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Digging Deeper: In Uganda, EJN-Supported Sand Mining Story Paves Way for Stronger Mining and Minerals Bill

sand miners digging a pit in a wetland

For fishers like James Bikumu, the Ugandan mudfish, or Ensonzi as it is locally called, is a delicacy in Western Uganda, as well as a vital source of income. It was once found in abundance within the vast network of more than 7,000 wetlands across Uganda, but the health of the species – and its habitat – has been in steady decline. According to the National Wetlands Atlas, 2% of Uganda’s wetlands (about 75000 hectares each year or 140,155 football pitches) are lost annually.

"We have always got fish from the wetland but [if] the wetland is being destroyed, we are likely to lose out. The government should stop those digging water channels to drain it," said Bikumu, who was interviewed by Ugandan journalist Alex Tumuhimbise for his story, titled “Illegal sand mining leaves human, aquatic lives at risk".

Sand mining, a highly destructive method of harvesting sand for the construction industry, is one of the primary causes of wetland destruction in Uganda. Tumuhimbise, a journalist for the Daily Monitor, began investigating the issue in 2021 with a story grant from EJN, eventually resulting in new regulations and even a modification of national legislation overseeing the mining industry.

Tumuhimbise had noticed the extent to which sand mining activities were affecting his community: Children had drowned in the open sand pits which fill with water in the rainy season, and farmers had lost livestock for the same reason. Residents said they wanted something to be done.

“When I visited one of the mining sites, I found deep excavated pits left open and filled up by water with some green algae. These are real death traps for villagers who use the wetland to collect water for both domestic and animal use.”

In fact, over 80% of Ugandans use wetland resources for household food security needs. In the Kakumiro district in Western Uganda, the wetlands provide water for 100,000 people. They provide multiple services for local people, such as the provision of food and income, water filtration and carbon sequestration. The wetlands are also a biodiversity hotspot, home to a wide array of species in addition to the Mudfish, such as the endemic Fox’s weaver, the Shoebill, and the White Winged Warbler, which are all threatened by intensifying extractive activities.

Data from Uganda Bureau of Statistics suggests that in 2016, 3.49 million tons of sand was mined. Sand is a valuable commodity accounting for 85% of the world’s mineral extraction, driven in Uganda by Africa’s rapidly expanding infrastructure industry and demand for export.

Bikumu’s pleas were heard. Nearly a year after Tumuhimbise’s story was published, the country passed the 2021 Mining and Minerals Bill, which improved regulation of sand mining via permits and tighter enforcement of mining laws and practices.

shoebill stork
Shoebill Stork at the Uganda Wildlife conservation education center in Uganda Africa / Credit: Melissa Askew.

The Evolution of Sand Mining Regulations in Uganda

Sand mining has long been challenging to regulate in Uganda. In 2015, the government banned sand miners from leaving excavated pits open and required them to have a license or permit to mine sand. Sand mining permits require the holder to carry out environmental and social impact assessments and use more environmentally friendly technology.

Despite this, many continued to ignore regulations due to a lack of enforcement by local authorities. In 2016, Tumuhimbise’s publication highlighted the dangers of ongoing sand mining on the shores of Lake Victoria. The companies operating there were polluting water resources, destroying vegetation, and tearing up the natural landscape, the Daily Monitor reported. Some were operating under fishing licenses rather than sand mining licenses, and some did not have licenses at all. In 2018, the government announced that more comprehensive regulations were being prepared.

graphic with text

Complex laws that the miners find difficult to understand and the authorities find challenging to enforce are a big part of the problem, said Tumuhimbise. That's why, although some legislation existed, for many years sand mining has gone unregulated.

Then, in March 2021, Onesmus Twinamasiko, Member of Parliament for Bugangaizi East, the constituency of Kakumiro district where Tumuhimbise resides, read the journalist’s story in the Daily Monitor, and was moved to push the government to do more to curb the growing crisis.

On April 28th, a little over a month after his story was published, Twinamaskiko raised the matter in Parliament, demanding a comprehensive report from the environment minister, Beatrice Anywar, about the illegal sand mining taking place in Kakumiro district. Tumuhimbise learned about this through a New Vision article. He called the MP who confirmed it was indeed his story that influenced him to bring the issue to parliament.

Twinamasiko, a former journalist himself, told EJN that “the story provided a basis for regulation of issuance of sand mining permits. Most of the sand miners were misusing the mining permits. Others were not implementing the environmental safety regulations. After the story, I tabled all these issues in parliament and subsequently, the cabinet brought a mining and minerals bill in which sand was included among minerals. No one can venture into sand mining without a permit from the environment body of Uganda-NEMA.”

The National Environment Management Authority of Uganda (NEMA) banned applications from new sand miners, revoked licenses from those who were violating guidelines, and halted all unlicensed activities in several places around the country. Godfrey Barugahare, the Kakumiro District Secretary of Production, told EJN that “Tumuhimbise’s story was helpful because sand mining in all wetlands of Kakumiro District stopped” after Twinamasiko raised the issue in Parliament.

But soon enough, newspapers began reporting that despite the changes, many sand miners had resumed mining without valid permits. Pushed to clamp down even harder, the Ugandan cabinet passed the 2021 Mining and Minerals Bill to increase the regulation of mining by now including sand, which was previously omitted in the Mining Act of 2003. The Bill, passed nearly a year after Tumuhimbise’s story was published, sought to “introduce a new licensing regime, organize, register, license, regulate and transform artisanal and small-scale mining in Uganda; and introduce a prohibitive penalty and fines regime” for the enforcement of mining regulations.

The bill gave new powers to the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), which can now conduct on-the-spot inspection of mining sites to assess compliance with guidelines. If firms are found to not have valid permits or not be complying with guidelines, NEMA can close the mine. Violations of this bill will result in a fine of UGX500,000 ($128) and/or a jail term up to one year.

men huddled around a desk in a parliamentary session
Committee chairperson, Emmanuel Otaala (L), Deputy Attorney General, Jackson Kafuuzi (C)and State minister for Minerals, Peter Lokeris consulting Deputy Speaker Anitah Among / Credit: Parliament of Uganda.

Although sand mining was temporarily banned in all its forms, it’s important to note a total ban has not yet been implemented and only those without permits have had their activities restricted.

USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), which funds the EJN project that supported Tumuhimbise’s story, lauded the impact of the story in its newsletter. Tumuhimbise’s story struck a chord not just with policymakers and government agencies, but with youth activists like Wycliffe Tugume, a member of Bugangaizi Youth Initiative in Kakumiro. Tugume advocates for the environment and land rights for Indigenous peoples, and recognizes the important of conserving wetlands.

He followed the live parliamentary session of UBC TV where his MP, Onesmus Twinamasiko, raised the issue. “[Tumuhimbise’s] story was important because it brought up the significant issue of sand mining that was affecting local communities. We saw some officials coming to inspect the mining sites after the story.”

What's next for Tumuhimbise

Tumuhimbise said he is proud of the story he produced with guidance and grant funding from EJN staff. “My mentor Sara [Schonhardt; EJN’s former managing editor] was a great help and the story has helped me to get to the top of my reporting. This is the best writing I’ve done and it has opened up a series of opportunities for me,” he said.

His editors, who were impressed by the impact of the story, asked him to write a follow-up: "How Monitor Story Saved Swamps from Illegal Miners in Kakumiro".

Tumuhimbise’s interest in highlighting the plight of Uganda’s wetlands continues. “It is the job of the media to expose illegal environmental degradation and shame people who are destroying the environment with impunity while acting under the cover of some authorities,” he added, pointing out that improved media coverage of environmental issues would strengthen oversight.

The journalist went on to produce an investigation into the impacts of the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP), supported by Floodlight News and EJN, and published in The Guardian. The EACOP is another massive infrastructure project that threatens Uganda’s wetlands. Now serving as Climate Tracker’s Climate Change Media Fellow, Tumuhimbise is working on other stories linking environmental degradation of wetland ecosystems to climate change.

Late last year, Tumuhimbise’s contribution to journalism was recognized when he was awarded a second runner-up position in the Uganda National Journalism Awards. He was one of 59 shortlisted entries in the Environment Reporting category which recognizes reporting that has the potential to make a significant contribution to public awareness and understanding of environmental issues.

He aims to keep doing exactly that. “For a story to have in impact on [the] ground, it should expose hidden evil or agenda which is against public safety and survival,” he said. “Such a story attracts response from policymakers and implementers, activists, government authorities and awakens the conscience of the concerned affected public. This, at the end, leads to some visible action from those in authority against the perpetrators of illegalities.”

a man holding up a certificate
Alex Tumuhimbise was awarded 2nd runners up in the Environment Category at the Uganda National Journalism Awards in December 2022 / Credit: Alex Tumuhimbise.

Banner image: Sand miners at a collection point near the wetland in Mpasana, Kakumiro district, on Thursday, ‎January ‎21, ‎2021 / Credit: Alex Tumuhimbise.