But the conflict is already close to a war. The company employs more than 300 security staff and contractors to protect the mine site, along with about two dozen police officers who patrol the area under a separate security agreement (with funding from the company for their fuel, meals and even a portion of their salaries). Across its Tanzanian mines, African Barrick spent more than $20 million on security last year.
The level of violence is obvious from the protective gear of its security guards, who resemble RoboCops with their bulky layers of body armour, helmets, boots, gloves, and padding for their arms, shins and ankles. Unlike the police, the security guards are supposed to be limited to non-lethal force, so they wield an odd array of weapons, including tear-gas launchers and shotguns that fire “bean bag” cartridges. The bean bags (actually fibre socks, filled with shot) are intended to inflict nothing more than a painful bruising, but their manufacturer says they can cause “fatal or serious injury” if they hit the head, neck, thorax, heart or spine.
The police, meanwhile, are equipped with automatic weapons that account for most of the deaths at North Mara. They also fire weapons that the company describes as “sound and flash devices.” Villagers describe them as “bombs” that can cause serious injury.
Over the years, Barrick erected fences around the open pits and the waste heaps to keep out the villagers, but they were always torn down. Now it has upped the stakes: It is planning to surround the mine in a 14-kilometre concrete wall, three metres high, planted deep in the ground and topped by razor wire, at a cost of about $14 million.
The villagers insist that they will breach the barrier. “It won’t make any difference,” Issa says. “The intruders have many skills, and I’m sure they will break the wall. They’re always coming up with new ideas on how to get into the mine.”
Human rights activists believe the bloodshed will continue as long as the mine is guarded by police who remain unaccountable and immune from prosecution. There are occasional investigations into the shootings at North Mara, but police are never prosecuted. “The people doing the killings are the same people who do the investigations,” Olengurumwa says.
Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who wrote a highly influential report on abuses by Barrick’s security guards in Papua New Guinea, believes that ultimately the North Mara situation will require government oversight. Given the weakness of governments in the developing world, only the Canadian government can provide any oversight over Barrick’s activities at North Mara, he said.
The Harper government has consistently opposed this idea. In 2010, with the help of some Liberal and NDP absenteeism, the minority Conservative government defeated the proposed Bill C-300, which would have set up a system of oversight for the human-rights and environmental impact of Canadian resource companies overseas.
Barrick was among the leaders of the lobbying battle against C-300, which was proposed by Liberal MP John McKay. In a submission to a parliamentary committee, Barrick said the bill was “punitive” and would undermine the reputation of Canadian companies, lead to an exodus of mining companies from Canada and damage Canada’s position as a global leader in the mining industry.
Barrick has been energetic in defending its interests in the political sphere. Until recently, it often took a pugnacious approach, sometimes threatening its critics with legal action. In 2008, it sued the publisher of a book on the Canadian mining industry (proceedings are scheduled for this fall). Last year, it denied The Globe and Mail access to its North Mara operations. Also last year, it threatened—but thus far has not pursued—a lawsuit against another book publisher, and it warned a Tanzanian rights group that it would take legal action unless it apologized for accusations it made springing from the 2009 storage-pond spill.
This year, the company has been shifting to a more open policy. It made its about-face conceding problems at its Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea and announced investigations into sexual assault allegations at both Porgera and North Mara. It released data on its emissions at its Tanzanian mines. And after the May 16 shooting incident, it allowed The Globe and Mail to visit the North Mara site. Even a vocal opponent of Barrick, social activist Sakura Saunders, says the company has become “more transparent” than most other miners.
And Barrick has a story to tell about the community benefits of its Tanzanian mining operations: It has contributed health clinics, scholarships, water and electricity projects, malaria and AIDS initiatives, training and income-generating programs. At its Bulyanhulu site in Tanzania, the company estimates that it has spent more than $19 million on community projects since 1999. And in September, the company launched a country-wide community fund to which it will contribute $10 million annually—triple its current spending.