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NEW YORK, NY—On May 16, over 1,000 people entered a mine in northern Tanzania, desperate to collect whatever gold they could from the modern industrial site that used to be their bread and butter. But instead of providing the displaced artisanal miners with a boost to their meager income, the day ended in horror. Seven men were killed, and at least a dozen wounded when police unleashed a hail of bullets.
The next day, African Barrick Gold, a subsidiary of Toronto-based Barrick Gold, released a statement admitting that seven people were killed and twelve injured at their North Mara mine in Tanzania. The killings came at the hands of Tanzanian police, who Barrick originally claimed were under sustained attack by 800 "criminal intruders" (a number Barrick revised to 1,500), who illegally entered the North Mara mine to steal gold ore. Since this fatal confrontation, tensions have been high in the Tarime District, with an increase in the number of police, the deployment of water cannons, the arrest of journalists and two members of parliament for "instigating violence," and the theft of five of the seven bodies from the mortuary by police.
Confrontations between local people and the mine's security forces are not uncommon near Barrick's North Mara mine in Tanzania. As Bloomberg journalist Cam Simpson reported in a December 2010 feature story about the mine, before this latest massacre "at least seven people have been killed in clashes with security forces at the mine in the past two years." These security forces, according to company documents, include police who Barrick pays to guard its North Mara mine.
“They are not arresting them or taking them to court,” said Machage Bartholomew Machage, a member of the Tarime District Council, the highest local government body, in an interview with Simpson. “They are just shooting them.”
One week after the most recent spate of killings, the police stormed a local mortuary and stole the bodies of four of the dead. This move, according to locals, was to prevent the villagers from holding a planned memorial service at the mine on Tuesday.
Police also arrested and charged two members of Parliament, a legal advisor, and journalists for "instigating people to cause violence." MP Tundu Lissu, who was among those arrested, was in Tarime to assist with post-mortem medical examinations of bodies to identify exactly which parts of the bodies of the deceased were shot by the police.
“Normally if you shoot a person on the head it means you intended to kill them. However, if you shoot them on the leg it means you tried to stop them from doing something… this exercise will help us to know the police’s intention,” he explained to local journalists. Tundu was arrested two days later at the funeral of the local villagers killed by Barrick security.
At this time, Lissu and six others remain in police custody and their bail has been denied. Meanwhile, the four journalists, MP Esther Matiko, and opposition cadre John Heche posted bail and were released after six hours in custody.
According to George Marato of Tazania's Guardian newspaper, these violent confrontations can be blamed in part on corruption amongst the security forces at Barrick's mine. According to his interviews with locals following the latest killings, police and company staff conspire to facilitate illegal entry into the premises to scoop sand with gold concentrates. For example, one group would pay one million shillings (around $650) in exchange for a half-hour of scooping sand from the ground.
The violent confrontations occur, according to Marato, when disagreements arise over the amount of compensation for company insiders, often due to hikes in "gold theft fees." He writes, "Ensuing wars of words turn into confrontations that provoke policemen to fire at the very people who had been co-conspirators not long previously."
This situation, according to Marato, is then compounded by local youngsters who attempt to force their way to the compound to scoop the sand free of charge.
Tensions with the locals can be traced back to the mine's early history of displacement and dispossession. Before the mine opened, an estimated 40,000 people living in the area, a large majority of the population, depended on small-scale mining for their livelihoods, according to a history compiled by the mine’s first proponent, Afrika Mashariki Gold Mines Ltd.
Small scale miners, represented by five villages, had mineral rights to the lands that they mined, but were forced to sell these claims to Afrika Mashariki under illegal and irregular circumstances, according to a legal complaint launched in July 2003 by the Lawyers Environmental Action Team (LEAT) on behalf of 1,273 former small-scale miners. In another lawsuit, 43 landowners alleged to have been paid no compensation, while being forcefully evicted from their lands.
Since then, there have been multiple fatal confrontations at the mine site. In December 2008, one such incident resulted in a civilian uprising where locals set fire to $7 million worth in mine equipment. This number, which was originally estimated at upwards of $15 million, is disputed by locals. As now, Barrick blamed the damage to equipment on "well-organized groups" that raided the mine site. However, signed affidavits [1, 2] from witnesses to the event claim that angry villagers had only set one Caterpillar loader on fire on a road outside the mine, after they had heard of the killing of their compatriot. These affidavits and others [3, 4] describe this incident in detail, as well as documenting the history of violence and impunity at the mine site, and the criminalization of community advocates following the murders.
Sakura Saunders is the co-editor of protestbarrick.net, an all-volunteer network of groups researching and organizing around mining issues, particularly those involving Barrick Gold.
To read this article in Spanish/Para leer este articulo en espanol: No a la mina
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.