In 2015, when a group of armed cultists stormed the family farmland of Asi Emmanson to excavate sand, she could not bear the pain of seeing her only means of livelihood and family heritage in ruins.
Seventy-nine years at the time, she developed high blood pressure and died of a heart attack.
She was a promising smallholder farmer who grew palm plants on the farmland she inherited from her late husband, Emmanson Uwaidem.
“Nobody ever tampered with this palm plot right from my youth to when I became mature,” Mrs Uwaidem’s eldest son, Ismaila Uwaidem, who is also the deputy village head of Ikot Ekpuk, a village in the South-west of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State capital, said.
“When I came to confront them, they were prepared to harm me so that they can inherit everything; even some of our properties were damaged just for saying what they were doing was bad.”
Mr Uwaidem said he reported the incident to the village head, and others, but the village head and all those who he spoke to were threatened.
For the fear of being hounded, when this reporter visited, residents cringed when asked for an interview, even though they were not happy keeping mum.
Sand excavation is the expulsion of sand usually from an open pit. This can also be mined from sand dunes, beaches and even dredged from rivers and ocean beds.
However, sand mining activities along the shoreline and in coastal regions are a major cause of erosion and deforestation in Nigeria’s riverine southern region, experts say.
Youth in Akwa Ibom find solace in sharp sand excavation from surrounding rivers and streams in order to earn a living, but little consideration is given to its environmental implications.
The demand for sand is driven by its use for construction.
This reporter observed that the mining is done both manually (small scale) through the use of metallic buckets, canoe and shovel and on a commercial level with dredgers.
The former appears to pose less environmental consequences as observed in Ibagwa community, but the latter leaves the surrounding environment at the mercy of gully erosion, landslides, deforestation, land degradation, and loss of aquatic and terrestrial lives due to high levels of turbulence triggered by the installed dredger machines.
In the communities visited, PREMIUM TIMES observed that well-forested areas have sunk into huge ditches, with continuous steeps that have affected farming activities.
The major roads linking these areas are inaccessible by small cars, except heavy-duty trucks because of the bad state they had metamorphosed into. For motorcycles, it’s a no-go area.
Residents in at least four villages in Ibagwa and Abak Usong Atai communities visited by this reporter said the degradation has made them ‘seasonal migrants’ as their land are often flooded and their farmland devastated.
PREMIUM TIMES located several spots where sand miners have damaged and heaps of sharp sand stand tall, awaiting buyers.
After several minutes of bumpy navigation to Abak Usong Atai village road leading to the mining site, which shares a boundary with Abak Usong Idim village, this reporter arrived the community.
On sighting this reporter, Etido Friday, 30, dark, short and sturdy, said “Bros, nsiba now? Nse ke aben adi? Nse ayem? “translated as “Bros, what’s up? What did you bring for us? What do you want?”
This captured the attention of others.
“Even police no fit arrest anybody comot for here ooo,” one of them holding a wrap of Indian hemp, fiery-eyed, bare-chested, said.
But as the prodding continued, one of this reporter’s fixers cut in. He told their challengers that this reporter was a researcher who wants to learn about the business. This calmed their nerves.
“OK,” one of them who identified himself as “Life,” murmured. He said if our correspondent can give him at least N4,000, he would tell him everything he needs to know.
While this was on, Mr Friday, a dredger operating for nine years, eventually agreed to speak. He said the work was a good job that he won’t like to quit anytime soon.
“The work dey good with me,” he said in pidgin English. “If not, I won’t be doing it. I’m being paid N50,000 monthly, with N2000 feeding allowance every day. I don’t want this activity to be stopped, na better business ooo,” Mr Friday, a father of three, said.
Another miner, who identified himself as “Voice of God”, said sand mining is a good job that has been fetching him money to survive. He said he was a generator engineer, but dropped out from school after the death of his father.
“So as things got tough, when I saw this work (sand mining) I used it to ‘manage’ myself and as well cater for my children,” he said.
“Before now, this place was bushy. We paid a pay-loader to clear the place for us so we can mine sand in order to manage our lives,” he added.
Asked if community members accepted their activities, he said: “No, they are not complaining. We just settle them (give them some tip), then we commence our work.”
A dredger master (machine operator), Johnson Brownson, originally from Eket local government area of the state, said the sand mining business is not too ‘booming’ in the state when compared to other states like Delta, Rivers, Lagos and Bayelsa.
Although the sand mining business is highly profitable in Lagos State due to the high demand, the business in Akwa Ibom State pays more than some other jobs within the state.
”What we usually do is that we buy off the land area where we have mapped out to install our dredger from the landlords of the community.
“Because once we start dredging, it affects a whole lot of things. In the mining business, ‘landsliding’ is involved. When we got here, it was a small stream, but when we started mining, you can see the place is now open,” he said.
Mr Brownson, a mechanical engineer, said he dropped out of the University of Calabar after which he dabbled into the business due to ”his passion for anything mechanical”. He is paid about N85,000 monthly, inclusive of feeding allowance.
He said they can dredge up to 500 to 1000 cubic meters in less than five days.
Another dredger, Sunday Godwin, an indigene of Delta State, who has been in the business for over 15 years, said they usually install their machines in narrow waters, which expands after digging.
“Sometimes our roads get bad because as we keep dredging, the surrounding environment continues to expand, and people will be asking why is this place like this. Sometimes, the community members get angry, and they will ask us to leave,” Mr Godwin said.
Experts say unregulated sand mining activities violate sustainable global environmental practices, which could trigger climate change effects such as flooding, release of carbon monoxide due to heavy-duty trucks’ movement and loss of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity due to continuous human interference.
A report by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), said biodiversity is critical to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, each adopted in 2015.
It said around one-third of the net reductions in greenhouse gas emissions required to meet the Paris Agreement goals could come from ‘nature-based solutions’, while the Aichi Biodiversity targets are reflected directly in many of the targets within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The CBD report opined that biodiversity is explicitly highlighted in SDGs 14 (life below water) and 15 (life on land), but also underpins a much wider set of goals.
“For example, it is a key factor for the achievement of food security and improved nutrition (SDG 2) and the provision of clean water (SDG 6). All food systems depend on biodiversity and a broad range of ecosystem services that support agricultural productivity, for example through pollination, pest control and soil fertility,” the report reads.
It said healthy ecosystems also underpin the delivery of water supplies and water quality and guard against water-related hazards and disasters. The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity may, therefore, be regarded as foundational to the whole 2030 Agenda.
An ecologist at the University of Uyo, Felix Ogbemudia, said sand mining activities lead to huge loss of biodiversity, farm-land and soil nutrients.
He said the noise pollution from the region hinders the activities of animals existing in the region, which often could be fatal.
“Apart from these, most of the mining sites become a hideout for hoodlums and overtime, gully erosion can sets in,” he said.
Mr Ogbemudia urged the state government to encourage environmental remediation procedures such as the planting of plant species in sand mining areas which are capable of reclaiming lost vegetation in a short while.
Calls and text messages requesting for comments, sent to the Akwa Ibom commissioner for environment and petroleum resources, Charles Udoh, were not answered.
Support for this report was provided by the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ)’ through funding support from Ford Foundation.
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