Miners of gold are working without government licenses in old, dry river beds in Niassa Reserve, Northern Mozambique. Dr Coleen Begg, who runs Niassa Carnivore Project explained to us that to separate gold with from other minerals poisonous mercury is used, and some is leaked into the river during the process. The Lugende River provides the local people with their main source of protein and if its fish stock is killed off – or reduced significantly – the local people are likely replace it with bush meat and so turn to poaching. Vincent Pardieu (GIA) wanted to fully understand the role of the miners in the context of conservation. While he was visiting Niassa so he accepted an invitation to join Niassa Carnivore Project’s scouts on patrol. I was fortunate to join them.
We set off by truck and were dropped off near an old dry river bed, which the scouts suspected the gold miners would prospecting. The area is surrounded by relatively thick bush, with paths trodden down between the trees. After walking for several hours we came across mounds of gravel where Fernando, the head scout motioned for us to stop talking and the other scouts dropped their bags and crept forwards. What he heard could have been wildlife, poachers or miners…he moved on and saw a footprint in the sand. He followed it. We hit the ground as the scouts moved on to find two men in tattered clothes, a bag of rice, a pot and some mining equipment including a carpet used to sieve gold, picks and shovels and a small bottle of mercury. It seemed a very humble way to live and a shame for them to face the penalty which can currently be up to 3 years imprisonment.
We sat down to interview the miners who admitted to using mercury and that they were aware that gold mining in the reserve was illegal. Both had said they were there because elephants had destroyed their crops and had needed money.for food. Coleen works with the local village to provide crop protection solutions including elephant-proof fences. She installs swinging bee hives which deter elephants from crops and provides pollination as well as alternative sources of income including “elephant friendly honey.” She also provides scholarships for the education of local children. The current high price of gold makes Niassa’s resources a very tempting prospect. The scout team, Vincent and I set up our tents alongside the miners’. The nightly watch didn’t seem too vigilant – no handcuffs were used and there seemed to be good humour between the scouts and the miners. They were treated with nothing but respect.
Morning came and the miners were still there, just shivering under their blankets. It had been a cold night so we were keen to pack up and move on. We found another miner in the same dry riverbed that morning and he joined our crocodile line, Fernando in front. Soon we heard a shout from a scout at the back. It became apparent that the two miners at the back had escaped. Fernando was bitterly disappointed and sensed disloyalty among his troop. Further down the river bed we came another two miners and chased one down. At his camp the scouts destroyed their equipment by burning their carpet and pick handles. They confiscated the mercury and some poaching tools. The miners had also been hunting the guinea fowl….but the scouts hadn’t finished the job yet. An hours walk later that scout asked to go to the loo. Two walked a short distance to a tree, one gained a few meters and they both fled – one to be caught again. Fernando was livid. Perhaps for a young scout to find and detain a village elder like he had done was too tough a challenge on his sense of loyalty. All of their young scouts were recruited from the village – all except Fernando – and consciously so. But the village is small, the scouts have many relatives there, the penalty for gold mining is high… The challenges Coleen and Keith Begg face to conserve Niassa seem constantly changing and support from locals often hard-won. Alternative sources of employment is something Coleen talked about a lot. Here is an interesting talk about Niassa by Dr Coleen Begg.