A woman extracts gold in Busia. PHOTO/COURTESY

At the Sofia porous border in Busia Town, several women carrying black bags cross from Kenya into Uganda with large quantities of smuggled mercury metal.

The women take advantage of the porous borders and thin security presence to smuggle mercury from Kenya into the country without being noticed.

“I always take advantage of the porous borders to beat security and bring this chemical which I disguise as water from Kenya and later to Kampala where I have ready market,” one of the women tells us on condition of anonymity.

She adds that she has undertaken the business with her husband for the past five years and can supply quantities of mercury worth Shs20m in Kampala before it is distributed to various parts of the country, mostly to artisan gold miners using syndicates.

Such acts are not only illegal, but pose a challenge to the implementation of global conventions, including the Minamata convention.

Adopted in 2013 by delegates from over 140 countries, the convention was signed in the Japanese city of Minamata to address specific human activities contributing towards the widespread global mercury pollution.

This was after industrial wastewater from a chemical factory containing methylmercury was discharged into the Minamata Bay where its bio accumulated in fish and shellfish, causing severe sickness and death to hundreds of people, including cats that consumed the seafood.

The convention, therefore, sought to curb mercury pollution world over in the coming decades.

Mr Paul Agesu, the chairperson Tira landlords and artisanal miners association, a group involved in the mining of gold in Tira Town Council in Busia District, says mercury is brought in by “dealers” who, apart from buying gold, sell the metal to the artisan miners for the extraction of gold.

He further revealed that one kilogram of mercury is sold to artisan miners at between Shs800,000 to Shs1m and attributes its scarcity to demand by the miners.

 “We use mercury for the extraction of gold from the gold amalgam, which is why it’s highly demanded among small-scale artisan gold miners,” he explained.

Mr Geoffrey Kamese, the chief executive officer (CEO) Uganda National Association of Community and Occupational Health (UNACOH), which is promoting mercury-free mining, said despite Uganda being a signatory to the global ban on the use of mercury, the law has not been implemented.

Mr Kamese, who is also an environmentalist, added that artisan miners continue to use mercury in the process of extracting gold in the various mining areas of Namayingo, Busia, Mubende, Amudat and Buhweju, which puts their lives at risks and pollutes the environment.

According to him, there is a need by the government to make interventions towards reduction in the use of mercury by artisan gold miners because of a likelihood of pollution of water sources which are a source of livelihood to the wider communities.

But in the meantime, Mr Kamese said they have embarked on training miners on the use of borax and not mercury because it is safe and ensures miners get pure gold which is free from mercury within a short period of time.

“We have been to Amudat, Busia, Namayingo, Mubende and Buhweju, training artisan miners about the dangers of mercury and encouraging them to use borax which is less harmful to people’s lives and the environment,” he said.

Mr Idi Bakali, a miner at Budde gold mines in Namayingo District, said whereas he has been notified about the dangers of mercury to his health, he continues to use the metal because he has not seen any person falling sick within the community.

Ms Naomi Karekaho, the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) Publicist, says whereas they were aware of the international conventions on the ban on mercury use, the country had not enacted a law that bans its use.

“We cannot just wake up as an organisation and say we are stopping the use of mercury in the country; we need an enabling law put in place that directs how the ban will be implemented and the penalties for the offenders, otherwise as of now we cannot do much,” she said.

Ms Agnes Alaba, the acting director geological surveys and mining development in the Ministry of Energy, however says a Mineral and Mining Bill that will soon be before Parliament, among others, seeks to address the challenges of the use of mercury by artisan miners.

“As a ministry we are aware of the health and environment risk mercury poses to the community and have drafted a Bill that will soon be in Parliament to address such challenges,” Ms Alaba said.

Ms Alaba added that the Bill, once passed, seeks to abolish the use of mercury among the artisan miners and will allow the ministry to register and give all artisan miners identity cards with microchips that will allow the officials to monitor them and their movement remotely.

A source within the mineral police said they have tried to regulate the use of mercury by artisan miners but the porous nature of the borders was making it difficult because some unscrupulous miners were taking advantage to bring in a lot of mercury.

The sources suggested a multi-sector approach to have borders fully policed, miners sensitised, culprits arrested and prosecuted.