About eight graves at Omusheshe village in the Okatana constituency are on the verge of being swallowed by a pit dug by illegal sand miners.
The Namibian has visited various areas where sand mining is taking place. Most of these people do not have an environmental clearance certificate.
One such place is Omusheshe village, where close to eight people are buried. They all lived in this community.
The most recent grave is of a man who died in 2005. The pit belongs to Margareta Weyulu (67). She said her late husband started it in 1995.
While it may look just a little too harmless and someone moving sand, for others, it has turned into their worst nightmare.
Community members of Omusheshe complained to the environment ministry when they saw that what is left of their loved ones will soon be dug out for reasons of profit.
The ministry, through its environmental commissioner, Teofilus Nghitila, has since put an end to the activities in May 2018.
In December last year, three girls, aged 11, 13 and 15 drowned in pits left by sand miners in the Ohangwena region. Ohangwena police spokesperson, sergeant Andrew Nghiyolwa, said the pits are dangerous, and should be filled to prevent further loss of lives.
An 11-year-old girl drowned while fetching water from a sandpit left behind by contractors at Omufitu waNakashole. The next day, sisters Julia and Elizabeth Naluwe, aged 13 and 15, drowned at the Onamwilwa village.
The community members of Omusheshe were already vulnerable, as they live in a village which lacked essential services like running water and electricity. These conditions, however, have also made the community vulnerable to business people’s eagerness to take advantage of the community and has encouraged sand mining as a form of economic growth.
At first, the community welcomed the borrow pits, said Weyulu’s daughter Karolina Hamulungu (38). Other pits, Hamulungu added, just appeared, although Namibian law requires community consultation.
They hoped that money from the sale of sand would create jobs and infrastructural development, but so far it has only led to losses.
Hamulungu told The Namibian that although their pit was started a long time ago, it was endorsed by their traditional authority under Philipus Hamukoto, who is the village headman.
She said they would usually plough their mahangu field, but their sand was never fertile enough for sufficient production.
“This borrow pit was established in 1995 when my father started it. Namcon took over the pit when they built the road. In 2018, Otesa took over. That is why we sell and for our bread and butter.
“We make a living from the money we get from the sand,” she said, while pointing at the concrete makeshift unit which they now run as a spaza shop.
Hamulungu said they had been offered N$5 000 (US$1,100) to be permanently relocated. The first offer was N$2 000, and they felt it was too little, if one considers the government’s compensation policy.
“The business people should be told to do it right. Some people still owe us money, as they take the sand on credit” she lamented.
They sell for N$100-N$150 (US$7-11US$) per load for gravel and N$80 for building sand. The minerals found in the sand are key ingredients for cement and mortar.
Although there is little or nothing left to mine, Hamulungu said they have since applied for a environmental clearance certificate from the ministry, but their headman refused to sign it, unless they share the profits.
About 400 metres from the Hamulungus is another house which is on the verge of collapsing. The homeowner was not at home during the time of the visit, but the children played around the pit unbothered.
Animals moved around the pit, and while villagers who preferred not to identify themselves acknowledged the danger of the pits, they were also quick to add: “The cows will know how to manoeuvre around it. Maybe only a drunk person is at risk during night time if they are not familiar with the area”.
The government’s response through traditional authorities has been to move those who are willing to relocate. A few have remained behind, and are trying to mount a David-versus-Goliath challenge to the unethical mining practices.
The environment ministry’s spokesperson, Romeo Muyunda, said the ministry has a responsibility to regulate activities which have the potential to harm the environment, as per the Environmental Management Act.
Through the act, the ministry reinforces compliance by monitoring various activities, which include sand mining.
However, the responsibility of rehabilitating dug pits does not lie with the ministry, but with the responsible person or agency. Rehabilitating excavated pits is part of the conditions for issuing an environmental clearance certificate for sand mining activities.
Late last year, the environment ministry held a consultative workshop for sand miners and other relevant stakeholders to address issues of sand mining in the northern areas.
That workshop covered all sand mining activities in the northern areas of Namibia. In that workshop, it was resolved that illegal sand mining would be stopped, and that prospective sand miners should apply for environmental clearance certificates with the ministry.
“If there is still non-compliance in this regard, the ministry should be notified to enforce the law together with the Namibian Police. We are tracing known contractors who failed to rehabilitate pits and ensure compliance,” Muyunda stated.
He said in the consultative workshop with sand miners, it was also resolved that pits should be managed the rehabilitaion of by regional councils, local authorities and traditional authorities.
“Old pits will be mapped, and those responsible will be identified to rehabilitate such pits. Therefore, we encourage the public with information of any agency or person that has failed to rehabilitate a dug pit to give such details to their regional council, local authorities, traditional authorities or the ministry,” Muyunda asserted.
He also encouraged the public to remain vigilant, and to report any illegal activities on the environment, including sand mining.