When he was able to spend his days working, Charles headed to the mine carrying a hammer, an empty bag for waste rocks, and a bottle of water so that he could wash the rocks to check for signs of mineralization. He chopped the rocks into smaller pieces, taking the fragments to small backyard crushing machines to turn them into powder, hired someone to rinse the powder with mercury, and then wrapped any gold grains that emerged in paper and took them to the local gold dealers. Some days he would earn nothing. On other days, he made hundreds of dollars.
The dealers—who make the biggest profits among local people—weigh the gold on small scales, using razor blades or bottle caps as units of measurement. For gold that weighs half of a razor blade, they pay the equivalent of about $14 to the intruders.
The entire business is protected by corrupt deals with the police, the security guards and mine employees. The employees tip off the intruders when the best rocks are being loaded into the waste trucks. The police accept bribes for access to the pits and the waste heaps—usually a dollar or two from each intruder. And when conflicts escalate, they open fire on the same people who normally do business with them.
For the police, shifts at North Mara can be so profitable that they often bribe their superiors for an assignment at the mine. “The police are benefiting from the conflicts,” says Maulidi Issa, a 30-year-old villager who has worked as an intruder for the past 11 years. “They are becoming wealthy from the bribes.”
Barrick has expressed concerns about the police shootings, but it has also pointed out that the intruders are illegally trespassing. The company is aware of the widespread reports that the police allow the intrusions in exchange for bribes—which raises the question of whether Barrick is too dependent on a corrupt police force that inevitably comes into conflict with the villagers in disputes over bribes.
“We are investigating whether employees and police have participated in a fraudulent scheme of accepting money for access to the site by illegal miners,” the company said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. “We have also provided these allegations to the police.”
A researcher at the Legal and Human Rights Centre, a respected Tanzanian rights group that is partially funded by several European governments, says the shootings cannot by justified by calling the villagers “illegal trespassers” if the police have given them access to the mine. “If they’ve made a deal to collect rocks from the mine, how can you call them intruders?” asks Onesmo Olengurumwa, a researcher at the centre. “When there are agreements between the community and the police, and the police fail to honour it, that’s when the conflicts start.”
The Tanzanian media have documented a long series of killings by police and security forces at North Mara, dating back to 2005 or earlier. In December, 2008, just after the mine’s employees had finished blasting high-grade ore at one of its open pits, hundreds of intruders rushed into the pit, stealing and setting fire to mining equipment. One person was shot dead by police, the mine suffered $7 million in damage, and the company had to suspend operations for several days.
Barrick has never given any estimate of the number of deaths that have occurred since it took over at North Mara. In the prospectus for the public listing of its African subsidiary last year, the company addressed the issue briefly and laconically: “There have been additional incidents since 2008 involving trespassers…leading to conflict with security personnel and/or police, which have in some cases resulted in injuries and/or fatalities.”
A report this year by the Legal and Human Rights Centre concluded that 19 villagers were killed by police and security guards at North Mara from January, 2009, to June, 2010. Some of the villagers were killed by stray bullets, while others were victims of “police brutality,” the report said. Barrick does not agree with the analysis, noting that some deaths may have occurred in conflicts among illegal miners.
Indeed, not all deaths are caused by the police or security. Apart from deaths that may have resulted from clashes among the intruders themselves, two Barrick employees were killed by intruders in 2008. The villagers acknowledge that some people have carried machetes into the mine site and fought with other intruders. They say they stopped carrying machetes when a no-weapons order was issued by village elders. The company disagrees, saying that machetes are still sometimes carried.
Certainly the violence continues to flow in both directions. The company counted 70 stoning attacks on its staff or vehicles in the first five months of this year alone. Its vehicles are riddled with dents and holes from the stone-throwing attacks. On average, the company says, about 800 people invade the mine on a typical day. “If you chase them away every day, you’d have a war on your hands,” says a Barrick manager.