The Silent Ecological Tragedy: Artisanal Mining and Ecosystem Degradation

By Bernardin Uzayisaba

September 15, 2023
Bernardin Uzayisaba leads the Sustainable Growth team at UNDP Rwanda

Bernardin Uzayisaba leads the Sustainable Growth team at UNDP Rwanda


Last weekend, when attending my cousin’s wedding in the countryside, I was deeply shocked by the devastating consequences of human activities on the natural environment: the scenes I encountered were nothing like the memories of my youth.

Kimpondwe, a small stream nestled between two imposing hills in the cells of CUBI and MARENGA within the Kayenzi Sector of Kamonyi District, was once a serene part of my childhood landscape. Growing up in the CUBI cell, I cherished the daily sight of its crystal-clear waters, which served as a lifeline for countless households in the neighborhood.

During the unbearable summer months, Kimpondwe became an especially vital rescuer. It facilitated crop irrigation, provided drinking water for both humans and livestock, and, most importantly, offered a sanctuary for leisurely swims. I often visited its banks to collect fodder for our livestock. Kimpondwe was not just a body of water; it was an integral part of life for me and countless other young people in the community.

However, after a hiatus of five years, my recent visit to Kimpondwe for my cousin-sister's wedding was a heart-breaking experience. Instead of the familiar clear waters, I was greeted by a dark brown stream that had lost its colors and vitality. Instead, it looked overwhelmed with sediments from artisanal mining activities on CUBI and MARENGA hills. 

There, 200 daily workers mine cassiterite (the main source of tin) and coltan (used in electrical devices). These activities have severe negative effects on the environment and socio-economic development. Rivers like Kimpondwe downstream are flooded resulting in crop loss, and intensifying hunger and poverty within communities. Som of the artisanal mining contributes to loss of human life, economic cost, environmental degradation, and widespread hunger.

Local communities were harvesting nothing but despair from Kimpondwe, as they now had to walk over 500 meters from their homes to fetch water. Some community members, my uncle among them, had abandoned their cattle farming because clean water for their livestock had become scarce. The once-fertile marshlands within Kimpondwe's watershed lay barren, and people were suffering from hunger. 

Kimpondwe’s downfall serves as undeniable evidence of the catastrophic impact of unregulated mining activities on the ecosystem. In our relentless pursuit of short-term gains, we are unknowingly sabotaging our own future. It's time to stop destroying Mother Nature before it's too late.

Three key actions are needed now to avoid additional damage and support sustainable development.

  1. Leverage technology to stop illegal mining and support community transitionThe Rwanda National Police and Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB) together with local authorities and UNDP Rwanda have begun working with communities to detect illegal mining. This has included the use of drones to monitor artisanal mining and collect data from remote areas that are otherwise inaccessible by conventional means. The Rwanda Mining Board and its partners should scale up use of such technological advancements and use the data generated to support the creation of alternative livelihoods in communities close to the affected areas.

  2. Foster employment and sustainability through responsible mining practices: The Rwanda Mining Board and local authorities should prioritize awarding mining concessions to well-qualified companies committed to environmentally friendly mining practices. A vital condition for these companies should be the provision of decent employment opportunities to local communities and the reintegration of individuals previously engaged in illegal mining activities. This approach not only eradicates illegal mining but also addresses the social, economic, and environmental challenges stemming from such activities.

  3. Invest in local communities: Drawing inspiration from the success of the tourism industry, the Rwanda Mining Board should allocate a certain percentage of mining revenues to the development of local communities. This funding should be channeled into community development projects that enhance access to basic infrastructure, such as schools, climate-resilient housing, and healthcare facilities. Emphasizing community-based projects that empower citizens is crucial for long-term success.

Artisanal mining, seen in places like CUBI and MARENGA hills, is a national and global issue. It hampers development, creating unregulated sectors that hinder revenue, job opportunities, and poverty alleviation. Moreover, it harms the environment, poses health risks, and causes conflicts, impeding progress and stability in affected areas worldwide.

If we fail to take decisive action now, the number of people pushed into poverty in these rural areas will continue to rise, as the natural resource base needed to support livelihoods is destroyed and the world will remain on a collision course with environmental catastrophe.

As team leader of Sustainable Growth at the United Nations Development Programme in Rwanda, I am committed to working tirelessly with partners and communities to address these pressing issues. Together, we can foster a harmonious coexistence between our economic aspirations and the preservation of our precious ecosystems. 

Ensuring the sustainable development of affected communities is the only way to stop the degradation of the ecosystem and sustain their restoration. It's a path we must take if we wish to leave a habitable planet for future generations. Together we can make economic growth much more sustainable and inclusive. 

Bernardin Uzayisaba leads the Sustainable Growth team at UNDP Rwanda and is an expert on environmental sustainability and climate solutions.