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Illegal gold mining in C’River National Park: Part played by indigenes and consequences

By Christian Njoku, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)

Gold mining in Nigeria goes as far back as the ancient Benin and Ife empires in the pre-colonial, although, the gold mined in this era was not in commercial quantities due to the capacity to mine.

At present, it is estimated that Nigeria has over 600,000 tonnes of gold deposit, worth over 1.4 billion dollars, scattered in different parts of the nation, especially in the North-West, North-Central, South-West and even South-South regions

According to available data, Nigeria accounts for approximately 0.5 per cent of global gold production with artisanal and small-scale producers providing the majority of the gold.

This figure is anticipated to rise in the medium to long term due to the present administration’s push for investment in the industry.

However, as positive as this may look for Nigeria, mining, especially for gold has not come without some attendant challenges which are enhanced by poor regulations, high-level corruption in the sector, lack of infrastructure, artisanal mining among others.

One of the communities in South-South Nigeria that is blessed with gold in commercial quantity is Ifumkpa in Akamkpa Local Government Area (LGA) of Cross River.

Ifumkpa is one of the communities in Cross River that make up the Cross River National Park.

Blessed with huge mineral deposits such as gold, a large percentage of which is located in the National Park, Ifumkpa has rich arable land and wildlife which is gradually being depleted.

A visit by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) to Ifumkpa shows that despite the huge deposit of gold, the community languishes in abject poverty, no social amenities, yet a high influx of foreigners from other parts of Nigeria to mine for the precious metal.

Assessing Ifumkpa is a little tricky as the only road that leads to the community has been rendered impassable, the people now access their community through a long tortuous and expensive journey from neighbouring Biase LGA.

Illegal gold mining in C'River National Park: Part played by indigenes and consequences
An exhausted plantain farmer in Ifumkpa (Cross River) trying to get his produce out through the difficult terrain to the markets outside the community

From Ekpiri Iko junction along the Calabar-Ikom highway, it takes an hour or more on a motorcycle ride through rocky bush parts that are largely uninhabited, rough and dusty to get to Ifumkpa.

The riders who decide to embark on the torturous journey in the dry season, end up looking like snowmen because they are covered from head to toe in dust, while in the rainy season, Ifumkpa is cut off from the rest of the world as the road is impassable.

In spite of these seeming challenges, Ifumkpa welcomes a huge number of strangers on a daily basis who come to mine for gold.

Illegal gold mining in C'River National Park: Part played by indigenes and consequences
Illegal miners from the northern part of Nigeria heading to the mining sites in the Cross River forest

From Ekpiri Iko junction, the cyclists convey mostly miners who are usually three on a bike with the rider and their mining tools such as shovels, and diggers, they are also with mats, food and other necessities at the rate of N3,000 or N3,500 per passenger.

The riders ensure that they have enough fuel in their bikes to get them to Ifumkpa which is the next place they can purchase fuel for N1,300 per litre in the black market, as there are no fuel stations or black marketers along the long tortuous bush part to the community.

One of the miners who identified himself as Musa Abdullahi from Kano, told NAN that they were contracted by powerful indigenes of the community to come mine for gold and they have some sort of agreement with their principal on the quantity of gold they are to deliver weekly.

Illegal gold mining in C'River National Park: Part played by indigenes and consequences
A cross-section of the illegal miners in Cross River forest

“These powerful indigenes get about 10 to 15 boys who are teenagers, those in their 20s and 30s from the north, provide them food and they reach an agreement on the number of kilograms to deliver weekly.

“Accommodation is not included in the agreement as we sleep in the bushes, near our mining sites.

“The indigenes of Ifumkpa don’t join us to mine because they don’t know how to do it, we are the ones that know what raw gold looks like and most of us have the spiritual capacity to call gold as we dig because gold moves,” he said.

Abdullahi said sometimes, they get more than their weekly quota, they just give their principal what was agreed and the rest, they wash and sell at the Iwuru Tiper Park, close to Ifumkpa for between N60,000 to N70,000 per kilogram me.

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When asked if he was aware that their mining activities were being done in the Cross River National Park, he said he did not know about that, only that the indigenes of Ifumkpa from time to time have a face-off with park rangers who come to try to stop them from mining.

Illegal gold mining in C'River National Park: Part played by indigenes and consequences
One of the gold mining sites in the Cross River forest

Many youths of the community who have now become motorcyclists in order to convey the droves of miners said it is a very lucrative business for them as they can make between N6,000 to N8,000 in one trip despite the difficult terrain and health hazard of dust inhalation.

On arrival in Ifumkpa, NAN gathered that there was a serious altercation between the youths of the community and officials of Nigerian Parks Services some days earlier, so, every stranger the youths saw in their community became a suspect, as you were accosted and asked several questions.

Mr Cletus Ibuni, Traditional Head of Ifumkpa said the chiefs of the community are aware of the huge gold deposit in their land which is mined by strangers from the north, contracted by the youths of the community.

Ibuni said they had tried once or twice to confront the youths but were overwhelmed and some of the chiefs were almost beaten, so, to be on the safe side, the chiefs and elders decided to keep quiet.

According to him, they don’t even know what the miners do in the forests all they know is that they see a huge influx of boys from the north contracted to dig for gold, pass through the village centre to the digging sites in the forest.

“We have reported this matter to the state government and even the conservator of the park that we are not part of what goes on in our forests because it is painful that this kind of resources leave this village on a daily basis and we have nothing to show for it.

“As a retired principal, I have cried to the Minister of Solid Minerals and Mr Okon Owuna, Member Representing this area in the Cross River House of Assembly to come to our rescue before this place turns to another Zamfara, but nothing has been done.

“The traditional rulers are scared because if you dare make trouble with the youths, you don’t know what they will do to you, we need security officials to be sent to protect our forests and the park to prevent future eventualities,” he noted.

READ ALSO: Gov Otu discloses plans for new satellite towns in Cross River

Reacting to the matter, Owuna, Member Representing Akamkpa 1 in the State House of Assembly said he was aware that foreigners were trooping into Ifumkpa but there was freedom of movement in the nation.

Illegal gold mining in C'River National Park: Part played by indigenes and consequences
Makeshift structures where illegal miners live in the Cross River forest

He said there was nothing the state could do as mining was on the exclusive list for legislation and the Federal Ministry of Mines should rise up and check if the mining activities in Ifumkpa were legal or illegal.

“I have heard of the mining activities but I can’t just jump into people’s community and start asking questions because I am meant to understand that mining is on the exclusive list,” he said.

Ifumkpa is a community of about 10,000 inhabitants who are mostly farmers of cassava, plantain, and palm oil among other agricultural produce but only come alive in the dry season.

In the rainy season, it is cut off from the rest of the world as the only access road becomes impassable, and a large percentage of the agricultural produce harvested during this period is wasted due to no access road to the markets outside.

Ifumkpa has just one solar-powered borehole, donated by a mining firm that was earlier denied access to mine in the community by the Federal Government; it has no electricity, telecommunication network or state or Federal Government presence.

The only primary, secondary school and primary healthcare centre which all look dilapidated in the community were built by the indigenes themselves after years of waiting for the state government, despite sitting on a huge amount of gold deposit.

Confirming the invasion of Cross River National Park by illegal miners, the Conservator of Park, CP Caroline Olori said the activities of the miners were carried out in collaboration with indigenes, especially youths.

Olori maintained that indigenes who open up their communities to illegal merchants of solid minerals such as gold or timber logging have remained poorer and insecure, while few of the indigenes and foreigners live fat on their commonwealth.

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In her words, “We have arrested many young boys who we cannot trace their origin, they only tell you they are from one state or the other in the north and they all live in our forests.

“In many of these communities with minerals, the indigenous youths are now in charge and the traditional rulers no longer speak for fear of being killed and resources are carted away on a daily basis.

“Today, some youths of these communities fight the National Park for trying to ensure that their resources remain, if these communities don’t rise up, our forests will be totally depleted with high-level insecurity that we may not be able to handle,” she reiterated.

However, Dr. Omoseye Omosebi, Federal Mines Officer for Cross River blamed the illegal mining in the Ifumkpa axis of the National Park on the National Park Service led by CP Caroline Olori in Cross River

According to him, two companies got the licence to mine in Ifumkpa, they did their exploration and discovered gold, and they went ahead and commenced community development projects one of which is the only surviving solar-powered borehole in the community.

He said they also met with the community leaders, youths and other stakeholders in preparation to commence operation but shortly after, the CP of the National Park came and said the place belonged to the park and asked the company to stop their planned activity on the land.

Omosebi said he met the CP and tried to make her see the implication of stopping a legitimate company from mining in the area, adding that the place had been exposed already but it fell on deaf ears and the mining company was stopped.

“The mining law says that irrespective of the Land Use Act, once a mineral is discovered in commercial quantity in a place, mining activities take preeminence over any other activities or use.

“I told her that if we stop licenced companies from mining in Ifumkpa, we will not have anyone to hold responsible when illegal mining commences there because the place is already exposed and youths will take over and start mining illegally.

“The road to the community is in a terrible state, it will be difficult for you to make arrests in the community but all my advice fell on deaf ears and as I said some time ago, the illegal mining of gold in Ifumkpa is now growing and we can’t control it,” he said.

Speaking further, he said Rangers from the National Park know these forests more than any other security agencies but they have not been able to secure the place meanwhile, this was the same reason the CP ensured the stoppage of licenced operators from working in Ifumkpa.

While the conversation goes back and forth, the issue has remained, as thousands of young men from the northern part of the country flood Ifumkpa to illegally mine for gold for their faceless merchants.

The consequence of this according to Mr Ahmed Abdullahi, Assistant Conservator General, (ACG) of National Park Services Nigeria is the insecurity it creates.

Abdullahi said 15 years ago when illegal mining started in Kabuki National Park which was later overrun by bandits, some rangers went on patrol and came back to tell him that they discovered some people in the forest who were not the normal Fulani herders they knew.

He said the information was not taken seriously and the people started mining but before we knew what was happening, they came with all sorts of criminals, bandits, and kidnappers to kill and intimidate the community.

These illegal miners ensure that the unarmed members of these communities flee their communities for their lives and leave the place fallow for them to continue their illegality.

“We are aware that a lot of miners have flooded the Cross River National Park, this is a very serious alarm, and the state, Local Governments, security agencies and all stakeholders have to rise and fight this menace.

“If we don’t, gradually, they will become established because their sponsors have so much money and they will become a big problem for the community, Cross River and the nation as a whole,” he said.

The Cross River National Park is a 4,000 square kilometre forest; 3,000 in the Oban division and 1,000 in Okwangwo division.

It is important to state that the park is surrounded by 105 purely rural communities, without access roads, portable drinking water, electricity and telecommunication network.

On 26th March 2024, Governor Bassey Otu appointed an eight-man Mineral Resources and Environmental Management Committee, (MIRENCO), to tackle illegal mining and its effects in Cross River.

The appointment which is in line with relevant provisions of the Nigerian Mineral and Mining Act of 2007 became necessary following increased reports on illegal mining in Cross River, even in areas that were reserved by the state and Federal Government.

While this is a good move, just having a committee is not enough, they must go to work in mapping out communities in the state blessed with solid minerals and following it up with massive sensitisation on the economic and environmental effects of illegal mining.

These communities also need basic amenities like electricity, portable water and roads that can reduce over-reliance on the forests.

Similarly, security agencies should be put on alert to forestall the establishment and growth of bandits who come like miners before overrunning the communities. The time to act is now!

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