Nigeria's most beautiful city is being disfigured by polluted water supplies, impoverished land and radioactive waste left behind by unregulated tin mining activities.

By Abiodun Raufu

April 1999

Lagos: Jos, with its cool climate and hilly backdrop, is often described as Nigeria's most beautiful city. This may soon change if the area's unregulated tin mining activities continue for much longer.

Sitting on a vast, mineral-rich plateau 1,000 kilometres north of Lagos, Jos and its surrounding areas were saved from becoming an unknown backwater by tin mining. But the area's wealth has come at a price for locals, as tin mining has gradually destroyed much of the surrounding country.

Many locals complain that decades of tin mining have left them a legacy of polluted water supplies, impoverished land and even radioactive waste.

The area has been described as 'a lunar landscape of steep-sided mounds and multi-coloured ponds or lakes' by one non-governmental organisation, the Nigeria Environmental Study Action Team.

Tor Iorapuu, who belongs to the Community-Based Nongovernmental Organisation Forum (CBD-NGO FORUM), warns: 'There are underground grumblings. The people are watching, and they are watching carefully.'

But for many locals there is little hope that things will improve. For 67 years Jos' tin mining industry was mostly controlled by overseas companies. But when the industry was nationalised in 1972, no one took responsibility for clearing up the mess left behind.

Twenty-seven years on, little appears to have changed.

'We didn't create all the mess, so it would be unfair to heap all the blame on us,' says Yohanna Kwa, an official of the public sector Nigerian Mining Corporation.

Environmental activists agree. 'It is true that the cost of closing all the abandoned mines and cleaning up polluted streams and rivers is beyond their (miners') means. It is a job for the Nigerian government,' says Moses Ogunleye, a Lagos-based environmentalist.

But it does not look like the government is ready to finance such a programme either - it's a tale of passing the buck that is familiar in most countries across the world, whether in the developed North or the developing South.

'We don't have plans for that now but we are aware of the magnitude of the problem,' said a senior official in the newly-created Ministry of Solid Mineral Development.

The ministry was set up to regulate mining in Nigeria. It decides which companies can mine and controls their practices. Despite this, there are hundreds of miners working for illegal companies - who have not been issued with a licence - in the Jos area.

'The fact that everyone knows of these illegal mining companies but no one does anything is very striking,' says Ledum Mitee, a Nigerian lawyer and president of MOSOP, a grassroots organisation well-known for focusing world attention on the environmental problems associated with oil exploration and production in the Ogoni region.

According to Mitee, illegal mining companies are by no means the worst culprits. 'Mining regulations only exist in the books. Mining companies which the government is controlling in particular don't give a hoot about them and do not comply with them,' he says.

Nigeria used to be the world's sixth largest tin producer, but dwindling tin deposits have severely cut production - a fact directly related with the environmental problems in and around Jos.

In the 1970s Nigeria produced an average of 10,000 tons of tin ore annually. Output fell to 3,000 tons in the 1980s and dropped again to 500 tons in the 1990s. This is a fraction of the global output of 200,000 tons each year, worth an estimated $1 billion, says the London-based Commodities Research Unit.

Nigeria now earns less than 0.5% of its foreign exchange from tin.

As tin deposits dwindle, miners have to tear up more and more land and dig deeper holes to reach the metal. Eighty per cent of Nigeria's deposits are now around 36 metres below the surface - twice as deep as they were 20 years ago.

Experts estimate miners on the Plateau dig up six million tons of soil each year.

This has local farmers like Salihu Hamed deeply worried. 'There has been more and more loss of land because of tin mining and this is affecting our farms,' he says.

In places on the Plateau such as Bukuru, Rayfield, Shere Hills and Anglo-Jos, ugly gashes left over from past mining activities can be seen everywhere. Alarmingly, effluents from nearby industries have seeped deep into mines-turned-water holes.

These are used by farmers to irrigate their fields. The top soil also washes into streams in neighbouring villages - water that is used for drinking and other domestic purposes. Also at risk of being contaminated is the underground water in the area.

In addition, locals use soil left over from the abandoned mining sites - containing naturally-found radioactive heavy metals - to build houses. Environmentalists fear that people living in these houses risk being exposed to unhealthy levels of radiation.

According to Tor Iorapuu of the CBD-NGO FORUM, tin mining has also displaced many people from fertile agricultural land.

'The mining sites are located in the best areas in terms of the terrain and the flatness of the land. The people are now compelled to farm on rocky land,' he says. 'Rather than reclaim the lands and resettle the people, the government is instead asking people to move without compensation or arrangements to settle them properly.'

'If there are good environmental controls in place, you can manage the impact of mining on the local environment,' says Dr Loveday Jenkin, of the Camborne School of Mining in Britain.

'Provided it is treated properly, water from mines can be used for drinking. And if open cast mining is done a little bit at a time, the holes refilled and the vegetation allowed to grow back, the impact on the environment can be controlled,' she adds.

As the frenzied search for tin continues unabated in Jos, Nigerian environmentalists agree that such measures have become all the more important. - Third World Network Features/PANOS

About the writer: Abiodun Raufu writes for PANOS from Lagos. The above article first appeared as a Panos Feature (31 March 1999).