And since the price of gold has spiked, many local people have been digging without a license. Government officials blame their operations for a massive lead poisoning outbreak. But activists say punishing miners would make the health crisis worse. Gold mining in this part of northern Nigeria is not glamorous. Sani Bila heads a local mining association. As he perches on a pile of rocks laced with gold, he says nowadays business is booming.
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Other miners say success is coupled with fear, as the government continues to call their operations illegal. At a news conference in the capital, Abuja, State Minister of Health Muhammad Ali Pate says a lot of small-scale mining is illegal because it is dangerous. He blames the small operations for the lead poisoning outbreak that has crippled the Zamfara region and killed hundreds of children.
Pate says the lead poisoning is caused by dust emitted as gold is processed. But activists say the threat of mining bans only aggravates the crisis.
You have to go for the short-term gain. Gayton says small-scale mining will continue, deep in the forest, legal or not.
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When asked if their operation is legal, these miners are silent. Hassan Haruna, the secretary of their mining association pushes through the crowd to respond: We are doing it, let me tell you, illegally. To mine legally, they not only need to stave off a ban, they also need to buy the rights to their mines. A law gave all mineral rights to the federal government and mining leaders say they are trying to organize so they can buy titles before international corporations move in.
These men say they fear neither bans nor licensing laws and they will continue to work in peace. But before they would allow a camera on site they insisted that their exact location be kept a secret..