Publikation Nordafrika - Afrika Life in a Tanzanian Ruby Mine

Glimpses of the working lives of ruby miners and their communities

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Mai Choucri,

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Artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) represents an important occupation and source of income for many Tanzanians. More than one million miners are employed in this sector in Tanzania, primarily in gold extraction. Small-scale mining is labour-intensive and involves a low degree of mechanization, basic equipment, and a high level of occupational risk. Although the topic is a larger issue in Sub-Saharan Africa, it affects North Africa as well. In December 2017, large protests erupted in the Moroccan city of Jerada following the deaths of two young brothers while mining for coal. Various factors push people into working in ASM, such as a lack of other employment opportunities, the desire to escape poverty, and the need to diversify sources of income in a context where de-agrarianisation is a fact.

Gabriel mine is managed by the Agrovet Investment Company, which is owned by a well-known businessman and former parliamentarian from Arusha. The mine witnessed a fatal accident last July, when a 28-year-old miner suffocated to death and another was severely injured. It was reported that the miners had failed to observe security precautions forbidding them from entering the mine less than 48 hours after any blasting to break apart rocks is undertaken. This is blatant proof of the dangers posed by ASM. 

This new mine, which began operations several years ago, has still not reached the depth needed to commence ruby production. Yet the workers know they are on the right track due to the colour of the sedimentary rocks they are extracting. The mine’s manager explained that they had a conflict with the neighbouring Mundarara Ruby Mining Company (MRMC), Tanzania’s largest ruby mine in operation since 1949 with tens of thousands of workers and a mine that extends hundreds of meters deep. Gabriel’s miners encountered some MRMC miners underground, somehow leading to a violent conflict over who was trespassing on whose territory. The conflict was resolved with the involvement of the Tanzanian minerals minister, Angela Kairuki, who encouraged both company owners to sit around a table and cooperate with local authorities to put an end to the dispute. There is evidence that this small-scale mining grievance is not an isolated case, as people working in different ASM camps across Tanzania feel that preferential treatment is given to large-scale mining projects. 

The scale and size of operations at the Mundarara mine were bigger and the machinery more advanced. Yet even though this was supposed to be an industrial site as opposed to the first one we visited, the machinery seemed to be quite worn down. There were miners, administrators, security guards, and a bit further down the mine cart tracks, the Maasai community worked their way through the mine’s rubble. Some mine workers live in a compound on site, while others live at home and return in the morning.

The sight of burned-out automobile frames testified to a recent violent past. Ownership of the company has changed  hands several times in past years. The current investors are the fifth group to assume control of the mine, and have been managing the site for the past four years. The manager explained that the company which previously managed the mine refused to give back any benefits to the community. They prohibited them from searching leftover rubble from the mine for rubies and ordered the shooting of trespassers who attempted to do so. When the next villager who entered the site was shot and killed, the angry community set houses and cars on the site on fire.

In recent years, extended droughts and climate change have forced  the Maasai community to become more dependent on mining as opposed to their traditional crop farming and pastoralist activities. Groups from the community collect and sort rubble from the mines to extract ruby for themselves, which they later trade in town and is a major source of income in the village. Maasai women are largely excluded from the extraction process, except for the work of sorting and sifting through the rubble.

These violent conflicts are not isolated cases in Tanzanian mining; several similar incidents have occurred particularly in gold mining sites. Other than the violence associated with mining companies refusing to make concessions to local communities, hundreds of thousands of community members in different parts of Tanzania have also been evicted from their lands which were confiscated by the government for the sake of developing large-scale mining projects.

The current management therefore had good reason to establish better relations with the local community. Ever since they allowed the villagers free access to their rubble, villagers’ houses have expanded rapidly due to their mining incomes. Moreover the current mine operators have contributed school buildings, provided food for the primary school, and partially covered expenses to purchase a new water pump.

The mine manager spoke of excellent relations with the community; yet studies indicate another side to the story. Some community members interviewed last year expressed concerns of the effect of mining operations on the fertility of their lands, in addition to their distress regarding the loss of land which could have been used for building settlements or for cattle grazing due to underground mine expansion. Violent conflicts arising from mining seem to be also one of their major concerns.

It is hard to tell whether the company’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and the fact that it allows community access to the rubble is enough compensation for the loss of land and fertility. If agricultural activities were available and provided decent living comparable with that afforded by mining activities; would the community be content living off the large scale mine’s rubbles and subjecting themselves to the hazards of ASM?

All photographs were taken by Belhassan Handous, the accompanying texts by Mai Choucri. Both are program managers at the RLS North Africa office in Tunis. Thanks to our colleague Joan Leon from the Dar es Salaam office for organizing this field visit and the staff members of “HakiMadini” who accompanied us. “HakiMadini” is a Tanzanian human rights organization working to support small-scale miners and communities living around Tanzania’s mineral-rich areas.