Location: Anka and Bukkuyum Local Government Areas, Zamfara State, Nigeria
Date: 17-18 June, 2010

•    Lead poisoning still a threat in local communities
•    Communities water sources polluted
•    Lack of awareness on impacts of chemicals (especially lead) suspected to cause deaths  
•    Remediation plans by state government not visible in the area

The Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN) in collaboration with the Women Environmental Programme (WEP) visited communities in three local government areas – Nassarawa LGA, Dareta Village in Anka LGA and Yar Garma in Bukkuyum LGA of Zamfara State on June 17 and 18, 2010 following reports of human and animal deaths from exposure to high levels of lead from mined ore in the communities.
ERA/FoEN embarked on the trip because of the seriousness of the reports coming from the area with regard to deaths recorded and the need for an independent verification of surrounding circumstances. We also sought to determine the extent to which the Zamfara State government had brought succor to the affected communities and executed its widely reported evacuation of lead-polluted layers of soil which was coordinated by the United States-based Blacksmith Institute. The trip was also to ascertain the possibility that communal water sources were affected.
An important point to note is that media reports on the lead pollution disaster concentrated on mineral-rich Dareta Village which was the confirmed source of the leaded ore that polluted the other communities but mentioned less about the surrounding communities.
In view of this, when monitors left Gusau, the Zamfara State capital for the fact-finding mission in the morning of Thursday June 17, we targeted Nassarawa where a large population of labourers involved in artisanal mining reside and Yar Garma which recorded most deaths.

When monitors got to this community which had a large population of farmers and artisanal miners, we made effort to see the paramount ruler but all attempts yielded no result as he was said to have left the community on official assignment.
Because of the absence of the paramount ruler most of the natives refused to talk but a community spokesperson, Muazu Marafa, told monitors that the locals reject the belief that lead in the mined ore was responsible for deaths in the community because the practice had been with them for decades.  
Thereafter, we set out on the two hours trip to Bukkuyum LGA which we confirmed to be the most impacted LGA in the lead exposure fiasco.

The journey from Nassarawa to the heart of Bukkuyum LGA in northwestern Zamfara took two hours of torturous ride over very rough roads.
Bukkuyum is more populous than Nassarawa, but lacks electricity, good roads and portable drinking water. The only water borehole here is at the General Hospital which only a few had access to. The General Hospital itself depends solely on electric generators for power.
The Emir of Bukkuyum, Alhaji Muhammed Usman welcomed us at his palace and provided vital information on what actually transpired in the impacted communities under his watch.
In his account of the incident, the dead and critically ill were mainly children from Yar Garma.  He was quick to correct what he described as misrepresentation of facts in newspaper reports that indicated that several women also died from exposure to high levels of lead.

The paramount ruler explained that unemployment among the youth and the lack of basic social amenities in the local government were chief reasons why the people decided to throw caution to the wind in their quest for survival.
In his words: “Official records from the office of Ministry of Solid Minerals Development indicates that no company is licensed to mine in Zamfara so all what is going on is illegal. None of the companies mining here are licensed but it is the labourers and unemployed natives that brought the ore into the towns to grind and wash to make it pure. Most of them do it illegally because there are no jobs. Even when they were stopped and told the dangers they asked those cautioning them to offer alternatives.”
According to him, in Yar Garma the benefit of having a nearby stream which could be used to remove impurities in the ore was the attraction of the laborers who now started bringing home the metal ore from the local mines to be crushed by their wives and children. They however did this without knowledge that the rocks contained extremely high levels of lead.  
He narrated that sicknesses and deaths in children that got exposed to the lead actually started in January this year, but noted that medical experts that were contacted were fruitlessly treating them for malaria.
It was not until blood samples of victims were collected sometime in May and analysed in laboratories in Germany and the United States that the true cause of the deaths were revealed to be high levels of lead from the ore. Dirt from Dareta and Yar Garma which were sampled showed levels of lead that are more than 23 times the standard the US would allow. Animals that move freely within the community were also said to have been affected.

After the visit to the emir’s palace, the next port of call was the General Hospital Bukkuyum where a humanitarian medical organisation, Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) had set up an ad-hoc centre for diagnosing and treating infected people.
It was easy to see that the hospital staff were overstreched and our observation was confirmed by Austrian Volunteer, Dr. Jenny McKenzie, who told us that the facility and drugs were already overstretched and staff needed more volunteers.  
On the veracity of reports that had made rounds the week before indicating deaths in women and children, McKenzie told monitors that all the symptoms exhibited were among infants and that those admitted confirmed exposure to high levels of lead.  She maintained that no woman had been admitted or treated so far even though the possibility of poisoning among adults was very likely.
McKenzie explained that children felt the impact more quickly because their bodies were smaller and brains not yet as developed as that of adults. Some of the symptoms diagnosed included nerve weakness, apathy, vomiting, and in severe cases convulsion which caused brain damage and death.   
According to her, the exact number of dead was 163 while those still undergoing treatment were 85. They were all of the age range five and below.
A nagging feeling that we left the community with was the fact that most of the children currently being treated and those ready to be discharged will go back to the same communities where they were exposed to the lead in the first place.

Yar Garma which recorded over 100 infant deaths, is a settlement of about a thousand persons whose livelihoods are derived mainly from artisanal mining and cattle-rearing. The women mainly handle domestic chores.
Here, animals – goats, cows and chickens, were observed to be moving freely in and around residences where several heaps of gold ore were left after the state government ordered that all processing of metal ores in the communities be stopped forthwith.
The most notable feature of the settlement is a vast but not clearly marked grave yard which was as deserted as most of the hamlets as we approached the town. We learnt that most of the dead children were buried here.
It was gathered that before the boom in the tin ore business in Anka, the Yar Garma community hosted a mini-quarry and was never short of ore to grind into fine dust or its purification at the stream, which, unfortunately, is the only source of water for consumption and other uses.
The fact that a mini-quarry existed in the community accounted for the huge number of people involved in the tin ore trade in the community.

As we snaked our way through the almost deserted community, our first shocking find was the quantity of tin ore that littered the environment near most of the hamlets. At some residences there were dismantled structures which the local guide explained to be make-shift structures for the grinders. What is shocking about this?
Mr. Bashir Lawal, an indigene of the community who works as a teacher with Fura Girke Primary School at Bukkuyum LGA headquarters later conducted the fact-finding team round various locations where artisanal mining and grinding of the tin ore was still in full steam.
By the time we arrived at the very polluted community stream we observed tens of locals actively engaged in the washing of the metal ores in the water. The local guide reminded one of the youths of government’s warning on the dangers of the practice but he only acknowledged the remark by the nod of the head and continued.
Bashir explained that most of the natives did not agree with the results of medical tests that lead from the ore was actually the cause of the deaths. Rather, they believed it was an evil spirit that was responsible for the deaths which needed to be appeased.
A little further up from this group of artisanal miners where others involved in grinding of the ore which are brought into the towns by the labourers after washing them the stream. Surprisingly, not even the presence of monitors taking photos of their activities deterred them.
Again, the issue of government neglect came up as Bashir listed some of the challenges of the people: There was no pipe borne water supply just as there were no motorable roads or medical centres. This, we learnt, accounted for why the affected children were moved to the General Hospital at Bukkuyum which is about one and half hours drive through roads in deplorable condition.

The final visit was to Dareta Village where we were intimated that there were 26 sites where artisanal mining is carried out. Roads that led to the community were in very deplorable state and made the journey more difficult than others. We gathered that the ore processing machines have since been moved out of most of the villages.
It was observed that the clean up exercise in Dareta Village was more tidy than other towns as there were only very little traces of ore in the environment, unlike the case in Yar Garma. Similarly some of the poisoned ponds were marked and villagers avoided them.
A local guide was only able to take monitors to one of the sites where photographs of areas where gold was mined before the arrival of the United States-based Blacksmith Institute which used most of the locals for the removal of contaminated soil.
Mallam Abdukadir Aliru, a gold miner in the community whose compound was cleaned up by the researchers from the Blacksmith Institute blamed the incident on lack of proper awareness on dangers inherent in ore mining among locals.
Most parts of the village that monitors visited were clusters of hamlets without proper sanitation and amenities other than the logo and inscriptions of one of the dominant political parties in the country.

When the news of the gale of deaths started appearing in the newspapers and it became too evident that the Zamfara State government must take the lead in remediation efforts, the government announced the vote of an estimated $1.6 million to clean up the affected villages in partnership with the Blacksmith Institute
These efforts were also to co-opt local labourers to do the job.
But monitors noticed that the only tangible action on saving lives so far is the activity of Medicins Sans Frontieres through diagnosis and treatment of the sick and not any intervention of government. The promise of government has not changed the conditions prevalent before the break out of deaths: no water, no electricity, no roads and no medical centers to improve the wellness of the people.
The promised excavation of leaded ore from the affected communities if judged by what we saw in Yar Garma, is a shoddy job that cannot be described as a cleanup at all because large and small pieces of leaded ore was still in the environment which could further lead to fatalities if man or animal gets into contact with it.
Our investigation which unearthed more mining activity in Yar Garma indicated that the Ministry of Solid Minerals Development was not enforcing a ban on all artisanal mining in communal lands even with the huge number of deaths recorded so far.
The Emir of Bukkuyum, Alhaji Muhammed Usman noted in the interview in his palace that, “Unless you create employment for the youths involved in this practice nothing will change. They will go back to it whenever they are hungry.”  

“They are just blaming the common people for no reason. We know that every big man in Zamfara is involved in the mining business. Who gave them the license and who is stopping them? All we are hearing is that the people who have no jobs or other amenities to make them survive are to blame. This is not fair”
-Sani Aliru, Cattle Rearer, Nassarawa LGA

“We now trek very long distance in search of water because of the contamination of the stream where we get drinking water. The incident was caused by some of our people washing the metals in the stream. If government had provided portable drinking water for us we would have left the stream for them and these deaths would have been avoided.”
 -Aisha Aladu, House wife Yar Garma

“We are not certain if more children or community people have been affected because there is no electricity in the community to power the biochemical machine used in testing for lead. If there was power we would have carried out more tests but for now we cannot do that and we are already overwhelmed”
-    Dr. Jenny McCkenzie, Australian doctor with Medicins Sans Frontieres

“My sister lost three of her children to the poisoned earth where they used to play before they started falling sick. Two of them died suddenly a day after they fell seriously ill and started vomiting. The third one started convulsing and died in the evening of the third day. It is really sad because nobody told us that the rocks they were playing with was poison.”
-    Meiro Ali, kunu seller, Yar Garma

None of the communities visited, save for Nassarawa which had only one tarred road, had any presence of government such as electricity, portable drinking water or motorable roads.
It was observed for instance in Yar Garma, that man and beast shared the sole source of water which was the same polluted stream.
The only available source of portable drinking water in the community is a hand pump within the premises of the General Hospital Bukkuyum.

 The Federal and Zamfara State governments must
•    Seal off polluted sources of water and provide safe drinking water for the communities and commence actions to detoxify them. Communities on the downstream of the mining areas should ne warmed of the toxicity of the waters.
•    Embark on mass education (using the traditional language) of host communities on dangers of  mining
•    Pay compensation to impacted families and guarantee adequate medicare for those currently admitted for lead poisoning  
•    Provide the Bukkuyum communities basic infrastructure and social amenities
•    Stop issuance of mining licenses and ensure strict environmental regulation and protection

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