Stuck between environment and mineral: The dilemma of Kitgum’s Orom graphite.
todayJanuary 18, 2023
By Robert Ojok Mone
Orom East is currently faced with climatic changes which are a result of environmental degradation majorly caused by human activities like farming, logging, and charcoal burning. The coming in of the Orom cross graphite mine estimated to cover 520km-square with 14 years of extraction of the minerals may increase the vulnerability of the area to soil erosion, deforestation, and loss of vegetation cover. The grass and shrubs crop gardens will equally be lost as a result of land clearance for the proposed project components. Loss of vegetation cover will make the soil susceptible to erosion leading to loss of soil fertility and sedimentation of streams. The construction phase will also involve the establishment of support structures such as accommodation camps and offices, plus a storage yard which may increase its vulnerability. As Blencowe resources are set to start mining of graphite this year, with an estimated Plant capacity of 800,000tpa in 2024, 1.6Mtpa in 2027, and 2030 2.4Mtpa of mineral ore in. Blencowe resources Limited currently has an acreage of approximately 52-sq km. The Licence areas are located in The Orom mountains form a roughly equivalent area of high ground about 15km across, rising from the plains of northeast Acholi, there are streams and rivers running down some of the slopes of the mountain with occasional seasonal rivers around the plains. The summits of the mountain exceed 2300 meters above sea level. The proposed project area lies on the Eastern slopes of the mountain. According to the report from the National Housing and Population Census of 2014, Kitgum has a total population of 204,012, and with Orom sub-county, the project site has a total population of 27,136.
Residents of Orom are predominantly small-scale farmers and animal keepers. The settlement is scattered but tends to be densely populated towards the escapement as a security defense coping mechanism against the raiders. Orom graphite mines cover the villages of Lochomo, Lobale, and Roper in Akoromo parish Orom East Sub-county. Currently, the local government of Kitgum has no resolutions or ordinances that would enforce environmental protection as mining activities are expected to commence this year.
Bruno Nelson the LCIII Chairperson of Orom East Sub-County that houses the minerals says the national forestry Authority can help to regulate mining in the area. “The last time we met the mining company on October 9th 2022, we had a meeting with the mining company where we discussed the surface land agreement with the locals but as the local government we have been seeing the company back filling the pits excavated during exploration. What the company told us was the mineral extraction shall be in spotted area”, he said. Adding: “NFA has created a post at Akoromo parish because part of the land with mineral deposit is in protected and as the local government we shall relay of the guidelines from forest Authority because the graphite is in the hills with minimal effects on trees and wildlife”. Recently, the Kitgum district made a proposal for Orom Sub-County to be upgraded to a town council as the population in the area shall grow with the prospect of population influx in the mining site. This comes with associated challenges of clearing land for settlement and pressure on trees as fuel, which are all serious threats to the environment.
The LC5 councilor Kiteny Sub-County Komakec who is a member of the natural resources committee of Kitgum district local government says they had several engagements with Blencowe where they notified that mining activities are starting in June this year but tasked the district technocrats to develop a memorandum of understanding MOU with Blencowe Resources Limited which is expected to be signed before March 2023 with specific action plans of restoring degraded land that may be caused by effects of mining activities. Komakec added that the mining activities around the hills shall affect animals, plants and insects but the district has no specific laws but shall rather rely on provisions in the constitution of the republic of Uganda, Environment act, Mining Act, and NEMA act among others. The potential threats identified in the environmental and social impact assessment report of 2017 indicate that there shall be a Loss of vegetation cover, the hilly nature of the project area, and the characteristic erodible soils, this the impact will be highly noticeable on the lower sides of the slopes which could be swept by rolling soils and rock particulates, steep terrain, and given the extent of the area to be cleared, pollution of soil surface, and groundwater from any fuel and chemical spillage and leakage due to loss of containment, hazardous and non-hazardous waste, solid and wastewater, metal scraps and cement bags, erosion, and sedimentation.
The district chairperson of Kitgum Christopher Arwayi Obol notes that a committee is yet to be constituted to assess the level of damage the mining activities would cause to the environment before establishing ways forward. “But the most important thing is the project shall affect about 5,200 people with robust impact socially and economically. We have discovered that the mining company donated some farm equipment like tractors, scholarships for the children at various levels of education to the community but we are making inquiries through Natural resources and forest offices to develop some regulations to avert negative effects on the environment”, Arwayi said.
The mining sector is of vital importance to Uganda’s economy as it provides a crucial engine for growth, employment, economic diversification, infrastructure development, and poverty reduction. Within the framework of the National Development Plan, the Government of Uganda envisions the transformation of Uganda into a modern, prosperous country within the next 30 years and the minerals sector has been recognized for its potential to become one of the engines of growth and poverty reduction. However, economic growth can only be sustained if development projects do not cause irreparable loss or damage to biodiversity, livelihoods, and negative social change. The deputy resident district commissioner of Kitgum Wazire Marijan thinks a lot shall be done to mitigate any negative impact of mining on biodiversity. According to deputy resident district commissioner for Kitgum, the company is now construction accommodation facilities for workers but what is significant is compensation to project affected persons, employment, road infrastructure and royalties meanwhile the laws established by various statutory bodies in the country shall be implement it to dot. Despite the positive reception of the project by stakeholders in the district, the overall perception is that the project will come with opportunities to meet the much-needed social services, employment opportunities. An environmental and Social Management and Monitoring Plan for the project has been developed to enable Blencowe resources Limited to mitigate the environmental and social impacts that are associated with the construction and operation of the proposed graphite mining project including working closely with the local leaders and government agencies like the National Environment Management Authority and National forest Authority among others to ensure smooth implementation of the Environmental Management and Monitoring Plan In an online publication last year in July, Blencowe resources company Limited highlighted Building an operation in close cooperation with the local population & with their involvement, a Community Development Agreement in place to return value to the local participants US$1.8M to be returned to the community over the life of mine, with US$180k already paid out, Uplifting local education via funding schools and scholarships – education fund operating, Assisting development of local community agriculture schemes via purchase of equipment, Social awareness programs, and Ongoing audits of all activities to ensure relevant and value-adding which don’t adequately offer protection of the fragile environment after mining. Nabil Alam the General Manager of Blencowe Resources did not provide details of how the US$1.8-million could be use to mitigate and restore the degraded land and vegetation during and after mining life span. Kadet Thomas bedtime the village headman of Tuboi village in Orom East Sub-County says many farmlands have already been affected by the mining. "This mining activity has no positive and physical effects on our people as many farmlands have been destroyed open large pits opened by the mining company that leaves them open or even covers with big stones later on cemented leaving the land unproductive for agriculture" kadet said. Thomas Butime added that previously large chunks of land were picked from the community and no compensation was given to project-affected persons, According to Butime, mining work should end so that ancestral lands are protected for future generations. Environment, climate change and natural resource specialist Desmond Anywar based in northern Uganda thinks Graphite mining needs regulations because potential dangers on biodiversity. According to Anywar Desmond, part of Akoromo parish is in forest reserve that should not be under estimated because there are lives to be protected. Anywar added that construction works, clearing land for mineral extraction and urbanization shall all have serious impacts on the environment. “Water catchments need to be protected from mineral waste, leaking of oils that shall be use by earth moving equipment, pollutions of air, water and noise causing blockage of ozone layers and contamination of water sources. Mitigation strategies like planting similar tree spices that shall be destroyed by the mineralization need to be adopted but not planting any others spices that may not grow well in a particular soil type also Incinerators be erected to manage other waste among other mechanism need to be in place. According to the environmental impact assessment report, a decommissioning and restoration plan will be prepared and submitted to the relevant Government Authorities for approval at least one year prior to the planned date of decommissioning. The plan will include proposals for the restoration of the mining areas, access roads, and all other project sites to be as near as possible to their original state. According to a statement by public relations officer at National Environment Authority NEMA Tony Achidria, the process of graphite mining usually requires purification using chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid and sodium hydroxide; and during the process, if the run-off water is not managed well this can cause an impact on surrounding ecosystems including pollution to water sources and the related negative impacts Tony added it is a requirement for any project of that magnitude to utilize the best available technology to ensure that impacts are prevented, avoided, or mitigated. The NEMA certificate of approval of Environmental and Social Impact assessment states several conditions that the developer must abide by including water quality, air quality, noise pollution, biodiversity conservation, vibrations, and as well as social issues. “All mining projects are obligated to follow the Mining Act 2003, there are other related environmental regulations such as Waste Management Regulations, Minimum standards for the management of soil, Standards for discharge of effluent into soil and water, Audit regulations, Noise standards, and control regulations and Environment and social assessment regulations,” Tony said All mining must abide by the specific sections in each of the related laws, regulations, and guidelines Much as NEMA exists at the helm, local governments are also obliged to monitor operations and developments within their respective jurisdictions, Tony guided. The plan will also include a firm proposal for decommissioning and restoration of the tailing’s storage facilities. Based on the existing geochemical properties of the ore body and generally the project area, it is expected that the tailings will begin since they are not associated with metal sulphides or sulfates. Therefore, there is potential for the tailings to be managed onsite with minimal treatment.
According to the global forest watch report, in 2010, Chua county in Kitgum district where Orom graphite mine is located has lost 15% of tree cover from 59.3kha to 3.07ha of tree cover between 2010-2020, equivalent to 1.36kt of CO₂ emissions. Meanwhile ministry of water and environment report on Uganda’s state of forestry of 2016 show that, deforestation rate increased between 1990 and 2005 from 475,313 hectares to 389,409 hectares. Meanwhile, Uganda’s forest cover reduced from 4.9 million hectares in 1990 to 1.8 million hectares in 2015 translating into a loss of 3.1 million hectares in 25 years or an average annual forest loss of about 122,000 hectares.
Orom hill in Locomo Village in Akurumor Parish Kitgum district. Environmentalists are worried of degradation of the environment when graphite mining activities commence. Photo by: Robert Ojok Mone