The War against Uncontrolled Sand Mining in Northern Nigeria

Every day, hundreds of donkeys, tipper lorries, wheelbarrows, head pans, and shovels are used to dig sand running into millions of tons and move it to where it is used in building houses and constructing other structures across Nigeria. Many people ignore the fact that the indiscriminate digging of sand is dangerous; and that encroaching on farmlands can reduce farming activities needed for food security and income for farmers and more revenue to the government. Farming reduces poverty and hunger. Apart from the fact that natural resources should be used properly, local residents should be made to understand the consequences of acting otherwise.

Analyses have shown that environmental degradation occasioned by illegal sand-digging is caused, in the main, by laxity in environmental law implementation and ineffective development control. Almost exclusively, women collect sand to be sold at a low price, without any return to the government, yet there is an ever-expanding construction industry in some areas, especially Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria.  Millions of people have yet to understand that the sand excavators are causing damaging climate change and migration effects in our country. 

Impacts of sand mining

Also, many surveys have shown that unrestrained human activities in Nigeria, as in other parts of the world, among them illegal sand digging, contribute immensely to environmental destruction and cause a lot of ecological distortions which affect the lives of about 80 million Nigerians. 

The sand digging is so extensive that many farmlands in some parts of northern Nigeria have virtually been abandoned. These vanishing farmlands take on the appearance of open pit holes in some areas. The ecological consequences are disastrous, resulting in an adverse impact on climate and economic prospects caused by washing away extensive areas of land and destroying crops and plantations.

Though some state governments have launched task-forces to deal with illegal sand mining, and have begun to clamp down on the illegal sand dredging business by arresting and charging some of the perpetrators, the options are few; and in remote areas where unemployment is high, sand has become, in too many cases, the sole and illegal source of income, especially for young people.

Many of Nigeria’s states have issued licenses to companies to carry out the sand business legally without considering or seeking means to avoid the sad effect of climate change and migration.

I have completed an undercover investigation, pretending that I wanted to buy sand in bulk, to some areas in the Nigerian Federal Capital District – Abuja, Kaduna and Plateau states – where I found previously untold stories about how some individuals engage in recruiting young girls, who are taken out of school as early as 15 years old, and brought to the sand excavation sites, to engage in supplying tons of sand to different construction companies; a strenuous and unsustainable life of sand stealing and other forms of bad conduct.

Early morning on a Saturday, I called one of my classmates to arrange where we could go to meet people who are in the sand merchandizing business in one of the local government areas, in Northern Nigeria, where many communities are experiencing different types of gully erosion due to the business of illegal sand excavation. As soon as we arrived in the area, the group leader who recognized my friend complained saying, “Why are you coming with someone who brings a camera to our place?” Most of his followers were smoking marijuana (Indian hemp) while sitting on top of the sand they had gathered as they awaited customers who would buy the different types of sand they had collected: ‘Mai laushi’ and ‘Mai tsakuwa’, as they called them in Hausa. “Which type do you want to buy or are you looking for” (meaning we have  different types including sharp, for plaster, or soft, for gravel or granite).

Jibrin Dankasa, as he was popularly known due to his sand business, lamented that, “Apart from donkeys we use to supply sand for our clients, we involve wheelbarrow pushers, including trucks of all sizes – full truck or half – and we all have our agents and marketers who sell our product to different people and construction sites and brick makers.” When asked how they carried out their business without running afoul of the government’s taskforce over illegal sand digging, he disclosed that, “It’s a matter of settling the people per day”.

According to him, the business brings good returns every day, “So to pay a small amount of money to settle taskforce is not a problem. Our business is highly supportive of construction companies, sand merchants, and job seekers in the country. We provide jobs for unemployed Nigerians, especially the young,” he explained.

Dankasa also claimed that many parents send their children into the sand digging and selling business from many different communities, including from his state of Kano and from outside it.

He continued, “Not much has changed since I started this business with N100 only, in 1978. Every day, around 300 men leave their homes early in the morning to go and excavate sand in the water or outside the water using both new and traditional equipment, though only a few men follow tippers, others use donkeys for easier portage and without much harassment from law enforcement. The rest rely on the arrival of our donkeys to fill the bags of cement with sand and then use wheelbarrows to deliver the consignment to our different sales agents and marketers.

“We sell a full tipper load of sand at the rate of N27,000; half tipper for N13,500 while in other areas we sell at the rate of N25,000 and N12,500. A bag of cement filled with sand we supply our customers at the rate of N120 while our boys who push the wheelbarrow collect N30 or N25 per bag. We make money every day. Do you think if I am working in government I will earn N150,000 per day, pay 150 workers  every day or on weekly basis to take care of their families?”

After a short walk from his location, I approached someone who was in a stream using a shovel to collect sand from the water. He was angry as he saw me holding my camera. He came out of the water and demanded that I hand over the camera to him, asking why I was snapping his picture.

I was however able to convince him that there was no picture of him inside the camera. He demanded to know why I came with a camera to that place, without his permission. My friend, who was on the same football team with the enraged sand excavator, calmed him down, telling him not to be upset. My friend, a university student studying geography, said he was collecting some samples of sand for a project, adding that was why we were there.

He told him that he could benefit from some advice about his work. He brought out a packet of cigarettes, handed him a cigarette, and they started smoking amicably. I seized the opportunity and spoke to him about the climate crisis and how to inspire people from all walks of life to come together and take action. 

I said to him: “I heard that you allow your children not to go to school; that sometimes you bring them here for the sand digging business. It is not good for your health either entering into this type of water without waterproof shoes. You are damaging your health, the nature of your work is a hazardous means to shorten your life expectancy.

“With your support about climate change mitigation, to avoid the risk you face daily, try to be a change maker, too, and if you want your life expectancy and your family’s to be long, you need to send your kids to school on a daily basis to have a good education in a good environment.” Then I brought out three exercise books: Learn English/Arabic basic writing and reading, a small school handbag, and said you should give these to your children.

Insecurity of Food and Agriculture 

I also met some farmers whose farmlands were affected by land encroachment thanks to sand excavators and construction of various types leading to conflicts on various issues that have gone on for years. They complained that such things happen only in Nigeria.

Ardo Sani, a herder, said, “I am not educated, but I have listened to the radio for over 25 years and know how developed countries try to fight those mafias that are involved in excavating farmlands without the authorities’ approval. In some developed countries, land remains one of the most prized physical assets.”

I told him my mission was to write stories that will lead to solving the climate crisis in our societies through the media. We need to educate everybody, as millions of farmers in Nigeria need to stand up and act to check global warming.  

Many environmental experts I contacted said, “Tackling the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced should include how food insecurity is affecting our populations, making people migrate from one place to another. Land disputes between herders and farmers, land excavators and farmers from one place to another – lead to labour migration – and its implications.” 

Many experts have similarly called on government agencies to draft programmes to train the trainers about the impact of climate change, to strike a balance between communities, and to guide them. That they should produce up-to-date maps of their areas to address issues on their farm lands and how to deal with climate change and increase the wellbeing of their populations; and provide improved access to education about climate change for their young ones. They should improve food security and agriculture strategies in Nigeria, raise public awareness about education for girls and empower them to also be involved in solving climate change issues and enhancing society’s understanding of general wellbeing and empowerment.

Scholars and green revolution experts have consistently urged government agencies to accelerate the planting of millions of trees to create green areas through land utilization and to create more farmland to mitigate climate change in the future.

They insist on engaging the media and introducing programmes specifically and the general public on the dangers of climate change and the need for all hands to be on deck for mitigation.

Photos: Hussaini G. Mohammed

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