BY ARINZE CHIJIOKE
Enugu state in south-east Nigeria still sits on some of the richest coal deposits in the country, almost two decades since the Nigerian Coal Corporation (NCC) ended mining operations in the state. As the government — both state and federal — fails to further explore the resources, private coal miners have taken over making millions of naira. But they are also degrading the environment and destroying livelihoods.
The sun is blistering hot inside Iva Valley, a suburb in Enugu state, where Onyeama, Ribadu, and Iva, three of the coal mines which contributed to the rapid development of the state and made it a commercial hub for the region were sited.
With empty buckets on her head, Ovuta Beatrice heads towards Oti, another location inside the valley, to inspect what is left of her farmland and water her vegetables. Oti is the name of the water bodies serving residents of the valley.
After she lost her husband in 2007, some residents of Ngwo, the community where the valley is located, leased some portions of land to Beatrice to cultivate. Since then, she has depended on proceeds from the farmlands, which she sells at the New Market to feed and train her five children in school and also pay her rent.
“Whatever I plant grows well,” she said.
“Sometimes, my cassava is two feet because the land is fertile. I make N12,000 from one pawpaw tree. I don’t buy red oil because I have enough palm plantations.”
During the farming season in 2022, she borrowed money and planted cassava, vegetables, plantain, banana and African oil bean seeds, hoping for a bountiful harvest as usual.
However, on December 23, private coal miners came with bulldozers, and in the process of creating an access road for a newly found site, uprooted most of what she planted and cut down her economic trees. The site is said to be owned by Queendaline Aghanati, a former national secretary, women in mining, and a man identified as Okwuchukwu Itanyi.
Inside Oti, an empty truck is waiting to be loaded with coal and taken to Lagos and other parts of the north where they are used for floor tiles, bullets, and cooking. The caterpillar, which was used to create the access road and destroy farmlands, is packed on one end of the location and a pale loader on another end. They are still being used for the mining operations.
“They finished me,” Beatrice recalled.
“They destroyed everything even after I begged them. Now, all my investments are gone and I can’t repay my loan.”
After the destruction, the owners of the site promised to pay Beatrice some money. Sadly, she is yet to receive anything and this violates the provisions of the Nigerian Minerals and Mining Act 2007 (“the Act”) passed into law on March 16, 2007, for the purposes of regulating the exploration and exploitation of solid materials in the country.
Section 113 of the Act, for instance, provides that the holder of a mineral title shall pay to the owner or occupier of any land within the area of the lease or licence, compensation for any crop, economic tree, building, or work damaged, removed or destroyed by the holder of the lease or licence or by his agent or servant.
Beatrice is only one out of the legion of farmers who have lost their farmlands and sources of livelihood as a result of the activities of private coal miners operating inside Iva Valley.
N355,000 INVESTMENT ALL GONE
In November, Amarachi Nwokoro, a mother of five, secured a loan of N300,000 which she used to plant vegetables in two locations that she used N15,000 to rent. Apart from the loan, she claimed to have paid N30,000 to those who planted the vegetables and N20,000 to apply fertilizer.
She planned to gradually pay back the loan from the money she makes from selling the vegetables. But everything was destroyed in December as the access road to Oti was created.
When she visited leaders of Ngwo community to complain, they asked her to meet Itanyi who co-owns the mining site. When she did, he promised that he would only pay N30,000 out of N355,000.
“He told me that they had already settled owners of the lands and that he only wants to add N30,000 for me,” a distraught Nwokoro said.
“But I have not heard from him since then.”
“I am not even talking about what I would have gained had the farms not been destroyed,” she said.
“I don’t know what else to do. If he had given me the N30,000, I will give it to the woman and reduce my debts.”
A LIFE-THREATENING MULTI-MILLION NAIRA VENTURE
While the operators of the mines put millions of naira in their pockets, community members who work in the mines in very difficult conditions get little pay.
Findings by this reporter showed that on some days, between three to five trucks are loaded with coal, with each of them worth between N7 million and N8 million, depending on the capacity of the truck.
It will cost at least N2 million to start up the business, according to Ndubuisi Igwe, one of the workers at the Oti mining site. Part of the money is used for settling community members who own the lands, while others are used for hiring bulldozers and excavators, purchase of gas and payment of workers on site. Before a day runs out, the excavator and the pale loader consume at least 10 gallons of fuel.
In February, a woman identified as Grace Eze died while working at the Onyeama mining site after coal fell on her. Before her death, she was earning a meagre N70 for filling a cement bag with coal and N150 whenever she digs and fills a bag.
There are two sizes of bags used across the sites, the cement and the flour bag which is bigger. The workers earn N180 for each flour bag and N250 when they dig and fill the bags.
When this reporter visited the site, there was no activity going on. When asked, one of the community leaders, Michael Achonri, said the owners of the site stopped work after Eze’s death.
Some of the workers who spoke to this journalist said the money they earn is nothing compared to the amount of stress they go through. To be able to meet up with their daily targets, workers at the mines come out as early as 8 am and close at 5 pm.
At the end of the day, they leave the location with headaches and back pain from bending for hours. Some of them spend the money earned on treating themselves. Yet, they come back the next day to work again.
The first day John Akuma, a resident of the valley worked in one of the sites, he fell sick and did not return again. It is different for others whose only means of survival is working in the mines.
But Igwe hardly falls sick. He has become used to the job and fills at least 50 bags, earning N9,000 daily. Sometimes, he earns more, depending on the amount of coal available on the ground.
There are about ten people who work in the Oti mining site daily and each of them wears a hand glove to avoid having a whitlow and a pair of shoes to prevent their legs from peeling after coming in contact with the coal.
“We use shovels to pack the coal into the bag after which we turn them into buckets that are transferred into the trucks with a pale loader. Everything about the job is deadly but we just have to do it,” one of the workers said.
Apart from the Oti mining site, large-scale mining operations are also ongoing at the Ribadu and Onyeama mines, which used to be under the control of the NCC. Ribadu is located at Abor, another community in Enugu north LGA.
Mike Terungwa, executive director of the Global Initiative for Food Security and Ecosystem Preservation, argues that the Ministry of Mines and Steel Development (MMSD), which is responsible for monitoring and bringing to book offenders who breach the law, has not lived up to its expectation. He noted that there is the challenge of weak enforcement of laws by officers as a result of corruption.
CLIMATE CHANGE, HEALTH AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPLICATIONS
Coal — a cheap source of energy — remains the greatest source of electricity generation worldwide. In 2021, it accounted for roughly 36.5 percent of the global power mix. Natural gas accounted for 22.2%, hydro 15.3%, nuclear 9.9%, wind 6.6%, solar 3.7%, other fossils 3.1%, bioenergy 2.4%, and other renewable 0.4%.
However, coal also produces 39% of global carbon dioxide emissions and remains one of the drivers of the current issues with global warming.
Coal mining, whether underground or strip/surface mining as it is being done inside Iva Valley, devastates the immediate environment, causing deforestation, biodiversity, and habitat loss as well as water, air and soil pollution through the release of toxic chemicals.
In trying to clean the way for a coal mine, for instance, trees are brought down or even burned, plants are uprooted and the topsoil is scraped away. This results in the destruction of the land which can no longer be used for planting crops.
“When these trees which sequestrate carbon from the atmosphere are cut off, they leave more carbon in the atmosphere,” Terungwa said.
“The loss of soil fertility due to coal mining activities often leads to malnutrition.”
He also said that the dust generated from the mining activities puts miners and those who live nearby at risk of developing a lung disease called pneumoconiosis because of their exposure to the airborne respirable dust.
A report by the World Counts shows that cardiopulmonary disease, hypertension, COPD and kidney disease are found at higher than normal rates in people who live near coal mines.
The burning of coal mainly to produce energy also releases large amounts of carbon dioxide which traps the heat in the atmosphere and leads to accelerated climate change.
Oftentimes, the negative effects of coal mining also force people to change location as their air and water get polluted and expanding coal mines make use of more and more of their habitats.
WATER SOURCES POLLUTED
Water scarcity has remained a major problem for residents of Iva Valley. Potable water is a luxury only a few homes can afford. Inside the Valley, it is common to see water tanks packed in front of some houses.
For many households, the only options available are the streams and springs which are used for washing, bathing and sometimes, cooking.
Sadly, they are now being polluted by the activities of the miners in violation of section 123 of the Mining Act, which says no person shall, in the course of mining or exploration for minerals, pollute or cause to be polluted any water or watercourse in the area within the mining lease or beyond that area.
Section 125 of the Mining Act provides that a licensee or lessee shall pay compensation to the owner or occupier who suffers damages as a result of pollution of any source of water used for domestic and other purposes, as a consequence of the exploration or operations in any work connected with the property, for any such damage not otherwise made good.
Terungwa said since coal mining requires a lot of water, there is usually contamination of surface and groundwater which has been attributed to deformity of growth and miscarriages when such water bodies are shared with host mining communities when they use the same for their domestic activities.
Achonri said the miners had promised to provide clean water for residents to compensate for the destruction of their water sources. But nothing has been done so far.
“In March, they came and took measurements from the Iva Valley reservoir to where we live,” said Achonri.
“But we have not heard from them and now, they are expanding their operations and further destroying other water sources.”
The reservoir was first commissioned to meet the needs of the expatriate workers at the Iva Valley mines, but as the population of the area continued to grow, it was expanded to deliver water to the government house and other locations within the metropolis.
THE PLEDGE TO PHASE OUT COAL
At the COP26 climate summit in November, Nigeria and other developing countries with huge coal deposits were given till the end of this decade to move away from coal, as part of efforts to minimise temperature rises in line with the Paris Agreement and ensure a just transition to clean energy.
At least 23 countries made new commitments to phase out coal power, including five of the world’s top 20 coal power-using countries. For this to happen, some rich nations committed to helping countries that rely on coal for power generation.
However, experts say that Nigeria’s vast coal resources may not only be untapped, but the country will also not get anything from abandoning it.
Kelo Uchendu, policy lead of YOUNGO, the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on climate change (UNFCCC), children and youth constituency, said the position of the Nigerian government within international climate negotiations has been shaky.
“We are lacking behind and having to depend on the position of the African group of negotiators,” Uchendu said.
He said part of the challenges that the government keeps making is having individuals who are career politicians representing the country during negotiations rather than people who are experts and have the deep knowledge to negotiate meaningfully for the country.
He, however, said Nigeria can still position itself to tap into some of the global finances, either public or private equities to be able to build adaptive and technology capabilities to transition.
Uchendu argued that it would not be profitable for the government to start investing in coal for electricity because the country already depends on hydro and gas-fired thermal power plants which are used for power generation.
“The amount of money that will be invested in building a coal power plant can be invested in building a cleaner and easier-to-run power plant,” Uchendu said.
“You cannot also talk about exporting coal because many countries are already phasing it out.”
For him, coal should stay underground, except it will be mined for other purposes like steel production, other than energy generation.
Terungwa also said although the quest for energy is on the increase, the benefits of coal mining are lesser than the damage it has on the environment in general when it’s being burned for energy which is its primary objective.
MINERS: WE DEAL DIRECTLY WITH COMMUNITIES
When contacted, Itanyi told this reporter that he often deals directly with stakeholders in Ngwo who give out the land to harness the resource and pay back royalties.
“The community did not sell the land,” he said.
“They gave it to me to work and I don’t know any of the farmers. So, whoever has an issue should go to the community and let them call me. I can decide to support.”
He also said the farmers were warned to remove their crops before the destruction began, adding that the women should go and meet those they paid money for the lands and demand for damages.
“Sometimes, farmers meet people who give them lands without consulting the community youth, and whenever we settle them, they decide who to pay for damages,” Itanyi said.
Although he said that the business does not involve the government because the lands belong to the communities, findings showed that the government was aware of the mining operations.
One of the workers, who preferred anonymity, said the government always sends an official who collects some payments whenever trucks come to transport the coals to their final destination.
While coal mining operations lasted, Achonri said the owners of the lands were being paid some money. But as operations ended, the money stopped coming. Hence, they decided to take back their lands and run the business.
“Formally, the government would arrest you if you venture into the mines without explaining yourself. You will be arrested,” Achonri, a former coal miner who worked at the defunct Onyeama Coal Mine, said.
“But now, just anybody can go in there and come out.”
In an interview with Ezea Samson, special adviser on media to Enugu state governor, he said he was not aware of any mining operation inside the Valley.
Nevertheless, most of the farmers whose farmlands were destroyed to pave the way for coal mining in the valley are yet to receive any form of compensation.