A living – but at what cost?

2014-05-04 15:00

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It doesn’t matter where they live: artisanal small-scale miners are almost exclusively driven to their profession by poverty. This kind of mining is often criminalised when major mining companies move in and start exploring what was previously communal land – and the small players must decide whether they’ll break the law and risk their lives, or try to play by the new rules.

Ilham Rawoot and Victoria Schneider visited Maganzo, a village in Tanzania, to talk to men who claim they have no choice but to trespass in their search for diamonds to make ends meet. For this, they say, they’ve been victimised by mine security guards and the local police. Katrin Kramertook the pictures

George Joseph was shot on Wednesday January 9 2013 at around 8.30pm. It was one of the drier days of the Tanzanian rainy season and Joseph and a group of men went to work as usual.

They knew what they were doing was illegal. They paid the usual bribe to the mine’s security guards and snuck on to the property to dig for diamonds.

But that night, something went wrong.

When we meet Joseph, he is leaning on wooden crutches on a sandy street in Maganzo, a forgotten place in the middle of nowhere in northern Tanzania. He is waiting for us in the blazing midday sun, ready to show us the way to his nearby home.

One of the legs of his beige trousers is rolled up, a neatly bandaged stump jutting out underneath. It’s jarring compared to the rest of the well-built, tall and healthy 28-year-old’s figure.

Like many men in Maganzo, Joseph used to work as a small-scale miner.

The Williamson diamond mine, located on top of one of the largest kimberlitic pipes in the world, is just a few kilometres away from the community. Untouched kimberlite, the ore that sometimes contains diamonds,

is plentiful in the mine’s open pit. But its owner, multinational company Petra Diamonds, doesn’t tolerate intruders.

Joseph was not particularly fond of his job.

He snuck into the giant 146-hectare hole every night with no light and no safety gear, armed with pickaxes and shovels to extract as much bling as possible.

It’s a dangerous way to make a living, but in Tanzania it’s the reality for most of the country’s estimated 500?000 to 700?000 artisanal miners who work without licences.

Added to the perilous working conditions is the very real threat, they say, of mine security guards and police officers who attack them with shotguns.

“We have no choice, there’s nothing else to do here”, says Joseph.

His house is a dimly lit room that is divided into a sleeping area and a living area by a curtain. The walls used to be turquoise but the paint has chipped. Flies buzz around the table.

Friends and former colleagues are sitting on the floor around the TV set, the only luxury item in the tin-roofed house.

Joseph says the illegal miners have deals with Petra’s private security guards, paying them a 20?000 to 30?000 Tanzanian shillings (about R130 to R190) bribe per group per month to get on to the property and into the pit without the guards calling the police.

On a good day, an illegal miner could make up to 20?000 shillings.

But on January 9 last year, other security guards were on patrol. They had not been bribed.

“That evening we went to the place where we normally worked in the pit. There were five of us. The mine is not fenced so we just walk in. A guard spotted us and called the police. Shortly afterwards about 30 policemen showed up and started to beat us,” Joseph says.

“One guard said they should kill us, and they made us all sit down. They kicked one of us into the ditch and targeted me with a shotgun. They took me and threatened to throw me into the ditch as well but I caught one of the guards by the hand so they didn’t throw me.”

He says they shot and a bullet struck his leg. Several weeks later, the doctors had to amputate his right leg from the knee down. He didn’t report the incident to the police because his friends warned him he might get arrested and charged with trespassing.

In a statement, Petra Diamonds claims that George Joseph was part of a large group of illegal miners who attacked the company’s security guards.

“The police responded using the force necessary to prevent property damage and loss of life,” it says in the statement.

The region’s police did not respond to requests for comment.

Tanzania’s government said in a statement responding to City Press’ questions: “Through voluntary principle, there is some kind of security agreement between the Tanzanian police and the respective mining company with the objective of making sure that the communities surrounding the mines and the company workforce stay safe.”

In Maganzo, as in many other Tanzanian villages, illegal mining is the base of most households’ incomes.

“There’s no employment in Maganzo and the mine doesn’t give jobs to locals,” Joseph says. He’s tried several times to get a job at Williamson.

But?

“I don’t know. They probably think we’re all thieves.”

Informal artisanal small-scale mining (ASM) is illegal in most countries, including Tanzania.

Although there are organised ASM associations in Tanzania, most miners prefer to work illegally.

At around $150 (about R1?577) each, licences are out of most artisanal miners’ financial reach and digging in the pit proves more lucrative than picking through the waste dumps outside the mine.

An estimated 500?000 to 700?000 artisanal miners in Tanzania work illegally and run the risk of being shot by mine security and police officers in their search for kimberlite, the ore that sometimes contains diamonds

Joseph’s case is not unique in Maganzo.

Marko Ngussa is a shepherd who claims he was shot while walking his goats and accidentally trespassing on Petra’s premises.

We meet the young man in a square courtyard not far from Joseph’s house. The yard is lined with eight rooms – Ngussa’s is the one in the back left corner.

A couple of women are sitting on the steps, washing rice and sorting laundry.

Ngussa stutters. He is visibly shaken as he recalls what’s happened to him since March 2012.

“I was walking my goats when mine security approached me. They asked: ‘What are you doing here? Go away!’ Before I could do something, they shot me with a shotgun.”

He was taken to the mine’s hospital, where his wounds were treated.

His spleen had ruptured.

“After three weeks, I was released and went to the local police station to report the incident. They arrested me and opened a case against me for illegal trespassing on to the mine’s property.”

He spent six months in prison because he couldn’t prove his innocence, he says.

There is no monitoring or research available in Maganzo to verify the men’s stories.

The Legal and Human Rights Centre in Dar es Salaam confirms the cases, but none of the lawyers involved has found evidence to back up the men’s claims.

Locally, there is a one-man NGO without a name and with no financial or political means.

It is run by Anthony Sollo, who has been trying to advocate for years for illegal miners who were shot by security personnel.

“We tried to speak to Petra Diamonds and to our government but no one has been held accountable,” Sollo laments. He shares several similar incidents, but the only proof that exists is the alleged victims’ accounts.

Petra Diamonds’ version of Marko Ngussa’s story is extremely different.

The company says he was one of 35 “dangerously armed illegal trespassers who attacked a mine security patrol” and “physically tried to grab a shotgun from one of the security officers”.

It added: “In an attempt to rescue the security officer under physical attack and to deter the group of 35 armed attackers, a fellow armed security officer fired a warning shot and some of the pellet spray hit Mr Ngussa. Both Mr Ngussa and the security officer were arrested by the Tanzania Police Force and after police investigation, they released the security officer and brought two charges against Mr Ngussa.”

According to Evans Lazaro, a lawyer for the Legal and Human Rights Centre, reports of violence against artisanal miners have become “almost normal”.

He says: “The mines are guarded by the police and the police is part of the government.”

Lazaro says it is common for these cases not to be reported. “They are so afraid that they could get arrested, they don’t even report when they see somebody getting killed.”

Lazaro is based in Mwanza, a relaxed little town on the shore of Lake Victoria with a landscape shaped by massive round rocks.

He says not a week goes by when he doesn’t hear about an artisanal miner being killed, either around Barrick Gold’s North Mara mine or AngloGold Ashanti’s Geita Gold Mine.

When we meet, he has just received a phone call from his outreach team in Tarime on Tanzania’s northern border, claiming two more people have died in the Williamson mine’s pit.

“There is a saying in Swahili. There is an ape and a monkey,” he says. “We know monkeys steal maize from the farm, so I take the case to the gorilla and complain to him. But they are brothers and sisters. You can’t expect the gorilla to convict the monkey.”

He sighs and looks out towards Lake Victoria.

“This is the problem we are facing,” he says.

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