By Anna Frohn Pedersen
Together with my research assistant Patric Mkai, I set out to explore the mining practices and livelihoods of artisanal and small-scale gold miners in Tanzania, during the summer and autumn of 2019. The overall aim of the research is to understand how Nyarugusu, a small mining village in the northern part of Tanzania, is entangled in global connections of gold, discourses and information.
It is easy to condemn the gold mining sector for the many people who have been killed or injured in the deep and fragile mines, or for the environmental degradation and pollution that it is continuously causing. Through a collection of photographs and quotes from my stay in and around the village, I will tell a story of the challenges, inequalities and struggles in the mining sector. Yet, it is also a story about the people who sustain their lives through mining and keep on dreaming of the lucky day where they will discover the gold reef.
“To be successful in mining, you need to work hard, because the success cannot come and find you at home sleeping” (Miner, 10.10.19).
Mining is a vital livelihood practice on which millions of Tanzanians depend. While some people succeed in this business, the majority continue to live in poverty despite their hard work.
In another world
“I pray first whenever I go down. There are two ways: either you come back safe or you come back dead” (Miner, 11.10.19).
“To be inside of the pit, you need a hard heart. A person can feel that he is in another world. For a person who has a light heart, he cannot enter the pit. Whenever he sees the environment down there, he may think that he will not get out. He will think that maybe he is going to die” (Miner, 10.10.19).
“It happened when I was in Arusha. I was mining and the mine was not safe to enter, but I went down. When I was climbing up, the rock cut loose, so I fell down. It took me a month to understand myself and get back my mind. I was very unconscious” (Miner, 30.09.19).
Hope and uncertainty go hand in hand
“We are mining blindly” is the common explanation to why artisanal and small-scale mining is full of uncertainties. Since geological data is both expensive and hard to get, it is nearly impossible for artisanal and small-scale miners to know where the gold is. This means that miners can invest money and time in constructing pits that never produce. Since risk and luck are inherent components in the lives of small-scale gold miners, some try to increase their chances of discovering gold by seeking help from witch doctors or from remedies bought at the market. This could be a certain luck powder that you cover yourself with before entering the mine. In the past, there were incidents where people with albinism were killed because their body parts were said to bring luck. Today, some miners sacrifice chickens in hope of good fortune.
Fighting against discrimination
Women are an inherent part of the mining sector. Yet, it is not always easy to be a woman in a sector dominated by men. According to old beliefs, the presence of women will cause gold to evaporate. In some villages, this belief persists and women are denied access to the mining areas. One of the places where this is an issue is in Mgusu village in the Geita region. Here, losing access to the mining areas means losing access to a crucial source of income. To combat this kind of discrimination, a group of women in Mgusu came together and raised their voice at a regional stakeholder meeting. By doing so, their complaints reached the government who promised to intervene.
If you have money, you will get more
“If you have money, you will get more money since you can keep on investing, but if you have no money you will keep on working for the people who have money. So the capital for the rich one is money, the capital for the poor one is energy” (Investor, 03.10.19).
“Most of the people who are rich here tend to use those who are poor, and they pay them less and they end up being rich and the poor become more poor” (Miner, 01.10.19).
Local practices with global impacts
Mercury is widely used in artisanal and small-scale mining even though it is dangerous to the environment and to the people exposed to it. Globally, there is much focus on eliminating the use of mercury in mining since it not only pollutes the immediate surroundings, but travels long distances and accumulates in the eco-system. Locally, mercury use persists since it is cheap, efficient and accessible.
When new mineral deposits are discovered, thousands of miners rush to the area, hoping to get rich. In a few days, remote areas are transformed into crowded places full of temporary settlements and businesses. As quickly as these sites emerge, they can dissolve again, leaving behind a contaminated landscape of tents and abandoned pits.
“I am thankful. I came here with just a bag, but now I have a family and I am sending my children to school and we have a house” (Miner, 29.09.19)
For the sake of anonymity, the photos and quotes are not related.
Anna Frohn Pedersen
Research project: Exploring telecouplings between mining and land change in Africa
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
IRI THESys, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany