For a Safer Earth, Healthier Climate

‘Their Envelopes Are Fatter Than Our Voices, Community Cries Out…….

These are the words from the tongues of Enyim-Agalagu, Ndufu Alike community, in Ikwo Local Government Area of Ebonyi state, who allege that a mining company managed by Royal Salt Company, mining lead and zinc have robbed the people of their lands, poisoned their sources of water, and refused to comply with the Community Development Agreement (CDA) jointly agreed between them and the company. EarthNews Nigeria Editor, Ruth Tene Natsa, was there and shares the pains of the community in this heart-rending piece, funded by GLOBAL GREENGRANTS FUND/GLOBAL GREENGRANT FUND EUROPE/UK

A first-time visitor to Abakiliki, the capital city of Ebonyi state is enthralled by the beauty, which looks like a more peaceful replica of its counterparts’ cosmopolitan cities like Lagos, Abuja, or Port Harcourt.

This beauty is eclipsed as we further make our way into the village, which is calm and peaceful until the mountain of dug-out excavated land greets one, needly framing the entrance to the Agalagu community greets one.

The picture tells the story of the serious mining and rich deposits of minerals situated there, which generally gives the impression of great wealth. However, that is not the story as community members lament a life of depravity, absence of infrastructure, and health challenges among other issues

Speaking with Earthnews Nigeria, the president of Ebonyi State, Women in Mining (WIM), and a committee member of Mining Host Communities, Princess Ogbuinya Sylvia Ekwutosi, stated that the community suffers several devastations, some caused by the activities of the Royal Salt Company.

She said, the community among other things is losing its lands to encroachment and without compensation to the company. They also lack access to roads, lack of access to potable water, loss of farmlands, and cultural inhibitions which deny women access to lands. Our women suffer high rates of miscarriages while our men are suffering high rates of impotency, they no longer respond to childbearing like before among others all because of the polluted water we drink and the air we breathe.

In her words “We have lost our source of water including the community dam which is badly polluted because it is close to the mining site. Whenever they blast, residues from the site land on the water. The worst off is the dust we have to live with when they blast. Our farms and trees are covered with dust from the mines. The walls of our houses are also cracking while some have collapsed.

Our people are also physically assaulted. I recall the case of one of our members who was slapped by one of the Indians while operating one of their excavators. We learnt the Indian man had slapped him for failing to comply with his directives, even though the young man had claimed that he had only followed the directive given by the Indian

Ms. Sylvia who is one of the leaders representing the community said “We have lost economic trees valued in millions, yet we have less than 50 of our youths engaged by the Company and they usually sack them indiscriminately. Our roads remain untarred, we still do not have potable water,

According to the activist who said, there had been multiple Community Development Agreements (CDAs) between the community and Royal Salt Company, she however lamented that the company had failed to keep to their terms of the bargain endlessly.

“In the initial CDA, we had demanded a community clinic, a school, tarring of our roads, scholarships for our children as well as skills and jobs for our youths. We also demanded that 80% of the workforce should come from the community as well as the employment of our women. We also agitated for a percentage from the production, which they have refused, rather choosing to pay the sum of N5m annually”

Ms. Sylvia who posited that until now, less than 30% of the CDA had been implemented, further lamented that “The scholarship promised to our children and the skill acquisition to empower our youths have still not been fulfilled.  They have also continued to encroach on our lands. They have encroached on over 50 plots of our land the community and even the roads which they have refused to tar, they now dump their excavated sand very close to the road, creating deep wells that endanger our people.

Recalling that the company renamed Fespatrates, from the initial Royal Salt, Ms. Sylvia said “Our organization, WIM has a site where the Royal Salt has encroached and refused to pay compensation/ They had earlier agreed to compensate and relocate, but they have now refused, insisting that women do not have rights. No woman is working with the company except contract staff, who are paid weekly”

Quoting the Nigerian Mineral and Mining Act which, says to give 30 meters from the road, which she said they are not adhering to, she said she confronted them, demanding they do the right thing, but rather they tried to bribe her.

Speaking on what the Company may have done for the community Princess Sylvia said “They have given us three boreholes, which work during the rainy season but during the dry season, they go dry. They have also paid the mump sum of N5m in the past three years, but are yet to pay for 2022/2023, they have also built a block of classrooms which are all cracking and can collapse any day”

Princess, standing in the school built by the mining company

The young activist who said the community regretted allowing the Company to come into their land lamented “We regret accepting them, they were rejected in other communities, but we accepted them believing when they profit, they will do good to our community. I am a graduate and have applied for a job severally in that company, but they have refused as they see me as a terrorist when I demand that they should do the right thing”

I am calling on all stakeholders to not allow Indians to violate our citizens, our rights are denied. All we are asking for is that they should implement the CDAs and provide us with the needed amenities. They should also fix houses destroyed by their blasting and compensate us for lands and economic trees, they destroy or encroach

“Before the interventions of Global Rights, we were in the dark and didn’t even know our rights, they espoused us to the knowledge of CDA, so rather than engaging the company with palm fronts again, we write our demands backed by the law and since then have begun to see positive outcomes, the company has constructed a block of classrooms for the community.”

Recalling her father, who was the village head, until his death on January 7, 2023. Sylvia alleged that the trauma the Company had put her father through had contributed to his death at the age of 103 years.

“Our youths while agitating for their rights as contained in the CDA were shot. One on his arm and another on his stomach and another on his leg, these shootings caused the youths to riot, following which about 10 of them youths were captured and tied” she recalled

“The late chief, Emmanuel Ogbuinya had led the elders to demand for the release of those they captured youths who had been left tied for over 48 hours, but Royal Salt refused. The villagers all went out in protest, waving palm fronts as a sign of peace, but the soldiers confronted them, beat them up, fired tear gasses, and arrested the late chief who was aged 100 at the time.

Princess told EarthNews Nigeria, that her father who was falsely accused of instigating the youths to protest, was locked in prison for over 3 months and was later released after falling sick, ended up spending 8 months in hospital before he was released to die at home.

“He stayed 8 months at the Federal Medical Center (FMC), Abakiliki, and on his return, we watched as his skin peeled and fell off him. The hospital blamed it on the dust he had inhaled and his age among other issues. They managed him for some time but told us they could not guarantee his recovery before he was discharged.

“We spent N6.8m for his treatments before he died and we are looking to claim damages if we can get Lawyers that are sympathetic to our cause. As it is now, we do not have a traditional leader anymore. The elders we have, are becoming blind because of the poisoning” she said.

Also speaking with EarthNews Nigeria, the grieving wife of the village chief, who is also the woman leader, Mrs Ogbuinya, alleged that the Royal Salt Company had polluted their land and water with the dust from the mines.

Woman leader and the wife to the late chief, Mrs Ogbuinya.

According to Mrs. Ogbuinya “Series of things have been happening in this community, women are intimidated, we are not allowed to speak our minds, they deny us our lands and say women have no rights.

“Normally, there should be farmland for widows to farm, Royal Salt has taken over that land without compensation to the widows. Women have been crying, but when we go there, we are chased out with guns and tear gas”

“They have been encroaching on our lands without our consent. We have written to the government, but the MD mocks us to go wherever we want to. He tells us their envelopes will cover for them. He alleges no matter our strength and numbers, he will win us with just an envelope. And that has been happening because our case has reached Abuja and nothing has come of it to date.

We have continued to suffer health challenges because of the polluted water. People die like rats. Only this year alone, we have lost several people between January and now, because of the environmental pollution we inhale from the mining activities. Even in this house, where we are sitting, the vibrations caused by their blasting can be felt as the house shakes to its very foundations, giving me severe heart palpitations. We can’t even cook outside.

“Only God’s intervention can help us and even for that to happen, we have to be alive first. My prayer is for the younger generation because you cannot find people living in their 40s and 50s any longer. Personally, my heart is clogged which makes breathing very difficult for me. At the hospital Doctor who diagnosed me had advised that we leave this place as our land is heavily polluted. Poisoned”

President Agalagu Development Union, Comrade Ogbuinya Livinus Amandianeze expressed deep regrets saying “Our experience is of total regret, the coming of Royal Salt Company has brought nothing good but disaster. They came in 2012 and since then have managed to mess up the economy, the military they brought in from inception has violated our ladies countlessly, (not rape but by sexually violating their naivety).

“In the past 2 years I have been in office, we have recorded 13 deaths that had never occurred in this community. People could just be walking and slump, if taken to the hospital, we will be told the person has inhaled some poison caused by lead. My mother is a victim who could have died if we had not taken her to the hospital on time. The case of Chinagor is another, she was just walking and slumped and many others.

“The first MOU we agreed on, nothing was done on it and the second one is here now, they operate a divide-and-rule system, searching out leaders they want and bribing them with tokens to work against the community.

I wonder if, in the next few years, there will still be a village called Eyim again because the vibrations on the ground go a long way in destroying it. We no longer have good water, if we cultivate anything here it no longer bears fruit, and nothing is working here. If you look around you will see how everything has died off just because of the disease and dust coming from there, not to talk about the empty promises they have made to us.

We are calling on the government at all levels to come to our aid as a lot is going on. We strongly believe the government is the last hope. If what we are saying is a cooked story, the government should come and have their investigations done. We do not have a health centre here, the one they promised, they just built an empty room and left it locked.

We have written several times but they will go there and get sorted and nothing will be done about it, so I pray the government will do something about it, or else people will perish in the coming years.

The boreholes here were constructed by Hon Kelvin Chukwu and another by a former Local Government Chairman, Hon. David Onuoha, the boreholes had since stopped pumping because the company drains water from deep underground and the overhead tanks, they fixed never had water and if we get water, it tastes salty.

A farmer from Ebukupeke village, enyemo-edukupeke-ameri community, Uboke Chukwuma Collins, who said he owns 22 plots of farmland with 4700 economic trees valued at N23 million (at a unit cost of N5000 per tree) said he lost all his trees following the damage caused by the release of polluted water from the mines. He also said all efforts to get compensation landed him in prison rather than getting compensation.

For agitating for my rights, I and others were locked in prison for over 4 months for nothing. They just levelled allegations against us and had us locked up. In my case, polluted water from the mines destroyed my crops and I sued them in court after demanding compensation from them which they refused, following that they arrested me and other chiefs for always agitating for the interest of the community. As it is, we have no land and we face threats of being displaced

69 years old Chukwu Johnson of Idufuokeke Agalagualike and a father, living with disability, recalls that lots of promises were made to the community prior to the company’s activities. He, however, lamented that when the Company sends anything to them, it gets missing on the way. Now we lack even water and only depend on the dam constructed in the late 80s.  Mr. Johnson said he is pleading for compensation on his land which is valued at N30 million to help him train his children and regain his livelihood.

Onouha Ukom, who said he is one of the elders who speaks on behalf of the community has no recollection of the agreement between the company and community before their activities.  Noting that he had lost his land to the company

The principal, of Christ the King Modern College, a private school within the community, which had lost its fences, with some parts of the buildings visibly cracked said he had just assumed management of the school and has no idea what has been agreed between the management of the Company and the previous management is optimistic that “If the fences and building are repaired and strongly reinforced, I belief it will be safe”.

78 years old Raphael Chukwu and one of the elders who went to jail courtesy of Royal Salt (speaking with the aid of an interpreter) recalled that before commencing production, they had reached an agreement with Royal Salt, but the Company had failed to comply or fulfil any of the agreements reached.

The Octogenarian who said he could not recall the details of the CDA however recalled that some of their requests were that “They develop our community, construct schools, hospital, tar our roads and constructing waterways and relocating people that were very close and would be affected by their activities, but they are not doing any of them.

As it is through the overburden, they have encroached on lands we did not give to them.

Recalling his experience, while locked up for over two months, Elder Chukwu said he was grateful that the police never beat him, but he starved and had no access to water to bathe. He recalled that he was locked up with other colleagues from April 4 and bailed on June 29, 2022

Meanwhile speaking on government efforts to address some of the challenges faced by the community, the Minister of Mines and Steel Development, Architect Olamilekan Adegbite said the community cannot have such issues as the power is in their hands to curb the Company’s excesses.

In his words “The community cannot have any issues, because if they do the power is in their hands to stop the company

He stated that the company obtains a signed consent and a community development agreement (CDA), before they are issued a license and can commence work.

“Without that being signed, you can’t work; if you commence working, you are illegal. So the community in the CDA has encoded a set of promises and is done on a five-yearly basis, so before commencing, you do year 0-year 5, in which promises such as I am going to build a school, hospital, boreholes, improve your road, bring power, community centre, part of that would be to employ some citizens so all these are gains for the community and the ministry stands as an umpire and once the CDA is signed, we make sure the company adheres, the Company can go up and above the CDA as corporate social responsibility (CSR), but the CDA is the barest minimum the company must do for that community because it is signed.

At the end of year 5 or towards the end, you sit again to renegotiate and by this time again, the company is probably more prosperous because they are now making more money, then the promises are graduated upwards and now you do year 5-10 again. That is the new CDA and it goes on like that till the end of mining life, so you do a five-yearly CDA. So, if the company does not comply, the community has the power to stop them. 

So, the Mining Act of 2007 which we are renewing, already the federal executive council has passed the Mining Act of 2023, which is an upgrade because some things are an upgrade. We hope to pass that through the national assembly before we leave at the end of this tenure. It would be part of the achievements of this administration to sign a new Minerals and Mining Act 2023. So, the community is the focus and the pivot for mining and cannot be cheated. What happens in some cases is illegality. Banditry has come in, and that is no longer mining because other things have come in fueling this crisis, but if it is legal mining, the community is king.

Efforts to get the Company to respond to the allegations and get their side of the story proved abortive as calls, WhatsApp messages, and intermediary invites were ignored by the MD. Mr. Obi Alio. EarthNews Nigeria hopes in the future the Company will do right by the people and give its side of the story.

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