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Four COVID-19 Impacts in ASM in Uganda and Policy Recommendations to Address Them

Photo for illustration purposes only. On site trader loading clay bricks from burnt kiln at Kayirira site in Nkumba subcounty, 5 August 2017.

Article originally posted on Levin Sources website. Cross-posted with permission

By Victoria Gronwald & Josephine Singo

In June, Levin Sources launched a research effort into the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) communities in Mozambique, Uganda, Zimbabwe and the DRC, as part of a global data collection exercise on the impacts of COVID-19 in ASM communities. The research is funded by the World Bank’s Extractives Global Programmatic Support Multi-Donor Trust Fund and coordinated through the Delve COVID-19 Impact Reporting initiative, which covers 22 different countries.

This blog highlights 4 of our key findings from Uganda, building on those presented in our mid-project update on all 4 countries. It is based on repeat surveys conducted with 30 people working on gold, sand, stone aggregate and clay brick ASM sites, across 5 weeks in 2 districts of Uganda (Busia and Gulu). It also draws on 13 key informant interviews with representatives from the government, the mining sector and NGOs.

The ASM sector in Uganda was heavily affected by strict lockdown measures between late March until 21 July 2020, which restricted access to mine sites and markets, disrupting mining activity and minerals trade. This meant that many miners and their households struggled to make ends meet and faced increased food insecurity. While the easing of lockdown restrictions saw many miners return to work and a normalisation of minerals trade in Uganda, challenges such as food insecurity and low levels of compliance with COVID-19 health and safety measures remain.

Four key findings from Uganda

1 - ASM activity decreased significantly during the country’s lockdown, impacting miners’ livelihoods. Due to lockdown measures and social distancing rules across Uganda, ASM mines had to cease mining activity for several weeks. Financing for mining activity decreased or even stopped during this period. In Busia, a border district that was under strict lockdown for more than four months from 31 March 2020 and where individual sponsors normally travelled from Kampala, movement restrictions meant they were not able to continue their financing operations. The halt in mining activities led to loss of employment and livelihoods for many artisanal miners, who were left without compensation and often without savings. This sudden unemployment seems to have affected women more than men, as men have easier access to other sources of income and casual labour and women typically provide more unpaid work at home. Agriculture was one of the economic sectors that artisanal miners, and in particular men, switched to if they had access to land. In the gold mining region of Busia, however, agriculture was not a viable alternative option for all miners as much of the land is degraded due to ASM activity.

Since lockdown measures were eased, artisanal miners have begun to return to mine sites. Respondents reported that growing financial difficulties for many households have led to increasing numbers of women at mine sites who had not previously worked in ASM. This trend indicates the importance of ASM income for women – who are primarily responsible for household expenditure – facing increased food insecurity. However, the return to mining has not been without challenges. One of the primary obstacles in Busia has been mine pits becoming flooded due to inactivity during the lockdown. This has particularly affected women miners who often lack access to pumps to address this issue. Another challenge is that the presence of children on mine sites has reportedly increased, since schools are still closed but mine sites are operating again. This is despite mine site regulations prohibiting child labour, in particular in Busia where child-free zones have been defined through the anti-child labour project. The Ministry of Education is offering radio classes for students, but it has been reported that the majority of families in Busia do not own radios.

2 - Mineral trade has been rendered more difficult. The lockdown also led to a slowdown in minerals transport to trading hubs, due to an initial ban on the movement of private vehicles. In normal times, gold miners from Busia usually sell their gold directly, in Kampala, but during the lockdown they had to revert to middlemen, who buy on site and pay lower prices. Some respondents reported increased levels of gold smuggling to Kenya from the border town of Busia, but corroboration of this trend requires more in-depth research on the topic. From 2 June, the complete ban on movement was eased to movement restrictions in border districts such as Busia. Our final interviews revealed a normalisation of the gold supply chain since this easing of lockdown measures, with many gold miners now able again to sell their gold directly in Kampala. Gold prices dropped during the lockdown, and at its lowest the price was down 20-25% in comparison to pre-lockdown prices.

Miners of development minerals (e.g. sand, clay and stone aggregate) experienced higher levels of disruption than their counterparts in the gold sector due to a drastic fall in demand for these commodities. Development minerals are mostly sold locally, and often to individuals for domestic construction. Lower income levels across the board led to a slowdown of private building projects, and a resulting decreased demand for development minerals. The price of development minerals dropped during lockdown, even more severely than for gold, falling up to 30-40% at its lowest point.

3 - Health and safety measures on ASM sites are inadequate. Organisational health and safety (OHS) is a historic and ongoing challenge for many ASM sites in Uganda, leading to injuries and health problems. OHS concerns have been exacerbated due to the COVID-19 crisis, as the lack of sanitary facilities and hygiene protocols, as well as the inconsistent use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves, increases the infection risk on crowded mine sites. Since the easing of lockdown measures and the return of mining activity, registered miners must meet new standard operating procedures developed by the government in response to COVID-19. These include requirements related to health and safety measures. However, our research points towards inconsistent application of these rules. Many miners seem to have complied only in the beginning, in order to get permission to start working again. There are various reasons for this. For example, social distancing through shift work is difficult to implement as all miners want to resume work. Sanitiser is too expensive for many mine site workers. And some miners still only wear PPE when they see security personnel, despite many having been given masks by the government. Miners mentioned the discomfort associated with working with masks and pointed out the need for comfortable masks and at least two masks per person to allow for washing. Further discussion with some of the miners revealed the perception that ‘there is no COVID-19’ on the mining sites. Hence the need for more sensitisation which involves direct interactions with the miners to ensure COVID-19 regulations are being observed. The government has already run sensitisation campaigns through local TV and radio, local community leaders, public announcements, telephone notifications and public posters.

4 - Food insecurity has significantly increased in Ugandan ASM communities. Food insecurity is one of the main issues mentioned by interviewees, resulting from job loss and decreased household income during the COVID-19 lockdown in Uganda. Many families are struggling to meet the basic needs of their household. Those with access to land reported using it as a means to grow food, especially when the seasonal rains made agricultural production more viable. However, those without access to land or who had not planted early enough reported food insecurity was a critical issue. This was an issue particularly in Gulu where the majority of the miners were based in the district centre and had limited access to land for agriculture. Despite government efforts to supply food, ensuring all markets and food distribution businesses were operational to ensure accessibility, slight food price inflation before the harvesting season meant that essential items have become unaffordable for many households. Food insecurity is likely to remain a serious issue for families in mining areas in the coming months if COVID-19 persists beyond the harvesting season.

Policy recommendations

As highlighted in a previous article on ASM programming in the COVID-19 era, COVID-19 emergency measures in the ASM sector should follow a ‘do no harm’ approach, address the most urgent needs, and serve as an entry point to longer-term ASM formalisation efforts. Interventions should be based on further research into the specific needs of miners of different minerals. Our general recommendations are:

  • The government and traditional leaders as well as local society should provide further sensitisation and training about health and safety and hygiene measures at mine sites, with a view to creating a safe environment in light of COVID-19 and beyond.
  • Government actors and civil society should explore options of providing financial or material support to address food insecurity in mining communities.
  • The government should explore fiscal tools at their disposal to support miners to overcome the current challenges associated with lower mineral prices and a slower trade environment.
  • The government and civil society actors should explore ways to promote access to alternative livelihoods, in particular for women and miners of development minerals.
  • The government should prioritise schools and ensure that children and youth can continue to receive their education in a COVID-safe environment.

About Josephine Singo

Josephine Singo is a global health development professional with an MSc in Public Health from University of London School of Tropical Medicine and an MA in Language and Communication from the University of Zimbabwe. She is currently enrolled for a PhD on International Health with the University of Munich Lugwig-Maximillians München (LMU), Germany. Her research interests are occupational safety and health management in the informal sector with a focus on artisanal and small-scale mining in Uganda and Zimbabwe. She also has undertaken professional training in mining safety and health from several different institutions. She has worked in Zimbabwe, Mongolia and Uganda with experience as a researcher, safety and health consultant, university lecturer and counsellor in areas of HIV & AIDS. Some of her research includes mining safety and health exposure and perceptions amongst ASM communities, and health impacts of mercury use and exposure on women and children. Josephine has worked with Levin Sources on data collection and analysis of the impacts of COVID-19 in Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Article Uganda Gold, Stone Aggregate Political, Formalization, Governance, Economic, Income, Social, Community, Employment, Gender, Health and Safety, Labor and Working Conditions, Livelihoods, Legal, Licensing, COVID-19

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