Hundreds of unemployed people in parts of Migori have taken up illegal gold panning in a bid to survive harsh economic times, leaving a trail of destruction that has alarmed land and property owners as well as environmental authorities.
The small-scale miners have set up makeshift mines on farmland as well as sites adjacent to homesteads and schools.
Deep tunnels have been dug beneath buildings, farms and roads in parts of Kuria and Kehancha — resulting in cracked walls, destroyed roads and sinkholes.
With more illegal miners joining the fray each day, attracted by the high returns from gold, the situation is getting more desperate for land as real estate owners fear further damage to their properties.
Kehancha Mixed Secondary School in Kuria West is among the most affected by the illegal mining. Most of its buildings, including dormitories, toilets and classes have developed risky cracks due to tunnels dug beneath them.
“I am worried that many tunnels dug underground by the gold miners surrounding the school may sink our structures any time. The blasting that occurs as a result of the use of explosives to crush rocks in the tunnels has had a tremendous effect on the school. We are sitting on a time bomb,” says school principal Daniel Mirumbe.
A 120-metre deep borehole that supplied the school with sufficient water is also running dry due to interference with the water table by the illegal miners who have dug up numerous wells to supply water for the mining activities.
“Since we started experiencing extreme water shortage from our borehole students fetch water from River Tebesi about a kilometre away,” the official says.
“Efforts to stop the miners from their activities have been fruitless as they have stayed put. Only government’s intervention can help.”
Mr Chacha Nyagonchera Marwa, a resident of Tebesi in Kuria, is also worried after his house developed cracks.
“I don’t know what to do about it because I don’t have any means of constructing another house should this one collapse. These miners should be taken elsewhere to save our lives,” he said.
Joram Boke, who lives in Namba, has also been affected by the menace. His house recently collapsed after developing cracks over several months.
“My house developed several cracks as a result of blasting from the miners. After a while, some of its walls collapsed and I was forced to pull the whole house down. We are constantly living in fear because of the mining here. Something should be done to address our plight,” he says. Such concerns are replicated in several parts of the county including Suna West and Nyatike. Residents living in Masara, Macalder, Sandale, Mikeyi, Osiri, Nyathoro, Akala, Mukuro and Shinyanga gold mines are deeply frustrated by the illegal gold mining frenzy.
The illegal miners acknowledged that the excavations were having a negative impact on the environment but will not stop for a lack of options.
“Where else will we turn to if we stop gold mining? We are forced to continue because we have to take care of our families and we don’t have jobs,” says Mathias Mwita, a miner.
“Tobacco crop, which was the source of livelihood to many of us, has declined and many have turned to gold mining and that is why it’s hard to even stop using some of the risky methods in extracting the metal.”
Tobacco farming, once a key economic lifeline in Migori, has suffered a dip in fortunes partly due to tighter regulations governing the manufacture, sale and advertising of tobacco products.
Besides physical damage to property and infrastructure, the illegal mining has raised health and safety concerns in the region.
Most of the miners lack protective clothing and equipment and are exposed to grave dangers of collapsed mine tunnels or toxic chemicals used in gold extraction and processing such as mercury.
The problem does not end here. The miners also end up poisoning people who depend on the rivers for their food with mercury and other toxins used in the extraction process.
“This is the water we depend on in dry spells but now with miners releasing dirt and toxins into it, we fear for our lives,” says Janet Rioba, a Tabesi resident, in reference to the ongoing pollution of River Tabesi.
Miners have for centuries used mercury to separate gold from rock or soil. But when the heavy metal seeps into the soil, rivers and the food chain it causes serious health problems such kidney failure, nervous breakdown and acute anaemia, which may not show symptoms for years, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
Mining ministry official Raymond Odanga says they plan to relocate the miners to designated sites far from human settlement.
“We have received reports of houses developing cracks among other effects, especially in Kehancha. We are working to resolve the issues,” he says.
“One of the solutions we shall be looking at is to relocate miners to other areas.”
Migori National Environment Management Authority director Parnwell Simitu says the negative effects of gold mining on the ecosystem in Migori are alarming and called for urgent intervention.
“From pollution of water sources with mercury and cyanide, dust, cracking and the collapse of mine pits, the situation needs urgent attention. The uncontrolled digging and abandoning of pits are increasingly leading to the destruction of land,” he says.
“The miners have been left to go about their activities without proper measures. As Nema, we have raised this issue with the government several times.”