Dar gets mercury contamination warning

Monday February 11 2008

Special Correspondent

The unregulated use of mercury by small-scale miners in Tanzania is a standing danger to both life and the environment.

According to Prof Okey Ibeanu, special rapporteur for the UN on toxic waste, while the government has the mechanisms in place to deal with issues of chemical management, the high incidence of unregulated small-scale mining around the country is a cause for worry.

Prof Ibeanu says he has witnessed first hand small-scale miners using mercury in the mineral extraction process without proper safety equipment. In some cases, the miners do not have adequate information about the effects of mercury on their health nor about the dangers of improper disposal of tailings and effect on their lives and the environment.

“In Shinyanga alone, there are more than 100,000 small-scale miners, you wonder how much damage they are causing to the environment,” said Prof Ibeanu.

He further said that even though the government had tried to introduce simple environment friendly technology to be used by the artisanal miners, “most of them said they could not afford the technology and hence resorted to using mercury.”

He said in a number of localities, water, plants and livestock are at a high risk of contamination from mercury and other dangerous wastes.

“I have learnt of cases through my visits to mines and also been informed of small-scale miners who are aware of the dangers of using mercury and other chemicals during the extraction process, but poverty, inadequate information and the lack of a suitable alternative are forcing the miners to continue using mercury and other dangerous products,” said Prof Ibeanu.

He nevertheless acknowledged and welcomed the sensitisation efforts of both the government and civil society in this regard.

“However, it seems that information isn’t leading to commensurate changes in behaviour,” he said.

Small-scale miners are not the only culprits; Prof Ibeanu said he was also concerned with the operations of large-scale mining companies.

“From what I have observed, there seems to be limited government supervision of the operations of these big mining corporations. The government should monitor their operations more closely particularly with regard to occupational health and safety standards and relations between the mining corporations and surrounding communities,” he said.

The UN official said he has been informed of rising tensions in different parts of the country due to the discontent of local communities with large-scale mining companies and said it needs to be addressed.

Prof Ibeanu, a professor of political science at the University of Nigeria, is the UN’s special rapporteur on the adverse effects of the illicit movement and dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes on the enjoyment of human rights.

His mandate is to undertake a comprehensive analysis of existing problems and new trends in the illicit dumping of toxic and dangerous products and wastes, with a view to making concrete recommendations on adequate measures to control, reduce and eradicate these problems.

Toxic and dangerous wastes and products pose a serious threat not only to the environment, but also to the enjoyment of internationally protected human rights including the right to life, health, clean water, food, adequate housing and safe working conditions alongside other human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international instruments.