Once upon a gold mine…
Up in the mountains, surrounded by green grassy valleys and fields of maize, cassava and banana plantations, between scattered villages and townships, past herds of goats and cows, amongst flowing rivers and natural springs, on top of displaced peoples land, lies a gold mine.
The gold mine has some problems.
Gold exploration began here in 1993 after some foreign engineers discovered local artisans chipping away at some rock, “aha! They’ve struck gold! – We must buy this land!” they (may have) said.
And so they bought the land, or leased it, and evicted all of those – the Kurya’s (the local tribe) – who had been digging there long before the foreigners arrived on the scene.
The mine began production in 2002 and since then the lease has changed hands three times, and is now in the possession of Barrick Gold.
Barrick’s North Mara Gold Mine has been under constant attack for their performance socially, culturally and environmentally since they took over the lease in 2006; so much so, as they were nearly shut down earlier this year – due to a major acid leakage in May which caused abnormal pH levels in the local Tigithe River, of which some 6000 households rely on for all their domestic needs.
Community and company relations have never been warm here in the Tarime district, where the mine is located.
“When it started there were good relations,” said Daud Itembe, the chairman for the Matonga Village Council, “people were hoping that the mine would help development. After East Africa Gold Mines passed the lease to Placedon, the hope of citizens started to leave…
“Services that EAGM had started began to stop. And after Placedon passed (the lease) on to Barrick, the situation got worse. Barrick has not provided one single service to the local community. We see the mine as being useless, no one is benefiting from it.”
According to the local council there was an agreement that 1 percent of production revenue would go to the local municipality, however, they have yet to receive this money. Currently the North Mara mine is not making a cash-profit.
“The villagers provide (a lot of land) for the (tailings) dam, and the waste flows to the residential areas. They have asked to be compensated but nothing has happened. There has been no discussion between villagers and company to organise the 1 percent of revenue.” Said Itembe.
“Barrick is here for business, not for good relations between them and the community.” said Lucas Cornel, the Village Executive Officer, in their council offices, which appears to double as a barn, the walls and floors are cracked and a donkey clops in, followed by a local citizen.
“They were brought here by the government and not by the community, they’re here for profit and nothing else,” said Cornel.
Despite some efforts by Barrick to implement a strategic plan with the community, according to the council, nothing is happening. “The community refuse to collaborate, they see (Barrick) as being a liar. We are tired,” said Cornel.
Walking around the base at one end of the mine, dodging puddles and mud, I talk to a local miner who comes here with his two young boys every day looking for gold. He is wearing gumboots, and I am envious because it has been raining heavily on and off all day.
“I’m looking for food,” Mogubo Mirumbe says sarcastically. “I’m looking for gold stones, for survival. “I don’t have any other income, no farm; it was taken by the mine in 2002. After that I have come here every day.
“I was given ‘tomato money’ for my farm- not enough. Here I earn between 1000 and 2000 Tsh per day (between US 75c and $1.5), depending on what I find. There are about 6-10 stones in a bag, which sells for 20,000 Tsh (in town).
“With my money from selling gold I bought 200 cattle, I have only 9 left, I think they died because of drinking this water,” he said pointing to a stream that flows out from the mine pits, (which I am later told by Barrick are natural springs situated under the mine uncontaminated by any waste).
In the last three years the North Mara Gold Mine has experienced regular intruders stealing and damaging goods like diesel, scrap metal, piping, and high-quality plastic lining from ponds from the site, adding to the tense relations.
These incidents often result in security, police and community clashes, with the community wielding machetes and rocks, and the police armed with tear gas and live ammunition. Occasionally there are fatalities.
Every day there are hundreds of trespassers on the mine site, rummaging for gold. The security and police have been accused of accepting bribes to allow them to continue their work, or simply don’t care. Sometimes they step up their response and then conflict occurs.
When I visited the mine I did indeed see people scattered all over the site with buckets, tools and bags searching for bounty. A group of young girls who are sitting in hand dug holes start to run away as we arrive, however, noticing that we’re not security, they continue with their work.
We walk up onto the top of a rock pile and look down into the valley below. “Two things you need to see here,” says Gerhard Hermann, the South African Production Manager for Barrick Tanzania, “the first is the illegal mining, and the second is, see the guy sitting next to the hole of water, that’s actually an FFU (Field Force Unit) police officer, so you can make your own deductions as to what’s happening there.”
According to Hermann the amount of work required to farm compared with the amount of work required for mining gold is vastly different. Plus what people make from selling gold is much higher than profits made from agriculture. This is what draws people here, he said.
“How do you even discourage them from coming here in the first place?” said Teweli Teweli, the PR and Communications Officer for Barrick Gold Tanzania. “This is where the government comes in. This is where they have to invest in the community, to give them alternatives…”
In contrast, unsurprisingly, to what the community has said about Barrick’s performance, Hermann states that community relations were good until December the 11th 2008 when US$25 million worth of equipment was damaged during an on-site break in. After that Barrick cut off all ties with the community and pulled out from any social service programs they were running.
They say that only recently they have looked at re-engaging with the community, but the pace is slow and uneasy.
“We’re in touch with the local councillors, chairmen, and executive officers,” said Teweli, “some of them have come out in local media, trying to discourage the community from vandalising any mining infrastructure, because one way or another it comes back and hurts the community itself, but of course a lot more needs to be done.
“There’s only so much we can do as a company; we need the other two players to come in, the local community and the government and have a coordinated approach as to how we address these issues.”
The government do not appear to be engaging or mediating the tense relations between company and community, and unfortunately were unavailable/unreachable, (or on safari), to comment for this article.
“The community always put pressure on the Minister of Energy and Minerals to deal with the issue, but they don’t do anything. This is why the people use force, to show Barrick and the government that they are tired,” said Daud Itembe.
“We feel like we have no say as to what happens, that there is no way our voice can be heard; it is just between the central government and the company.”