EMMANUEL KIBIRIGE is a general secretary of Singo Artisanal Gold Miners Association, in Mubende district. He told Edward Ssekika about the challenges in gold mining in Uganda.
How did you join gold mining?
It was two years ago while in Mubende trading in maize grain. I got to know that there were people who were mining gold in Mubende, and that it required little capital. When I made enquiries, someone told me it was true.
But at the time, I did not have that much money but I wanted a new challenge. I went into the mine [Kitumbi near Kamalenge gold mine]. The first opportunity I saw was selling water. A jerrycan of water cost Shs 3,000.
So, after a week I started trading in sand [soil suspected to contain gold]. I would buy sand, wash it and get gold, which I would sell and recover my investment. Within a week, I had made about Shs 500,000 in trading in sand.
How does gold mining work?
In the gold business, there are people who dig under the ground. When they get sand out of the ground, they normally have two options: they either wash and extract the gold or sell it to people who can wash it.
However, sand has to be dried first before washing it. After drying it [sand] then it is put in a milling machine - like the usual maize mill - to get it into fine powder.
It is this powder that is washed. Fine sand is then put in water and sieved to the lowest point where, you remain with something like iron and then apply mercury to collect gold dust, which you cannot pick by your hand but mercury attracts gold.
How much is gold sand?
It is sold in basins and its price ranges from Shs 10,000 to 100,000 depending on the quality and quantity. You get a sample, put it in water and if you see some gold dusts [particles], then you estimate how much gold you can extract, and estimate how much to pay for it.
On average, we extract two grams of gold, which we sell at Shs 170,000 from one basin of sand.
After gold is extracted, where is it sold?
There are middlemen in the mines. They buy from us and come and sell to Indians in Kampala. Selling to middlemen is a cheaper option; you save the time you would waste while transporting it to Kampala.
How do you tell that this piece of sand has gold before you buy it?
You count the veins. You see, gold moves in veins; if one mines at a particular point and there is gold, you have to align your pit in that line.
Do you people pay any tax royalty to government?
We pay royalties to landlords [leases]. When you start mining, the landlord has to [appear] in your pit once every week. We pay a lot of money to landlords.
Why don’t you pay tax to government since you earn some good money from gold?
I have no problem with paying tax but since the landlords get a lot of money, they should be the ones to pay government a tax.
Government wants to regulate you and legalize your mining status but you are against the idea. Why?
That is not true. Mubende is not Karamoja. We are in serious business and we would like to graduate from artisanal to small scale.
Ethiopia has an initiative where miners sell gold to government instead of middlemen. Would you support such an idea?
That proposal would be very good only if the government offered a market price for gold because gold is like oil; it fluctuates all the time. It is about government organizing itself because it is more disorganised than the people.
Government wants to ban mercury in gold mining. What is your view?
It is not possible. Let me ask: who imports mercury? Before banning mercury, what is the alternative? Right now, there is no clear alternative even at international level.
Instead, let’s focus on proper disposal of the mercury. If they pass the ban, we can only pick the big gold nuggets, which are big enough to be seen. This means we will leave 90 per cent of the gold in the sand. I also think the ban will still see people use mercury secretly, which is more dangerous on safety issues and disposal.
Where do you buy mercury from?
It is brought by gold dealers. A gram costs Shs 1,000, and can extract one gram of gold.
Has government supported you?
No, there is no support from government. Gabriel Data [senior geologist in the department of geological survey and mines] told us they lacked funds to inspect and offer support.
Where do you want to be in the next five years?
I expect to have a vibrant mining company and with it have some personal concessions legally in mining. It is not going to be gold. I want to invest in salt in Katwe or iron ore in Kabale.