Across the cavernous pits and the mountains of waste rock, the alarm wails eerily, warning that an explosion is imminent. Dozens of villagers gather silently at the edge of a pit, past the holes that have been torn in the fence, waiting for their chance.
Then comes the blast. As a plume of smoke curls into the sky, the scavengers scramble into the pit, eager to prise a living from the freshly smashed rock.
Suddenly the police appear, careering over the rocky road from another corner of the vast mine. The pickup truck full of armed men in green uniforms bounces across the wasteland like a scene from Mad Max. The truck hurtles toward the scavengers, but is halted by a boulder that they have pulled across its path. By the time the police can leap down and move the boulder, the scavengers have scattered into the nearby trees, where they wait for their next opportunity.
This is the daily ritual of conflict at the North Mara gold mine in Tanzania: Intrude and retreat, pursue and withdraw—punctuated by flare-ups that sometimes leave people dead.
For an eyewitness, it’s difficult to reconcile this cycle of violence with the avowed community-friendly policies of the mine’s parent company,
Barrick Gold Corp. and the professed goal of its founder, Peter Munk, of making good corporate citizenship the “calling card that precedes us wherever we go.” How did a leading Canadian corporate citizen and the world’s top gold producer get itself into this contradiction? And why does Barrick continue mining in a place where bloodshed and corruption seem inescapable?
The alternate image of Barrick, fostered by watchdog activists, is that of a rogue company. These critics are happy to point out that North Mara is not the only trouble spot in the Barrick empire. Many of the same problems seen here—violence, pollution, sexual assault—have occurred at Barrick’s Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea. After repeated denials, Barrick this year finally admitted the validity of some of the sexual assault allegations at Porgera, and dismissed some of its employees. But the remedial measures were accompanied by one of Munk’s most controversial comments: that “gang rape” is a “cultural habit” in Papua New Guinea.
While activists are targeting Barrick worldwide, it is Tanzania that still puts the biggest dent in Barrick’s reputation, especially after police killed at least five intruders at North Mara this year.
Much of the conflict stems from the history of the region: its poverty, its political culture, and the warrior tradition of its people. But another key factor is Barrick’s determination to press on at the mine in an era when the price of, and demand for, gold keeps rising but sources of the precious metal are ever harder to come by.
The seven villages around North Mara, among the poorest and most underdeveloped in Tanzania, are located in the northwestern corner of the country, 30 kilometres from the Kenyan border. Despite the region’s isolation, its gold wealth has been known since the 19th century, when small-scale mining began. Today the region is a key contributor to Tanzania’s gold sector, which has emerged as the country’s most valuable export, accounting for 40% of export earnings.
As a one-party socialist state until 1992, Tanzania barred foreign investors and prevented the development of a modern mining industry. By the time the country was finally opened to foreign miners in the mid-1990s, about 40,000 villagers in northwestern Tanzania had become dependent on artisanal mining, using shovels and pickaxes to search for gold in small mine shafts and surface pits. Most were forced to give up their livelihood when North Mara and other commercial mines began operating a decade ago.
The villagers belong mostly to the Kuria people, who were traditionally cattle farmers. Colonial records described them as “unruly and backward.” They became notorious for cattle rustling and inter-clan fighting, and joined the Tanzanian army in huge numbers. But as they resisted the collectivist policies of the 1970s, the area became an opposition stronghold, neglected by the government and lacking in basic services.
To help each other understand the daily clashes on their mine site, Barrick managers pass around copies of an American ethnographic treatise, Kuria Cattle Raiders: Violence and Vigilantism on the Tanzania/Kenya Frontier. But not everything can be explained by ethnicity. There are other crucial factors that people outside Barrick point to.
One is the cheek-by-jowl existence of the villagers and the mine. Anyone who flies into the mine’s airstrip can see the surreal sight from the air: hundreds of houses huddled next to the pits and waste heaps. Some dwellings are so close that rocks from the waste heaps tumble against their walls. Children play with empty tear-gas canisters from the daily clashes.