Nine people died in a cave-in at a mining site in the the East region of Cameroon on the night of December 29. A Chinese company had just pulled out of the mine and failed to fill in the holes and secure the site despite risks of collapse. For locals, this safety failure is the final straw after problems already caused by mining in the area.
Chinese mining company Lu et Lang had been exploiting the gold-rich mining site near the village of Ngoengoe, in the department of Lom-et-Djérem. Around 2am the night after the company pulled out, a cave-in occurred. Both men and women lost their lives.
WARNING: READERS MAY FIND SOME IMAGES SHOCKING
The bodies of the nine people killed in the cave-in. Photo taken on Dec. 30 and provided by the Forests and Rural Development association (In French, Forêts et Développement Rural, or FODER).
"People went to the site in hopes of finding a bit of gold, to make a little money”
Mada Michel is the mayor of Ngoura, the town closest to Ngoengoe. He went to the mining site a few hours after the accident.
When we arrived, the bodies were already buried. We didn’t even know how many people had died. We decided to start digging, using two diggers belonging to the Chinese company that operates there.
One of the diggers used to find buried people. Photo provided by the Forests and Rural Development association (In French, Forêts et Développement Rural, or FODER).
The people who died weren’t employees of Lu et Lang. They were just local people who came in hopes of finding a bit of gold, to make a little money for the end of the year celebrations. One of them was my nephew.
In fact, the Chinese company had stopped exploiting the mine on December 29. People showed up on the site a few hours later. Apparently, they gained access by paying 1100 francs [equivalent to roughly 1.70 euro] to a soldier who on site.
After the landslide, the local gendarmerie was quick to open an investigation. However, I am considering filing a complaint against Lu et Lang and the state because the company abandoned the site without securing it. The state is extremely lax in enforcing the Mining Code.
What does the law say?
According to the Cameroonian mining code, mining operators are responsible for “closing” mining sites. In concrete terms, that means that, after having exploited certain sites, mining operators must leave them in an “acceptable” condition so that they do not become a hazard for local populations. The companies must close up holes, for example. The authorities are supposed to enforce this.
But sites are rarely secured, deplores Justin Chekoua from the Yaoundé-based association Forêts et Développement Rural (FODER). "Generally, mining companies don’t close up the holes after exploiting them," he says. "The ground isn’t firm, so there are often cave-ins. In just the East region, about 40 people died in abandoned mining holes in 2017."
This video shows a mining site in Colomine, in the Lom-et-Djérem department in the East region. The video was taken by the FODER association.
How did the Chinese company respond after the landslide?
Michel says that Lu et Lang have not officially responded to the incident.
On December 30, I spoke to one of the company interpreters on the phone. He just told me that his bosses were in China.
On that very day, we organised a meeting in the village to tell people to no longer go to abandoned mining sites. An employee of the mining company was present but he didn’t say anything because he doesn’t speak French.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to the company’s translator, who confirmed that the company was actively working on the site until December 29.
They were planning to fill in the hole the next morning. However, people came to the site at night. We didn’t think that they would manage to get in because there are security holes measuring about three metres across and five metres deep around the main hole. So they had to get over these holes to get to the main one. We started closing up the holes on January 1 anyway.
The FODER association and the Regional Representative for Mines (a post associated with the Ministry of Mines, Industry and Technological Development) confirmed that the company had started to close up the holes.
Michel was not impressed by the idea of security holes. "These are mostly just trenches that people can fall into during the night. They are dangerous. It’s better to install barbed-wire fences to protect a site."
The company translator said that he would not comment on the deaths of numerous people on the mining site. He did say that Lu et Lang had been present on the site "since January or February 2016". Ngoura’s mayor, however, says that the company has been operating there for three years. According to FODER, the company has been operating in the Lom-et-Djérem region since 2010.
One of the bodies buried in the cave-in on December 30. (Photo provided by FODER)
The mining site where the cave-in occurred on December 30. (Photo provided by FODER)
"A year ago, we found four bodies in the same mining site”
The deadly cave-in isn’t the first incident involving this mining company, according to Michel. He says the company has already angered the community in the past.
A year ago, we discovered a mass grave on the same site. The bodies of four people were buried there. We still don’t know how they died.
This company has polluted the nearest river, whose waters are no longer potable. [Editor’s note: According to FODER, this river has also been clogged by mud produced from the washing of gold. FODER claims that the population tried to organise a few different meetings with the company since December, but that the bosses never showed.]
Also, a Chinese man killed a local man near another mining site, which was being exploited by another Chinese company [Editor’s note: This happened in November, in the village of Longa Malhi, which is also located in Lom-et-Djérem].
We were really angry. What's worse, the local community doesn't benefit at all from the mining activities. Only the public treasury gets a bit of money. But we don’t touch a cent.