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Silence far from golden for child labourers in the mines of Uganda



Agaba has no sense of a future beyond the mercury-laced waters of the gold mining pit he calls home in Mubende, central Uganda. Last year, after his mother died, the 15-year-old fled his home and became one of the 15,000 children reportedly working in artisanal gold mining in the country.

One of the oldest children working at this mine – some of those he works alongside are as young as eight – Agaba is engaged in what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) describes as the worst form of child labour. He spends up to 11 hours a day bending over makeshift gold pans, sluicing gold ore while standing ankle-deep in ponds of mercury and water.

Some of the children here, like Agaba, work for themselves, selling their bits of gold to middlemen who gather daily at the edges of the mine. The smaller children mainly work for older miners. Most are unaware of the dangers they face.

An aerial view of an artisanal mining complex in Uganda. The mining area is seen in the foreground.
An aerial view of an artisanal mining complex in Uganda. The mining area is seen in the foreground. Photograph: Eelco Roos/Hivos

According to official records, however, the gold they unearth doesn’t exist. The work of children who risk their lives for a few dollars a day is fuelling a lucrative trade in illegal gold that is smuggled out of the country and into products and supply chains worldwide.

Following UN sanctions on Ugandans buying from traders in the nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2007, Uganda’s official gold exports dropped from 6.9 tonnes in 2006 to 14 kilos in 2015.

Yet according to analysis by the Dutch research company Somo and the Stop Child Labour coalition, gold exports from illegal artisanal mines amount to up to 2.8 tonnes a year.

“Officially there is no significant gold mining industry in Uganda, but the reality is that there is a thriving illegal gold trade where up to 30% of gold miners are children,” says Irene Schipper, a senior researcher at Somo.

“Our research shows that the difference between the official export figures and the actual amount of gold exported from Uganda is huge … This is an entirely unregulated industry with no checks in place at all.”

Gold from artisanal mines is bought by independent traders. One such trader, an information technology graduate who saw a business opportunity in the booming illegal gold trade after failing to get a job in Kampala, travels from mine to mine, buying gold and carrying it back to the capital.

“[We] take it to Kampala and sell mostly to Indians, who then export it to China and Dubai,” he said.

Gold is filtered on to companies that, unregulated and ignored by government officials, broker deals with overseas buyers.

“We buy the gold. We do not care where it is from. If you have the gold we shall buy it,” said the desk clerk for one such firm. “It is our business.”

According to Somo’s research, much of the gold mined by child labourers is smuggled through Uganda’s porous borders and mixed with official gold exports before being traded on the international markets.

“The main problem for the children is that they are only looking at the short-term possibility of earning money to survive, but the gold mines are disastrous for their futures,” says Schipper. “They will not escape this low paid and dangerous work. They all work with mercury and none seem to be aware of the dangers. It isn’t just governments who need to be addressing this. Companies need to be more vigilant in checking their supply chains and to take steps to eradicate the use of mercury in the mines where their gold is coming from.”

Using makeshift pans, children sluice gold ore while standing ankle deep in water
Using makeshift pans, children sluice gold ore while standing ankle deep in water. Photograph: Eelco Roos/Hivos

Local NGOs and child protection agencies working at the mines say they cannot stop children looking for mine work. With more than 60% of the country on less than $3 (£2.06) a day, the state education system in decline, and youth unemployment at about 65%, the children at Mubende mines consider themselves lucky to have jobs.

Agaba sees a better future for himself in mining than at the government school to which his father sent him.

“I felt squeezed in a corner. We all know that there is no future when you go to a government school, it was as good as not going to school,” he said. “There is nothing good that would have come out of it. At least here I make money.”

“It has become normal to us now,” says Stephen Turyahikayo, a researcher for the Centre for Research and Sustainable Solutions, a Ugandan NGO working at the mines. “Nobody seems to care about these children. Not the government. Not the companies.”

Agaba’s scarred hands are testament to the hard labour of his daily life. He says on a good day he makes 10,000 shillings, about $2.50. Every night he sleeps in a tent made of sticks and blue polythene paper, sharing with eight other boys who drift in and out of the local mines searching for work.

The ILO estimates that there are up to 1 million children working in mining globally. While efforts have been made to regulate the global gold trade, illegal and artisanal gold mining is still riddled with child labour, trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Children at work on a gold mine in UgandaChildren at work on a gold mine in Uganda. Photograph: Eelco Roos/Hivos

“What we are seeing in the small-scale gold mines of Uganda and across Africaand the rest of the world is the very worst forms of child labour associated with one of the world’s most valuable commodities,” says Nadine Osseiran, senior programmes officer at the ILO. “In the often unregulated and illegal artisanal gold mining sector there are no structures in place to protect these workers and it is impossible to stop gold dug by children entering global supply chains. There is almost no control over where gold comes from or where it is purchased.

“At the ILO we believe that child labour in gold mining could be eliminated in 10 years but, unfortunately, there is simply not the funding coming in to make this a reality.”

Although Uganda has taken some measures to tackle child labour, a ban on children working in the sector was not included in the country’s 2003 Mining Act.

The mines are all that children like Agaba have. “I am going to work here. Live here. Grow up and die here,” he says.

*Name changed to protect identity

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Breaking: Witness Radio and Partners to Launch Human Rights Monitoring, Documentation, and Advocacy Project Tomorrow.



By Witness Radio Team.

Witness Radio, in collaboration with Dan Church Aid (DCA) and the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD), is set to launch the Monitoring, Documentation, and Advocacy for Human Rights in Uganda (MDA-HRU) project tomorrow, 22nd February 2024, at Kabalega Resort Hotel in Hoima District.

The project, funded by the European Union, aims to promote the protection and respect for human rights, and enable access to remedy where violations occur especially in the Mid-Western and Karamoja sub-regions where private sector actors are increasingly involved in land-based investments (LBIs) through improved documentation, and evidence-based advocacy.

The three-year project, which commenced in October 2023, focuses its activities in the Mid-Western sub-region, covering Bulisa, Hoima, Masindi, Kiryandongo, Kikuube, Kagadi, Kibale, and Mubende districts, and Karamoja sub-region, covering Moroto, Napak, Nakapiripirit, Amudat, Nabilatuk, Abim, Kaabong, Kotido, and Karenga districts.

The project targets individuals and groups at high risk of human rights violations, including Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and Land and Environmental Defenders (LEDs). It also engages government duty bearers such as policymakers and implementers in relevant ministries and local governments, recognizing their crucial role in securing land and environmental rights. Additionally, the project involves officials from institutional duty bearers including the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC), Equal Opportunities Commission, and courts, among others.

Representatives from the international community, faith leaders, and business actors are also included in the project’s scope, particularly those involved in land-based investments (LBIs) impacting the environment.

The project was initially launched in Moroto for the Karamoja region on the 19th of this month with the leadership of the National Coalition for Human Rights Defenders (NCHRD).

According to the project implementors,  the action is organized into four activity packages aimed at; enhancing the capacity and skills of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) and Land and Environmental Defenders (LEDs) in monitoring, documentation, reporting (MDR), and protection, establishing and reinforcing reporting and documentation mechanisms for advocacy and demand for corporate and government accountability;  providing response and support to HRDs and marginalized communities; and lastly facilitating collaboration and multi-stakeholder engagements that link local and national issues to national and international frameworks and spaces.

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Kiryandongo leadership agree to partner with Witness Radio Uganda to end rampant forced land evictions in the district.



By Witness Radio team.

Kiryandongo district leaders have embraced Witness Radio’s collaboration with the Kiryandongo district aimed at ending the rampant violent and illegal land evictions that have significantly harmed the livelihoods of the local communities in the area.

The warm welcome was made at the dialogue organized by Witness Radio Uganda, Uganda’s leading land and environmental rights watchdog at the Kiryandongo district headquarters, intended to reflect on the plight of land and environmental rights defenders, local and indigenous communities and the role of responsible land-based investments in protecting people and the planet.

Speaking at the high-level dialogue, that was participated in by technical officers, policy implementers, religious leaders, leaders of project affected persons (PAPs), politicians, media, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), and development partners that support land and environment rights as well as the Land Based Investments (LBIs) Companies in the Kiryandongo district, the leaders led by the District Local Council 5 Chairperson, Ms. Edith Aliguma Adyeri appreciated the efforts taken by Witness Radio organization to organize the dialogue meeting aimed at bringing together stakeholders to safeguard community land and environmental rights in order address the escalating vice of land grabbing in the area.

During the dialogue, participants shared harrowing accounts of the impacts of land evictions and environmental degradation, including tragic deaths, families torn asunder, young girls forced into marriage, a surge in teenage pregnancies, limited access to education, and significant environmental damage which have profoundly affected the lives of the local population in Kiryandongo.

Participants attending the dialogue.

In recent years, Kiryandongo district has been embroiled in violent land evictions orchestrated to accommodate multinational large-scale agriculture plantations and wealthy individuals leaving the poor marginalized.

According to various reports, including findings from Witness Radio’s 2020 research Land Grabs at a Gun Point, the forceful land acquisitions in Kiryandongo have significantly impacted the livelihoods of local communities. It is estimated that nearly 40,000 individuals have been displaced from their land to make room for land-based investments in the Kiryandongo district. However, leaders in the district also revealed in the dialogue that women and children are affected most.

The Kiryandongo Deputy Resident District Commissioner, Mr. Jonathan Akweteireho, emphasized that all offices within the Kiryandongo district are actively involved in addressing the prevalent land conflicts. He also extended a welcome to Witness Radio, acknowledging their collaborative efforts in tackling and resolving land and environmental issues in the district.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we all know that the land rights together with environmental rights have been violated in our district, but because we don’t know what our rights are, because we have not directly done what we could to safeguard our rights and now this is the time that Witness Radio has brought us together to safeguard our rights. I want to welcome you in Kiryandongo and be rest assured that we shall give you all the necessary support to help us manage these rampant cases,” Ms. Adyeri said in her remarks during the dialogue meeting.

The team leader at Witness Radio Uganda, Mr. Geoffrey Wokulira Ssebaggala expressed gratitude to the participants for their active involvement in the dialogue and revealed that Witness Radio’s objective is to find a holistic solution to the escalating land disputes in Kiryandongo district serving as an example to other districts.

“We are here to assist Kiryandongo district in attaining peace and stability because it stands as a hotspot for land grabbers in Uganda. Mismanagement of land conflicts in Uganda could potentially lead to a significant internal conflict. Everywhere you turn, voices are lamenting the loss of their land and property. Kiryandongo, abundant with ranches, suffers from a lack of a structured framework, which amplifies these land conflicts. The influx of wealthy investors further complicates the situation,” Mr. Ssebaggala disclosed.

Within the dialogue, Mr. Ssebaggala emphasized the need for the Kiryandongo district council to pass a by-law aimed at curbing land evictions as an initial step in addressing the prevalent land injustices.

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Kiryandongo authorities decry rising cases of land disputes



The LC5 chairperson of Kiryandongo, Ms Edith Aliguma Adyeri, has saidnland dispute has impacted on people’s lives, dignity and children’s education in the district.

Just like other parts of Uganda, conflicts over land in Kiryandongo arise when individuals – who often are blood relatives – compete for use of the same parcel of land or when members of the community lay claim over ownership of unutilised government land.

Ms Adyeri further said land and environmental rights affect people both directly and indirectly, “and we are not hearing it from afar. It is already together with us [here], it has already affected us!”

She was speaking at a meeting which sought to discuss alternative remedies to salvage the appalling land and environmental rights situation in Kiryandongo at the district headquarters on Thursday.

The one-day dialogue was aimed at reflecting on the plight of land and environmental rights defenders, local and indigenous communities and the role of responsible land-based investments in protecting people and the planet.

It was attended by private companies, members of civil society and local government officials and organised by Witness Radio – an advocate for land and environmental rights in Uganda – in partnership with Oxfam, and Kiryandongo District leadership.

“Some people have even died, families are broken up, and brothers are not seeing eye-to-eye because of land rights. Access to justice is equally becoming very difficult because when you hire one lawyer that
lawyer will talk to learned friends, and they agree. They leave you in suspense,” Ms Adyeri said.

According to her, some children have not accessed education because of land and environmental rights.

Mr Jonathan Akweteireho, the deputy Resident District Commissioner of Kiryandongo, said enlightened people especially should be sensitive to the historical injustice of this area.

“We can never handle the Bonyoro land question without thinking about that history. It will be an injustice to the incomers, to the government and to the leaders who don’t understand,” he said.

“We had 38 ranches here which on the guidance of these international organisations, especially the World Bank, the government restructured them, allowing people to settle there, they were never given titles and up to today, there are big problems in all those ranches,” he added.

Mr Jeff Wokulira Ssebaggala, the executive director of Witness Radio, said that a well-functional land sector supports land users or holders and investors, reduces inefficiencies and provides mechanisms to resolve land disputes.

Mr David Kyategeka, the secretary to the Kiryandongo District Land Board, said the issue of land rights is very clear but the major challenge has been sensitising the locals to know what rights he or she expects to enjoy out of this very important resource.


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