministry spokesman said at the time that the government would only renew the licence when "all stakeholders agree on the result of that investigation".
As part of that process, the government commissioned several reports, including a two-part study that examined health issues of residents living around the mine, as well as one looking at the socio-economic impact of the mine.
A third study commissioned by Midroc before the licence renewal examined the mine's operations and environmental issues.
None of those reports, which TNH either obtained or was given access to, have been made public.
The first phase in the two-part health study - a survey by the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) and a Canadian consultancy, Arrowsmith Gold - found the Shakiso area to have the highest rate of birth defects measured in Ethiopia.
The highest incidence of defects was closest to the mine, sources who have seen the executive summary told TNH.
Of the nearly 3,000 households surveyed between September and November 2018, 384 individuals were living with chronic illnesses and disabilities, the survey noted, meaning an incidence rate of roughly 10 percent. Actual numbers, however, may be higher. The survey figures did not account for miscarriages, stillbirths, or children who died shortly after birth.
The survey, which also detailed the number of birth defects in the area, said it showed that the ages of children born with defects aligned with the years in which Midroc was operating. It also showed that nearly all respondents said they had never received warning of the dangers of accessing the tailings ponds - reservoirs used to collect waste material like cyanide left over from mining operations.
The sources who reviewed the report spoke to TNH on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. The report was submitted in June last year but has not been made public. The second phase, which would involve biochemical testing of blood and hair samples from people living both upstream and downstream from the mine, has yet to be undertaken.
A second report came from a team from two local universities who submitted draft findings to the mines ministry in September 2019.
In their report, they concluded that Lega Dembi "did not have any multiplier effect on the local economy" - despite the legal obligation in Ethiopia's 2010 mining proclamation for any mining venture to provide some benefit to the local community.
One of the report's authors told TNH that the government has delayed them presenting their findings five times. The presentation was meant as a forum to allow the authors to discuss the findings before the report was made public.
A third report - an environmental audit commissioned by Midroc prior to its licence renewal - was completed in March 2018 by Addis Ababa University Business Enterprise PLC (AAUBE).
That audit flagged serious environmental problems in the mine's operations, according to a copy shared with TNH by an individual who has studied the mine and asked to remain anonymous because the report is not public.
One of the findings in the audit showed that the company failed to prevent public access to three tailings ponds.
Two of the ponds were used as sources of drinking water, but no signs were posted warning against this, the audit found. In addition, impermeable liners were not installed at the base of the ponds to prevent waste from seeping into the groundwater, the audit noted.
The audit was not a fully independent assessment, according to a group of US academics who have been watching developments around the mine's potential re-opening. A client of Midroc Gold, they say, conducted laboratory analysis of soil and water samples, and most of the mining operations were shut during the researchers' visit, meaning AAUBE researchers could not inspect the mine under full working conditions.
The AAUBE audit, however, did find that "cyanide is present in considerable amount[s] both in water and soil samples outside of the tailings dam in the licence area."
It is unclear whether the findings in any of the reports are being factored into whether the mine will re-open or not. The government had also raised the possibility of testing blood and hair samples from residents up and downstream from the mine, but no such studies have occurred.
Mekbib Meskelekal, a spokesman for Ethiopia's mines ministry, told TNH in February that an environmental impact assessment had been completed and presented to the prime minister's office and the Oromia regional government.
He added that the document would be available to the public "sometime in the future" and that "continuous community conversation" is needed, although it was unclear whether the assessment was one of three reports seen by TNH.
He directed other questions about allegations of health concerns associated with the mine to the prime minister's office. That office referred the questions back to the mines ministry.
When pressed again on 31 March, Samuel Urkato, the minister of mines and petroleum, told TNH the ministry was unable to respond to questions due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Besides complaints over the alleged environmental pollution, the gold mine has also fuelled anger that the country's neediest aren't benefiting from its natural resources. Gold is an important source of foreign exchange in Ethiopia.
For much of the past 15 years, economic growth in Ethiopia has been reported at between eight and 10 percent every year, one of the fastest rates in the world. But in Oromia and elsewhere, the central government has long been accused of riding roughshod over regional and communal aspirations in its bid to maintain political control and transform one of the world's poorest countries into a middle-income one by 2025.
Land grievances are particularly explosive, especially in Oromia, which includes some of the country's most fertile land. In Ethiopia, all land is formally owned by the state.
Anti-government unrest, which peaked in early 2018 before Abiy came to power, persists in several parts of Oromia, especially in the south around Shakiso, and in the west -- where the government blocked internet and telephone lines throughout the first three months of this year.
In these places, the Ethiopian military has been waging a counter-insurgency campaign against the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA), an armed separatist movement, which, along with its civilian wing - the Oromo Liberation Front - returned from exile in 2018, but soon resumed a violent campaign against the central government in Addis Ababa.
Fighting in districts around Shakiso, meanwhile, has led to targeted killings of local officials and community leaders, arbitrary arrests, and what the UN has described as "serious human rights violations".
"Due to old grievances and unanswered questions, youth who had been opposing Lega Dembi and its impact used the opportunity of its return to join the OLA," explained Feyissa Shonora of KDA, a local environmental NGO.
"These young men, with the mentality that the government is oppressing them due to the abundance of minerals there, have reached the top command of the OLA in the area," he added.
Midroc Gold first obtained a licence to operate Lega Dembi in 1997, taking over from the state company that had operated the mine in the preceding years.
Al-Amoudi began acquiring assets in various industries across the country after the overthrow of the former regime in 1991. The industries have included hospitality, coffee, rice, and construction, making Midroc the largest private employer in Ethiopia.
In late March, TNH emailed and texted nine officials at Midroc - including then-CEO Arega Yirdaw - with questions about the audit and other reports, as well as on allegations from residents and activists about the company's environmental practices. In both February and March, the company directed queries to the mines ministry.
In April, Yirdaw then resigned as Midroc's longtime CEO, writing in his resignation letter that he felt undermined at work and noting "the problem with Midroc Gold".
Yirdaw declined to comment to TNH when reached by telephone shortly after his resignation.
Cyanide and mercury
Despite strides made in the past decade, roughly 40 million rural Ethiopians still lack access to clean water.
Although a sign now warns residents not to collect water from the tailings ponds, TNH also witnessed young boys collecting water from a spring that mingled with a potentially polluted nearby stream, which they said they believed was clean. There is still no fence.
"All the water around there is polluted, but all the animals and people drink it," claimed Alamu Jarra Godana, Shakiso's chief administrator. He alleged that animals that drank from the water near the mine had often fallen sick and died.
Recently, a team from two local universities funded and conducted an independent study of soil and water samples collected from the area around the mine, including from the tailings ponds.
The report has still to be finalised, but a draft seen by TNH - and Glenn Miller, a mining expert at the University of Nevada, Reno - shows the water around Lega Dembi contains exceptionally high levels of toxic chemicals including cyanide, arsenic, and, most worryingly, mercury.
Mercury is one of the world's most dangerous chemical elements, according to the World Health Organisation. According to health experts, it is so toxic there is "no known safe level of exposure".
Orish Ebere Orisakwe, a professor of toxicology at Nigeria's Port Harcourt and a leading expert on the matter, said mercury exposure can affect almost all organs in the body, often leading to kidney failure, lung damage, or brain diseases. Prolonged exposure at lower levels can result in weakness, fatigue, loss of weight, and gastrointestinal disturbances.
Fetal exposure to mercury can result in severe damage to the nervous system, which can cause death, he told TNH.
The risks of maternal exposure are particularly acute.
According to Elias Nyanza, a public health researcher at Canada's University of Calgary who has studied the effects of exposure to both arsenic and mercury, the two are among the world's most dangerous neurotoxins and can cause adverse birth defects even at low levels of exposure. These include spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, congenital anomalies, pre-term birth and low birth weight, he told TNH.
Water samples from near Lega Dembi suggest "the concentration of metals, particularly mercury, is incredibly high," said Miller, with the University of Nevada, who reviewed the report but did not take samples of his own.
"I have not commonly seen samples with mercury content this high, and it clearly is supportive of the notion that this water represents a serious risk to people who may have contact [with] or consume water from this river."
He added that more samples and analysis are needed to fully understand the level and nature of the contamination.
Globally, small-scale gold mining is the largest single source of mercury pollution, and there are plenty of wildcat miners around Shakiso. However, Bridget Arimond, an international human rights expert at Northwestern University who has studied the mine's impact on local communities, noted that the contamination level is so high in Lega Dembi's tailings ponds - far upstream from any artisanal mining - that it suggests that wildcat operations are unlikely to be the main source.
Mercury was used by the state company to extract gold from the ore between 1990 and 1997. According to an audit report written in 1998 at the time the mine was privatised, signs of mercury contamination were present on the site.
When Midroc took over the mine that year, it switched to using cyanide in the gold extraction process in line with common international practice. It has denied using any mercury since.
Responding to an earlier round of protests against the mine in 2010, Midroc blamed the government for using mercury; the government, in turn, blamed Midroc for using it.
But, according to the AAUBE audit, a 100-kilo vat of mercury was left behind by the state company when Midroc took over. When auditors visited in 2018, Midroc staff allegedly denied them access to the room in which the material had been stored on "security grounds".
That means a large volume of mercury has yet to be accounted for, according to auditors.
Mercury contamination is very hard to eliminate and may linger indefinitely, according to Miller.
Cyanide is less dangerous than mercury, but it is still highly toxic and poses significant environmental and health risks without proper safeguards in place.
According to Deborah Dewy, another researcher at the University of Calgary, exposure to cyanide can cause respiratory failure leading to death. Survivors of serious cyanide poisoning may develop heart, brain, and nerve damage, she added.
Experts also say that in the process of extracting gold, cyanide can release mercury naturally present in the ore, causing further toxic contamination in the surrounding water and soil.
"The international community should finance a serious investigation of the site followed by a clean-up," said Luke Danielson, a gold mining expert at the US-based Sustainable Development Strategies Development Group, which promotes better management of natural resources.
But Kifle Hirbaye, whose seven year-old daughter's growth is so stunted, and her limbs so badly deformed, she cannot attend school, had more immediate demands.
"All I need is her health," he told TNH outside his home. "If she's healthy I don't need anything else."
Tom Gardner is a journalist based in Addis Ababa covering Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.