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Murder, rape and claims of contamination at

a Tanzanian goldmine

Police and guards at North Mara have been accused of killing dozens –
possibly hundreds – of locals

by Jonathan Watts in Tanzania-Tue 18 Jun 2019

When safari tourists drive to the Serengeti national park in Tanzania, few
realise they are passing one of the world’s most contentious goldmines.

From the escarpment above the plain, the North Mara facility is so large that
it at first resembles a bare hillside. But look closer and the artificial mound is
made up of tiers of reddish brown earth, from which a thin grey plume of
smoke drifts up to the sky.

Nearer still, you find a vast tailings reservoir filled with contaminated
wastewater. Locals live in huts under the shadow of its mud and rock banks.
Welcome to North Mara, one of the biggest mines in Tanzania, which since
2006 has been operated by London-listed Acacia Mining and predominantly
owned by the world’s biggest goldmining company, Barrick, a Toronto-based
firm that holds a 63.9% stake.

For the past two decades, this mine has been a place of danger, extreme
violence and allegations of environmental contamination.

Villagers search for pieces of gold contained in discarded waste rock from the
North Mara mine. Photograph: Trevor Snapp/Bloomberg

Although Tanzania is nominally at peace, over the years police and security
guards have been accused of killing dozens – possibly hundreds – of local
people, injuring many more and raping countless women.

There have also been reports of contamination from mining chemicals, but
journalists and human rights activists who have tried to investigate these cases
have sometimes found themselves the subject of intimidation, harassment and
even threats of deportation from police and state authorities. Acacia says it is
not involved in any crackdown on the media and it promotes transparency.
Since a legal challenge in 2015, the company has worked with authorities to
improve the human rights situation. It erected walls in some areas, enhanced
staff training, and put in place a grievance system.

But an investigation by the Guardian and its partners in the Forbidden

Stories journalism collective has been told violence continues – albeit at a
lower level – while the health problems associated with possible chemical
pollution remain a concern.

The details have been slow to emerge and remain disputed. Acacia denies any

It is running a vast and remote mine that is a major contributor to the

national economy. The disparity of power with local villagers could hardly be
greater. Most locals here are from the Kuria indigenous community and many
are illiterate.

Trespassers around the North Mara goldmine. Photograph: Forbidden


Acacia bought the mine in 2006. It has so far produced 2m ounces of gold,
worth $2.6bn at today’s prices, with almost double that amount still

But it also inherited violence and widespread resentment.

‘Police dump the bodies outside the homes’
The original owner, Afrika Mashariki Gold Mines, acquired the land in the
mid-1990s, and was accused of evicting residents without compensation.

Nearby villagers were forbidden from artisanal mining, which had been an
important source of income before the mining company arrived. Locals –
sometimes armed with machetes – intrude inside the mine to look for granules
of gold among the waste rock and on the edge of the tailings pond. The
situation is often volatile.

On some days, the guards accept bribes and turn a blind eye.

On others, they are ordered by their bosses to crack down. The worst period
was around 2010-14.

“I’ve seen a lot of people get shot, some beside me. We would enter in a group
and then run if they see us. We would hear the next day who had died. Police
dump the bodies outside the homes,” said one local man who asked to remain
anonymous, referring to conflicts at that time. He said tensions remained.

“It happened many times. The villagers get very angry. Why are they treating
us like animals?”

Children near the goldmine. Photograph: Forbidden Stories

The nearest general hospital in Tarime was treating five to eight cases of
gunshot wounds from the mine every week from around 2010 to 2014,
according to Dr Mark Nega, a former district medical officer.

“I saw so many people shot and killed. Some had gunshot wounds in the back.
I think they were trying to run away but they were shot from behind.”

Such killings were initially played down or denied. Journalists who tried to
investigate found themselves harassed by police, or believed their stories had
been spiked following pressure from state authorities.

After pressure from activists and lawyers, Acacia acknowledged 32

“trespasser-related” fatalities between 2014 and 2017. Of these, six died in
confrontations with police at the mine.

International watchdog groups say at least 22 were killings by guards and

police during the same period. Tanzanian opposition politicians have claimed
300 people have been killed since 1999.

“For such a high number of violations to have occurred outside a conflict zone
in a business context is shocking and exceptional,” said Anneke van
Woudenberg, the executive director of Raid, a UK corporate watchdog.

The owners blame police. “There have been many, many investigations on
various allegations, and you can’t hold me accountable for the state
authority,” said the Barrick chief executive, Mark Bristow, when asked about
the killings.

But the authorities work under a memorandum of understanding with the

mine whereby local police work at the service of the mine in return for fuel,
food, accommodation and daily stipends.

After a lawsuit against the company in 2015 by plaintiffs represented by the

UK law firm Leigh Day was settled out of court with no recognition of
liability, the number of shootings has declined and no rapes have been

There is a new wall around operational areas. The mine and local authorities
say they are educating guards and police and punishing those who break the

The North Mara goldmine. Photograph: Forbidden Stories

Security arrangements have been revised and efforts have been made to
improve community relations. The number of conflicts has fallen

But the problem seems far from solved.

On a recent trip to the area, the Guardian and Forbidden Stories heard of
several new cases. On 3 or 4 August 2017, Daniel Chacha Range was
reportedly shot and killed at the Nyabigena waste dump, where he was
looking for gold.

The mine reportedly paid 72m Tanzanian shillings (£25,000) to the family last

On 1 December last year, a young student – Amos Chacha – was injured by a

bullet from security personnel. Locals said he was accidentally hit by a volley
that was fired to scare villagers near the mine.
In both cases, Acacia said it could not comment on individuals, but its guards
did not use lethal weapons and it dealt with human rights abuses by other
parties, such as the police, through its grievance mechanism.
‘It would never happen anywhere in Europe’
Then there are environmental problems that may prove to be Acacia’s
enduring legacy long after the gold is mined out.

There can be few places in the world where so many people live so close to a
vast toxic tailings dam, waste rock dump and chemical processing facility.
About 70,000 people live close to the mine, many of them drawn by the
prospect of jobs or gold.

Walls erected in recent years have improved the situation in some areas, but
elsewhere, it is hard to tell where the border is between the village and the
mine. Acacia says it has been unable to acquire all the land it needs for a 200-
metre buffer zone, but is still trying to do so.

“It has been going on in Tanzania for years,” said Tundu Lissu, a lawyer and

“People live side by side with the piles of waste from the mine and that is
completely illegal in Tanzanian law. It would never happen anywhere in
Europe because people simply would not accept that kind of arrangement.”

The Earthworks NGO estimates the average gold ring generates 20 tonnes of
waste. Heavy metals and other toxins that were previously buried are released
into the air and water.

Unless carefully managed, this can seep into the soil and rivers with
consequences that can last for decades.

Locals report frequent spills from the tailings reservoir, including one the
week before we arrived. In the past this has caused problems.

A doctor, who worked in the general hospital in Tarime for five years until
2010, said he had treated at least 200 people with skin rashes, including 50
children. He also diagnosed an unusually high number of cervical cancer cases
even among women without HIV who had never given birth.
The doctor, who asked to remain anonymous, said there were three types of
skin problems – a loss of pigmentation, toad-like scales and scurvy-like

He believed the likely cause was chemicals in the mine – either pollution that
leaked into rivers from the tailings pond, or mercury that artisanal miners
used with their hands to separate the gold from the rocks.

A second doctor said he had dealt with 10 cases of severe skin rashes up until
2014 when he left the area, and many more cases were likely to have been
treated by his colleagues.

Acacia says previous cases have been thoroughly investigated by the

authorities, but it will consider new cases through its grievance mechanism.

Villagers appear to have been unaware of the possible risks. Chaina Mwita
Bhoke thought she was fortunate when fish started leaping out of the Tigithe
River and flapping on the ground in front of her.

She cooked some for her family, but soon after her children ate them, she said
they were screaming that their skin was on fire. She also suffered.

A doctor’s certificate from Nyamongo hospital at that time in 2009 diagnosed

skin lesions on her lower limbs caused by “contamination by poisonous water
from North Mara mine”.

Others lost their livelihoods. John Nyamboge Ntara, of Matongo village, said
that up until September 2017, 168 of his cows had died after grazing on land
close to the tailing reservoir. “We worry for our kids,” he said. Acacia said it
had investigated these claims and found no evidence supporting the
Cattle in the Tigite River, near North Mara goldmine. Photograph: Forbidden

But pollution concerns have been backed by several studies. In 2012, scientists
found arsenic levels were “an order of magnitude” higher than the drinking
water recommendations by the World Health Organization. Four years later,
a study of Mara river fish found significantly higher concentrations of
chromium, nickel, copper and selenium downstream of the mine than

The co-author of a 2009 report, Åsgeir Almås, said the levels of arsenic and
other heavy metals had dramatic consequences for the immediate
environment. Although he was not allowed inside the mine, he said he had
little doubt about where the contamination came from. “This was likely
caused by a spill from the acid-tailings dam,” he said. “At that time, they had
little control of their leaching. I think the dams were not perfectly
constructed.” He said that elsewhere exposure to these chemicals had been
found to lead to a skin problem called keratosis, miscarriages and cancer.

Acacia says many previous cases were related to a major spill in 2009. Since
then, it says, it has put in place remedial measures and found no evidence that
livestock deaths were related to pollution.
More research is under way by the government’s National Environment
Management Council. Earlier this year, Acacia was hit by a $2.4m fine
for alleged pollution at North Mara. The Tanzanian environment minister
echoed what locals had long been saying: the tailing storage facility had been
releasing contaminated water into the wider area for 10 years. He claimed the
dam was not built properly and instructed the company to build an
alternative tailings reservoir.

Bristow, the South African CEO of Barrick, acknowledged there were

problems, but insisted nobody had been contaminated because of the mine.

“The environment is an issue and so we are very disturbed about the

environment; so is the government of Tanzania. They have engaged with
Acacia; I am engaging with Acacia,” he told Forbidden Stories.

In a detailed reply to questions raised by the Guardian, Acacia said it took

allegations seriously and would assess claims through its grievance systems.
Even before the government’s order, the company said, it was looking into the
construction of a new tailings dam.

It warns that the dispute threatens the economic future of the Tanzanian
people. “As a company, we are and always have been committed to acting
responsibly towards the people of Tanzania, their environment and their
communities,” reads a statement on the company’s homepage.

The mine and its owners are under increasing pressure. Since John Magufuli
became president of Tanzania in 2015, he and his ministers have accused
Acacia of a raft of irregularities, including environmental breaches. Domestic
critics say these measures are a ploy to pressurise the company to contribute
more funds to public coffers.

Lawsuits are under way in the UK, where Acacia is listed. In 2017, the
London law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn filed a second suit on behalf of 10
plaintiffs related to incidents at North Mara between 2013 and 2016. They
allege Acacia’s in-house grievance process is flawed and compensation
payouts are inadequate. Lawyers from a Cardiff-based firm, Hugh James, are
in Tanzania meeting another group of potential claimants for a third case.

At the annual shareholders’ meeting last week, human rights campaigners

called for independent and transparent assessment of grievance claims and an
end to the memorandum of understanding with police. The company counters
that these measures have helped to alleviate human rights problems in the
past two years.
‘I think they were trying to silence us’
Rape victims are also speaking out about their experiences and the waivers
they were encouraged to sign in return for modest sums of compensation.

The first was Lucia Marembela Mwita, who was caught by guards in 2009.
“They took me to the airstrip in a car. One raped me. The other kept watch. It
became a routine for any women they caught.”

Lucia Marembela Mwita. Photograph: Forbidden Stories

Another woman, Nyamhanga Kichele Mwita, was ordered to lift up a large

rock and told she would be beaten if she dropped it. As she clasped it, they
stripped and raped her. She later found she had HIV.

Many of the victims say they kept quiet because they were ashamed to tell
their husbands.
Boke Makolele still has trouble walking because the guards struck her knees,
ankles and the small of her back with a kilungo, or wooden baton. “They beat
me a lot because I didn’t want to do it. After they dumped me, I went to
hospital in tears. It hurt so much,” she said. “I never told anyone. I was

Eventually, more than a dozen women complained and after the case was
picked up by lawyers and international NGOs, they were paid off by the
company, though it made no admission of liability.
Looking back, the women believe they were deprived of their legal rights.
“They called us and said sign here. We didn’t even get to take the document
home to read. We weren’t aware what was written on the paper,” said one. “I
think they were trying to silence us.”

Villagers near the goldmine. Photograph: Forbidden Stories

Acacia said it did not recognise this accusation and its grievance mechanisms
were in line with international standards. It no longer requires claimants to
waive their legal rights.

“The tension will continue,” said Lissu, who was shot 16 times, he believes,
because he criticised President Magufuli’s mining policies. He sees more hope
in the exhaustion of the mine, though it will leave its mark on the land.
“When they finish the gold and go, maybe peace will return to North Mara,”
he said. “Once they finish the gold, they will go and they will leave the poison
behind and these mountains of waste rock.”
Posted by Thavam