Mining for gold: A deadly industry in Sudan

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Serious risks to public health and the environment are being posed by gold mining in Sudan. The government is failing to provide regulatory safeguards to curb the devastating and polluting impact of the lucrative industry.

Serious risks to people's health and the environment are being unleashed by a rampant and unregulated gold mining sector in Sudan. Private companies, as well as locals, are mining for gold and other valuable minerals in a number of regions, in which large amounts of the precious metal have been discovered in recent years.

These regions include the north and east of the country; the Butana region, South Kordofan and Al Qadarif state. 

Sudan's gold mines: A deadly industry 

Local residents near the mining areas and factories, such as exist in Al-Sabbagh-Al-Butana locality in Al Qadarif state, are fearful of the dangers. Activist Ibrahim Ahmed who fights against the impact of mining activities says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication:

"Al-Sabbagh-Al-Butana area is 23,000 sq km and contains 10 gold extraction factories. Most of them are less than five km from villages or towns, and there are also groups using traditional methods to extract the gold in the area. All of them use chemicals and equipment that are immensely harmful to the health of local people, animals and the environment."

"Private companies, as well as locals, are mining for gold and other valuable minerals in a number of regions, in which large amounts of gold have been discovered in recent years"

He adds: "The tailings (the waste product left over when gold has been extracted) seep into the water supply and farmland which can lead to disease. Poisoning can result in lung and kidney damage and can cause miscarriages. Not only that, but the soil damage can involve changes in salinity and chemical content which can lead to tree dryness and destruction of plant coverage. We have also seen poisoning lead to deaths and stillbirths among livestock.

"As for the state, it is failing to monitor the factories and mining companies. This is evident because you see the waste materials being transported in open-top vehicles which drive around with no consideration of the possibility that some of it could easily fall and scatter on the roads."

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Public mobilisation in face of government inaction

Ahmed explains that locals have tried to mobilise, communicating with government bodies on the issue and requesting that a scientific committee be set up to identify the chemicals used to extract gold and clarify their dangers.

They urge that practical recommendations be published which will protect the right of human beings to live in a healthy and safe environment. Likewise, they have suggested closing the factories and grouping them all in one place which is far away from population centres. Finally, they urge the government to make the companies adhere to the ethical responsibilities they have to the society they are in".

Yasir Merghani, Secretary-General of the Sudanese Consumers Protection Society (SCPS), warns that: "The danger resulting from uncontrolled mining has reached the stage where children's nurseries and schools are being used during the summer holidays as work sites for treating the waste from gold extraction processes and other mining operations. This completely disregards the lives and safety of local people: we know that it causes an increase in miscarriages and foetal abnormalities."

"The most dangerous aspect is that rain causes the mercury to enter the waters of the River Nile, where it gets into the fish which people eat. This means that using water from the Nile may result in diseases like skin cancer, hair loss, declining fertility among men and women and the deterioration of date and fruit orchards"

He continues: "SCPS was established in cooperation with the National Council for Environmental Protection. Experts surveyed the mining areas and took blood and hair samples from locals as well as workers on these sites and sent them to laboratories in Khartoum to be tested.

"We have sounded the alarm bell repeatedly and pressed the Ministry of Justice to pass a law in line with the Minamata Convention on Mercury, to protect human health and the environment from human emissions that contain mercury and mercury compounds."

Dr Osama Hussein is a chemistry professor and former national coordinator for the Minamata Convention in the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Physical Development. When discussing the Abu Hamad area in northern Sudan, where around 60,000 people live close to seven gold extraction plants, he summarises the harmful effects linked to traditional gold mining methods:

"Using mercury and cyanide causes the death of poultry and animals, drastically affecting farming in the region. The most dangerous aspect is that rain causes the mercury to enter the waters of the River Nile, where it gets into the fish which people eat.

Mining for gold: A deadly industry in Sudan
Workers at a gold mine in Sudan. Mining companies are operating with scant government regulation at great cost to the environment and public health [Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images]

"This means that using water from the Nile may result in diseases like skin cancer, hair loss, declining fertility among men and women and the deterioration of date and fruit orchards as well as farmland where crops and legumes are grown."

The bottom line: Negligence, corruption & cronyism

Dr Hussein says that the solution is to implement the Minamata Convention and ban the use of mercury completely. In fact, Sudan agreed to this in 2018, but imposed a delay of two years for the Convention's implementation: however, this has still not happened.

Environmental journalist Muhammed Al-Feelabi holds the Sudanese government and the public and private sectors responsible for overstepping environmental and ethical boundaries when it comes to gold mining operations.

 "The solution is to implement the Minamata Convention and ban the use of mercury completely"

"There has been huge negligence in applying the law. This is a result of 30 years of corruption and cronyism when it comes to the regime's dealings with these companies, at the expense of public health."

He adds: "The private companies in the gold mining sector take no social responsibility and operate without fear of any kind of deterrent or curb on their work. They have shown no enthusiasm on the subject of preparing studies of environmental feasibility because they are concerned solely with maximising their profits.

"As for the current government, it has not adopted any measures to deter the use of internationally prohibited chemicals, and as a result, these are being sold in public markets with no oversight or accountability."

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Al-Feelabi also criticised the civil society organisations working on environmental issues, saying that they are not making sufficient efforts to curb the use of mercury and cyanide or even prepare detailed studies on their harmful effects.

He views this as unacceptable at a time when the government's failure to provide employment opportunities is forcing Sudanese youth – who suffer high unemployment rates – to work in these mines. Likewise, he accuses them of showing no concern for the damage being inflicted on the countryside, agriculture and grazing areas for livestock.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.