Sylvia Nankusu is an artisanal gold miner in Central Uganda. She spends her days at Kayonza Mining Site in Kassanda District—purchasing bags of ore, crushing, washing it—and searching for gold. The small droplet of mercury in her basin helps make sure she gets all the flecks of gold to sell at the end of the day.
The planetGOLD Uganda project works with women like Sylvia along the artisanal and small-scale gold mining supply chain. The project shares information and skills on how to reduce mercury use, as well as how to access finance, and ensure gender equality at the mine site.
Sylvia, 35, is a mother of three; two girls aged 15 and 13 respectively, and a one-year-old boy. Together with her husband, a farmer, they make ends meet and put their children through school. Sylvia, as a major income earner for the household, lives apart from her family as the distance to travel to the mine site daily is too far. She only sees them on the weekends.
At the mine site, Sylvia purchases bags of ore from the pit where it has been dug up. She crushes, dries, and then washes the ore to separate the gold dust. She uses mercury while washing to help separate the gold from the rock. How much gold she gets will determine how much money she brings home.
Each bag of ore contains an unknown amount of gold but the money she pays for a bag is based on the test gold sample she finds.
“There is no specific price of ore from the mine. Once we test and find gold, we then negotiate with the ore sellers. Sometimes we can buy at 10,000 Ugandan Shillings ($3 USD) or 30,000 Ugandan Shillings ($8 USD), depending on how much gold sample the ore had. During the dry season when there is ample sunshine, I can work daily for six days because buying, drying, and washing the ore to get gold are activities that can happen in a day but during the rainy season, I usually work for two days because it takes a day or more for the ore to dry,” Sylvia says.
Those who have been able to invest in equipment for processing the gold such as using elution machines or wet pan stations, aren’t affected by weather changes, she adds.
However, Sylvia describes this work as a game of chance because the amount of money she makes is never guaranteed.
“You can buy 100,000 Ugandan shillings of ore ($26 USD) and get gold worth 13,000 Ugandan shillings ($3 USD) and sometimes buy ore worth 30,000 Ugandan shillings ($8 USD) and get 1 gram of gold which is about 185,000 Ugandan shillings ($49 USD),” she adds.
Although Sylvia says she doesn’t make as much money nowadays, she recalls of the time she once made a profit of 5 million Ugandan Shillings ($1,320 USD) in one day. Before 2017, artisanal gold mining was profitable for her, but then she, along with other miners were removed from the mine site by the authorities.
Sylvia returned a year later after she was told the mine had reopened with a legal license to operate. “On return, we were paying 150,000 Ugandan Shillings ($40 USD) to be allowed access. I returned because I was used to making some money at the mine and had left my business behind,” she recalls.
“But we no longer make as much money as we used to do before 2017. Maybe those who own pits or have invested in equipment such as the wet pan stations do,” she says. She sees the little income she has dwindling in taxes and fees—but no benefits.
Besides, Sylvia says, “conmen” have invaded the business making it even less profitable for miners like herself. She also blames unfavourable policies being implemented at the mine. In fact, she asserts that if she had another source of income, she would quit mining.
This is not the only hurdle Sylvia faces, because as a woman, she says the conditions do not favour her. She, and others cannot go down the pits to mine the ore just like their male counterparts. She says sometimes the miners refuse to sell the ore to them. “If they get good ore that shows signs of having gold, they don’t sell it to us but rather ones where we hardly find anything. Maybe if women were able to have equipment that can help them get the ore themselves, it would make good business for them,” she says.
Despite the hurdles, Sylvia says she is happy that she has benefitted from this work.
“I bought a plot of land in Kassanda and built a house in it. I am also able to support my husband with our children’s education,” she adds.
This, she says, is her biggest motivation for continuing as an artisanal miner.
The planetGOLD Uganda project is supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and led by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). In Uganda, IMPACT is the executing agency, in partnership with Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) and the country’s Directorate of Geological Survey and Mines (DGSM). The project will work together with local communities to reduce the use of mercury in artisanal and small-scale gold mining—the world’s largest source of anthropogenic emissions of mercury pollution— while improving the health and lives of local mining communities.