Marion Guégan and Cécile Schilis-Gallego | The Star | June 18, 2019
In Tanzania, reporters trying to investigate violence, environmental damage and other wrongdoing connected to a gold mine in the north of the country are trapped between the silence of a mining giant and the lies of a repressive government. At least a dozen reporters — local and international — who wrote about the mine have been censored or threatened. Forbidden Stories, an international consortium of 40 journalists publishing in 30 media organizations around the world, unveiled the shameful history of gold leaving the North Mara gold mine to end up in coveted high tech phones and computers. This is part of the “Green Blood” series, a project pursuing stories of journalists who have been threatened, jailed or killed while investigating environmental issues.
“Truly innovative products leave their mark on the world instead of the planet,” Apple proudly claims on its website. “We are building a better world for future generations,” says Canon’s CEO. Nokia’s “technology improves lives.”
“Right now responsible sourcing is clearly part of the cost of doing business, it’s part of the commercial need of a company to access markets and financing, among others,” said Tyler Gillard, due-diligence expert from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In other words, it pays to advertise green and ethical products. That’s why big tech companies get the gold they need for certain electronic components from certified suppliers. In the case of Apple, Canon, Nokia and more than 500 companies registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, that means MMTC-PAMP in India.
Yet, certifications guaranteeing conflict-free minerals have focused on small-scale miners, not multinationals. In Tanzania, a gold mine indirectly owned by the Canadian gold mining giant Barrick has a documented history of human rights abuses and environmental damage. The North Mara gold mine currently sends its gold bars to MMTC-PAMP in India, where the gold then makes its way into many of the most popular tech gadgets in the world.
Canon and Nokia both highlighted that the Indian refiner had previously been audited and found conformant. “If allegations are confirmed, this smelter will be red-flagged and we will ask our supply chain to divert business from this smelter,” said a Nokia spokesperson. Apple shared a similar statement.
At the other end of the supply chain, local and foreign reporters who have tried to cover what is happening on the ground have faced intimidation and censorship from the state. Forbidden Stories, an international consortium of 40 journalists publishing in 30 media organizations around the world, found wrongdoing was ongoing at the North Mara gold mine, despite the company’s claims.
The mine, near the Kenyan border in northern Tanzania, has been plagued with violence for about two decades. As a result, the mine is surrounded by a two-metre wall and guarded like a fortress — both physically and metaphorically.
Forbidden Stories talked to several reporters who had been discouraged from reporting on the mine. Some received anonymous threats, others were censored by authorities. One reporter even decided to flee the country for over a year.
“They have created fear.” Jabir Idrissa, a 55 year-old journalist from Zanzibar, has not forgotten what happened to him two years ago. He was then working for two newspapers, the Swahili-language weekly MwanaHalisi and Mawio, both part of a newspaper group recognized for its investigative reporting.
In June 2017, Mawio published a story linking two former Tanzanianz presidents to alleged irregularities in mining deals signed in the 1990s. “We had a long discussion in the newsroom when we were deciding on stories,” Idrissa says. “Truly, there are topics we didn’t report on because of the general environment,” he said. But this one was a must, he said. They couldn’t avoid it “because journalism is a job of telling the truth.”
This is particularly difficult in Tanzania, where press freedom has been threatened for the last five years and, more specifically, since the election of John Magufuli to the presidency in 2015. A recent law provides for more than three years’ imprisonment, a fine of more than five million Tanzanian shillings ($2,100 U.S.) or both for knowingly publishing information or data deemed “false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate.”
In addition, “journalists are attacked without reason,” according to Ryan Powell, a media development specialist working in East and West Africa. “Police will harass journalists, and people do not interfere.” Tanzania now ranks 118th out of 179 countries on Reporter Without Borders’ World Freedom Index. It dropped 25 places in the last year.
The day following publication of Mawio’s investigation, Minister of Information Harrisson Mwakyembe banned the newspaper for two years. The editor-in-chief of Mawio, Simon Mkina, claimed he started receiving threatening phone calls. As for Idrissa, he lost his job and was ostracized from any other journalistic opportunity. Left without resources, having to feed his three children, he left Dar es Salaam and started working in his cousin’s second-hand shop in Zanzibar.
The story that caused all this hardship was about Acacia Mining, a U.K.-registered company that has owned the North Mara gold mine under different names since 2006 and whose majority shareholder is gold giant Barrick. The Canadian parent company could soon become the direct owner of the North Mara mine and two others because of a tax dispute between Acacia and the Tanzanian government.
After benefiting for years from an extremely advantageous tax agreement with the Tanzanian government, the company is now losing an arm-wrestling match with authorities on the environmental front. In May, authorities fined the company 5.6 billion Tanzanian shillings ($2.4 million U.S. dollars) for alleged pollution from North Mara’s tailings dam.
January Makamba, the minister responsible for the environment, said the amount of the fine was justified, among other things, by the persistence of the problem.
“It’s been 10 years, and the tailing storage facility is still seeping,” he said about the dam supposed to prevent runoff of the environmentally damaging by-products of the mining operation.
“North Mara gold mine has kept water with poison in this facility for a long time, and this dam is not built properly, so poison has been seeping into underground water and nearby rivers and streams.” Makamba conceded some responsibility on the part of the Tanzanian government, saying it “consistently believed what the mine was telling.”
Acacia Mining told Forbidden Stories that it “has already recognized the need for additional tailings management” and that it “has commenced planning and design for a new tailing storage facility.”
Opposition politician Tundu Lissu, who has written on the environmental aspects of the mining industry in Tanzania, noted “the pollution of rivers and grasslands where villagers are taking the water from and raise their animals,” as well as “serious health problems associated with pollution.”
“I saw six people who washed in water near the mining area and they got a very bad reaction,” said Dr. Mark Nega, a former district medical officer in the area, about patients he saw in 2013.
In 2009, a study found high levels of arsenic in water in the vicinity of the mine. Elevated concentrations of arsenic are frequently found near gold mining sites. In 2015, farmers from the area sent samples of water coming from the mine to Kenya to be tested. Toxicology analysis carried out by a Kenyan government analyst found “nitrates and nitrites levels considered unsafe for livestock’s consumption.”
“An environmental incident occurred at North Mara mine during the Spring 2009 high rainfall season, when water containing discharges from containment ponds and run-off from the Mine entered the nearby Tigithe River,” said Acacia Mining in a statement. The company says it took prompt action following the incident.
On top of that, nongovernmental organizations have documented 22 alleged killings by the police or mine security workers since 2014. The victims were for the most part illegal miners, called “intruders” by the company.
“Small-scale miners who had government licences had previously owned most of the land in question,” explained Mary Rutenge, a lecturer at Mzumbe University in Tanzania. “The company’s acquisition of their land destabilized their livelihoods, and this company did not compensate them adequately.”
All of this with disastrous results: groups of jobless young people from neighbouring villages arm themselves with machetes or metal spears and get drunk on beer and Konyagi — a local brand of gin — every night to find the courage to climb the wall in the hope of making no more than the equivalent of $20. Instead, they find the armed policemen on the other side.
Why take so much risk? “We must go so we can get gold to help our families,” explained Monchena Mwita, the leader of the “intruders” from Kewanja, a village at the edge of the mine. “We can’t get gold without getting into the place, and there is nowhere else to get money so that’s our only source of income.”
Barrick’s leadership blames Tanzania’s police for any wrongdoing. “There have been many, many investigations on various allegations, and you can’t hold me accountable for the state authority,” said Barrick CEO Mark Bristow when asked about the killings by Forbidden Stories.
Yet, the barrier separating national police forces from mine security is not so clear. According to the U.K. nongovernmental organization Rights and Accountability in Development, Acacia has signed a memorandum of understanding with the police in which it says it will “provide ‘monetary and in-kind support’ to the police, will pay officers an allowance, provide meals and accommodation, supply fuel” to protect the mine.
Some victims also say it is not the police but mine security workers who attacked them. Forbidden Stories, along with a reporter from the Guardian (United Kingdom), met Lucia Marembela, a 44-year-old woman who says she was raped twice in 2010. She says she recognized her rapists as mine security forces because they were wearing blue uniforms and not the police force’s beige ones.
Marembela was caught by men while she was looking for gold from the mine, a fate she says is common for women in the area. “When we were tired of running, they would end up catching us and bringing us with them,” she says. “They would throw us in their vehicle and take us to an isolated place, near a small airfield, far from the view of passersby.” She says one man would then rape them, while the others were on the lookout. “Once they’ve finished their dirty work, they let you go, get in their vehicle and go back to work,” she said.
We have met two other women who described the same type of attack.
Marembela will have to spend the rest of her life living with the consequences. Her partner left her when he learned she had been raped, leaving her alone to raise her six children. “I have very bad memories of what was done to me,” she says. “Especially since everyone knows that I was raped, starting with my children. Sometimes people tell each other what happened to me on the street, and that hurts me very much.”
Marembela, along with other women, went to complain to mine management. She says the company — then called African Barrick Gold — subsequently reached out and asked her to sign a confidential agreement: in exchange for 13.9 million Tanzanian shillings ($8,600 U.S.), Marembela gave up her right to pursue a civil case against the mine or against Barrick. She says she was not able to fully read and understand the document before signing it.
“You shouldn’t silence people, but there’s always retribution,” said Bristow, the Barrick CEO. “And, in the short time I have been with Barrick, there have been demands for retribution. Not for justice. For retribution. To pay people who are making the demands.”
The situation continues as of today. “These abuses, particularly in North Mara gold mine, they come and go, they come and go,” said Lissu, who previously legally represented villagers in the region. Lissu was the victim of an assassination attempt in 2017, after he accused Magufuli’s government of lying about the mining contract. “There are periods of calm, and then something happens, and the whole thing blows up. But the tensions remain today.”
“Human rights abuses related to excess use of force by private and public mine security started increasing noticeably sometime around 2005 and was very high between 2009 and 2016,” said Catherine Coumans of the Canadian NGO Mining Watch, who has been documenting what is happening at North Mara for many years. “Our local contacts, and even mine personnel I have interviewed have told me that the international focus MiningWatch and RAID have put on the issue have helped bring the cases of shootings down, but severe beatings, especially of the head and joints, leading to sometimes lifelong handicaps, are still very high.”
In a statement, Acacia Mining said it had consistently refuted various allegations from both NGOs regarding unlawful deaths and human rights issues.
Forbidden Stories journalists met the families of two men, shot by the police in separate incidents in 2014 and 2016 as they were inside the mine. The families say they were not compensated. The police say they acted in self-defence.
“It is clear from Acacia’s own account that human rights violations continue at its North Mara mine,” wrote RAID in July 2017.
Yet the mine’s gold bars are today refined at MMTC-PAMP — an Indian refiner part of the Swiss-Dutch MKS PAMP Group — which is certified by the London Bullion Market Association, the most prestigious trade association in the industry.
“During our due diligence performed on North Mara, we took the NGO’s reports very seriously and challenged the mine on the issues raised,” said Hitesh Kalia, a risk and compliance officer at MMTC-PAMP. “We have assessed the measures taken by the mine to remediate the human rights claims, which are largely historical and related to the activities of the State police force operating in the area of the mine.”
Back in 2010, at the peak of the human rights abuses, a document written for investors indicated that the gold was refined by the Swiss company Argor-Heraeus, also certified and a listed supplier of more than 600 companies. Asked by a journalist from Tamedia (Switzerland), Argor-Heraeus did not confirm or deny having refined gold from North Mara.
There is less to labels than it seems, say experts.
“It’s important to know that these schemes in the gold sector are run by industry associations,” explains Gillard. “They check that refiners have systems in place to source gold responsibly, in line with OECD standards. They are not intended to provide a guarantee on the status of every gold product, a guarantee that there is no child labour, a guarantee that there is no conflict financing with each piece of gold that is purchased.”
He said the complexity of the gold supply chain makes such certainty unfeasible, and the quality of audits is often insufficient. The responsibility is thus diluted all along the supply chain.
Jürgen Heraeus, chairman of the Supervisory Board of Argor-Heraeus, describes the situation frankly in an interview in 2016: “[I]n this industry it is impossible to refine clean gold.”
Back in Tanzania, impoverished “intruders” keep looking for gold at the risk of their lives, and reporters are punished and prevented from shedding light on environmental damage and other wrongdoing.
“Once they’ve used the gold, they will go, and they’ll leave and leave the poison behind,” Lissu said of the mining operation.
And, in the case of journalist Jabir Idrissa, a career and a livelihood laid to waste.
In December 2018, Mawio won the case in court against the minister for information. The newspaper will not reopen anytime soon though, as they need a licence from the government to publish again.
“So it is just up to the government. If they give us the licence, we will get back to work,” says Idrissa. “I haven’t lost hope we will get back and work with high status and courage.”