A bright rising sun is just about to overpower a white blanket of fog over the hills and valleys on which the settlement of Hurum Gora is scattered. The settlement is just coming alive; farmers are making their way to the fields, while cattle rearers are milking their cows waiting for the dew to dry off the grass before they lead their cattle to forage.
Lying on a bench under a large tree in the center of the village blowing out a steady stream of cigarette smoke is 22 year old Kangla Walu. Nearby, a matronly bean-cake fryer is busy at her trade. Under the bench are a digger, a shovel, and a head pan – the newest articles of Kangla’s trade. Having dropped out of secondary school due to his parent’s inability to pay his fees, Kangla has tried his hands as a motorcycle taxi rider, but the owner of the cycle seized it due to poor remittance from Kangla. Today he is waiting for a friend as they have both made up their mind to go for the “Blue“.
Mining of blue sapphire is a temptation for the jobless youths of the Mambilla Plateau. Kangla’s cousin just returned to the village after a few days at the “Blue” with a new motor bike, enough money to build his own hut complete with a bride, having made a lucky strike. His friend has informed him of a new field at Dundere. In less than an hour they will be at Dundere to join a motley mob of jobless youths in a feverish search for this mineral, which occurs in many of the plateau’s streams that crisscross its forested valleys.
To reach the mineral, all trees in the valley are cleared. Up to five hundred meters of the forest can be decimated in just a week as long as there is an occurrence of the mineral. Then pits are dug on the floor of the streams, with loose soil from the operation clogging up the rivers and halting its natural flow of water. Where people used to fetch clean water from fast flowing streams, now muddy puddles are found.
The “Blue” is not only found in the rivers. Where pits are dug on the land, they become a danger to livestock as they are deep enough for cows and sheep to fall inside. Down in the plains of Taraba and Adamawa States and in neighboring Cameroun, rainy season floods wash down loose soil from the mining operation, silting up the rivers. Once heavily silted, the perfect recipe for rainy season floods is complete. Precious farmlands are lost along with crops and even homes where the rivers start changing their course due to siltation. When an area is exhausted the valley lies in total ruin.
If Kangla hits a lucky strike, he will sell his booty of blue sapphire to a dealer in Gembu, the nearest town or directly to Nigerian or Senegalese buyers who hang around the pits. Sapphires occur in different colors: red, orange, opaque and blue, with the blue stones being the most valued in the pits of Mambilla. For a gram of good crystal blue stones, he will receive N80,000 (about US$ 500). In order to build a decent house for himself, buy a motor bike and send two children to school, he would have dug up an estimated two hundred pits on an area of roughly one by four hundred meters. Within that perimeter more than two hundred trees will be felled. The blue sapphires from these pits are sold as unprocessed precious stones and exported mainly to Thailand where the ‘Blue’ is used in making jewelry. Other uses of the stone include the manufacture of electronic chips; in India it is highly valued for its ‘mystical’ potency. Unlike other high value minerals such as diamonds whose of production sources come under international scrutiny such as the Kimberly Process, the ‘Blue’ of the Mambilla Plateau silently finds its way onto the necks of the rich across the Globe, despite the negative impacts on the environment.
For most of the year the water bearing valley will remain dry, leading to massive species loss. The drying up of these valleys and the cessation of water flow drastically reduces water supply to the rivers down the plains. A part from general loss of species in the riparian eco system, dry season farming is drastically reduced or stopped. The problem of mass youth unemployment poses a big question as to what is the sustainable solution for extracting these stones. The hope that beneath the beautiful forests of the Mambilla Plateau lie the means to a young man’s financial independence is overwhelmingly strong – until the environmental backlash will be staring these communities in the face. One of the earliest signs is that of severe windstorms due to the depletion of natural wind breakers. ‘The forests were an abode of spirits before the mining mob came calling, now they have destroyed the trees in which the spirits live, and so the spirits are angry now… This is the result’ says Ardo Shanono, a Fulani chief, sweeping his arm around his storm wrecked country home. Nearby the only primary school for the whole area lies in a heap of blocks and snapped woods entangled in zinc roofing sheets after being destroyed by storms. No doubt, the spirits are indeed angry.