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The Gold Mine and the Fear of Poison

The residents of the village of Nyakabale in Tanzania are afraid of what they are eating, drinking, and washing in. They are next-door neighbours to East Africa’s largest gold mine and are convinced that poison from the mine is making them sick.
Artikkelen er mer enn to år gammel. Ting kan ha endret seg.
The residents of the village of Nyakabale in Tanzania are afraid of what they are eating, drinking, and washing in. They are next-door neighbours to East Africa’s largest gold mine and are convinced that poison from the mine is making them sick.

anglogold_nyakabale1_520-330.jpgBy Erik Hagen

Every day the population hears rumbling from the mining operations, and every day the gold dust falls down on their heads. They are farmers and cattle farmers and fear that all they are surrounded by is toxic: the vegetables, the cattle, the air. They can not afford thorough health examinations or toxicity tests of the drinking water. And they can not afford to move elsewhere.

The small village of Nyakabale is next-door neighbour to one of Tanzania’s largest gold mines, owned by the South African company AngloGold Ashanti, in which the Norwegian Government Pension Fund – Global has investments. Norwatch has visited the village and spoken with farmers who are frightened of dying of toxic pollution. They have seen how one of their neighbours developed skin problems, and then died, after having bathed in a river close to the gold mine. Three persons with whom Norwatch has spoken have themselves bathed in the same river and can now observe their skin slowly starting to become miscoloured and disintegrate. In none of them has it been confirmed or disproved that the health condition is caused by toxicity, and none of them has undergone a thorough health examination. But all of them are certain that it is connected with the mine.

The fear in the village became firmly planted after a master’s degree student at the University of Dar Es Salaam last year wrote a thesis, claiming the small village has become a toxicity trap. The student carried out chemical analyses of the food they ate and of the soil in the fields. The results were discouraging. According to the report, the plants that the farmers raise contain up to 9000 times the maximum limit for heavy metals determined by UN agencies. The soil is supposedly more than 6000 times as toxic as maximum level, according to the paper.

Norwatch first reported on the possible pollution in the area in April 2008. The master’s thesis had recently been approved, and Norwatch had obtained photographs of farmer Kanana Benedicto, who lived in the village. His skin was in the process of falling off, and he explained that the problem had to be caused by the gold mine. The symptoms started a short while after he had been down in the river near the mining company’s waste disposal site, he explained.

In October 2008 Benedicto died. In the course of the past year his brother and niece and a couple of other village residents have also died of what the neighbours say is pollution.

Two months after Benedicto died Norwatch visited his village.

Nyakabale village is located in one of Tanzania’s poorest regions. The 2000 inhabitants live in mud houses with straw roofs or in corrugated iron-covered brick houses, midway between the gold mine’s two waste disposal sites. One disposal site consists of dry waste from the opencast mine and is constructed in terraces. The other is a wet disposal site, called a tailing dam, a huge basin with liquid waste from the mining operations.

Moving Mountains
anglogold_nyakabale1_350.jpgSeveral villages in the vicinity, with perhaps as many as more than 4000 people, had to leave their homes when the mining operations were started in 2000. Today Nyakabale is the mine’s closest settlement.

Ndemera Mashauri, the father of four, is one of Nyakabale’s most worried inhabitants. He has lived most of his life on a green field on the outskirts of the village. Now he is living at the foot of a small mountain.

“I heard nothing from the company before they started to build it,” he says and looks up at the hill a stone’s throw away from the bedroom. “When they started to build it, the authorities told us that we would receive compensation. Now my property is starting to become ruined, and I haven’t seen any compensation,” Mashauri says.

Mashauri’s house lies right next to something that looks like a giant wall, a large hillside. At first sight it looks like a natural steep slope. The bottom part is covered by green grass, with small bushes and trees. A cattle farmer walks stoop-shouldered up the hillside with his herd.

But this is not an ordinary hill. Mashauri lives at the foot of the giant waste disposal site on which the Pension Fund-supported company dumps its mountain mass. At the top of the hill one can clearly see that it is not a natural hill. The top terraces consist of fresh soil and stone, in a patchwork quilt of red and brown. The top “floor” on the mountain was built just a few months ago. The mass has only been there for a few years, but the rains have already dug distinct erosion furrows along the sides, right down towards his home.

“When it rains, the plastic sacks flow down the hillside towards my yard,” he says.

anglogold_nyakabale3_350.jpgThe population says that some of the white sacks have been marked with warning signs. They are not sure what they have been used for. Perhaps explosives, they believe. While we speak, one of the white sacks lies tossed up against a bush next to his house. It had found its way there during the last rainy weather. Mashauri won’t touch it with his hands but pokes it with a stick.
Mashauri’s neighbour says that he has seen with his own eyes how these sacks – “the poison sacks”, they call them – have been put into the mass and then covered up.

The small streams that form when it rains find their way down the hillside and right past his kitchen. Thereafter they run across the yard and through the field on which he cultivates corn and finally continue over to all the other houses and land patches in the village a few hundred metres below.

Often the contents of the mining industry’s unearthed stone masses, which come from hundreds of metres below ground, has been shown to react chemically with air and water on the surface. This has caused heavy metals to be released. Whether this occurs in Nyakabale is unknown.

“In any case, it is nevertheless not as unhealthy here at my house as down by the river,” Mashauri says.

Dangerous River
The main river, Mtakuja, further down in the valley, is located only a short walk from the village centre. The river runs down into East Africa’s breadbasket, Lake Victoria, further north and is supposed to be strongly polluted by heavy metals. The master’s degree thesis on the pollution of the area suggests that poison is leaking from the company’s tailing dam and down into the river. The company, however, claims that preliminary analyses show that so far there is no need to worry. They also emphasise that it is not necessarily they who are causing a possible pollution in the area.

Mashauri, on the other hand, insists that there is poison in the river where the company has its tailing dam and that he has become aware of the effect. “One day I went down to the river where the dam is and washed my body. That is when it all started,” he says.

During the past few months Mashauri has become sick. He has developed marks on the chest and head, has an intense itching at night, has pains in the chest and is constantly tired. When Norwatch first entered his yard, he had taken a break from work and lay inside, sleeping. His son had also become sick.

No Energy to Cultivate
The 35-year-old father of one child, Ali Juma, shares the same history. He has problems breathing and no longer has the energy to cultivate his soil but spends hours every day inside his mud cabin, where he sleeps.

“One day in May I went to cut down a tree. I was sweating intensely, so I went down to the river to wash. Two days later my problems started,” he says. He slowly unbuttons his shirt and shows the black spots. He says they cover his whole body.
The physician told him there was something wrong with his skin and gave him tablets. But Juma has never received an answer as to what is really wrong with him. And Juma can not afford any more examinations, because he has to use the money to pay his neighbours to cultivate his soil.

“Previously I cultivated the field myself, but now my body is feeble. I need to sleep all the time, and I have pains in the chest. I’m afraid it’ll turn out for me as for Kanana Benedicto,” he says, referring to his dead neighbour, about whom Norwatch wrote last year.

anglogold_nyakabale4_280.jpgTwo hundred metres away old Mbibhi Mahendeka lives. He, too, spends most of his time inside his house, in the dark, sleeping. “I have no medications, so now I’ll probably die like the others,” Mahendeka says from his bedside.

Mahendeka started to notice the first symptoms a year after he came to the village. Now three years have passed. Parts of his legs have become white from discolouration, and his skin is peeling off. The skin problems have spread to cover his whole body. His neighbours say it looks exactly like what the late Kanana Benedicto had. Mahendeka has been to see the physician, who gave him some medication, but it has not helped. He too says the problems started shortly after a visit to the river.

Day and night, 365 days a year, the company digs into the mountain that lies about 2 km further east. The gold digging is done in the shape of an open-pit mine. The mountain that contains the gold is in the process of becoming a several hundred metres deep pit.

The mine at Nyakabale is AngloGold Ashanti’s only mine in Tanzania, and it has been extremely profitable. The mine is supposed to have produced gold worth US$1.55 billion in the period 2000-2007. But, according to an up-to-date report, A Golden Opportunity? Justice and Respect in Mining, only crumbs have been paid in taxes and duties to the Tanzanian authorities. Tanzania is left with a dismal 9% of the value of the gold.

If a foreign operator in the North Sea had deposited only 9% of the oil’s value in the Norwegian treasury, there would have been an uproar. But no matter how much media coverage there has been in Tanzania with regard to the mining industry’s lucrative terms in the poverty-stricken country, the legislation and the controls have still not been changed. The wealth still disappears right out of the country.

What is unfortunate for the country is good for the shareholders, including the Norwegian ones. According to the latest available figures from the Norwegian Government Pension Fund – Global, a year ago 889 million Norwegian pension kroners (101 million euros) were invested in the mining giant AngloGold Ashanti.

angloashanti_geita_2008_gruve.jpgAs usual, the village peace is broken by both blasts and a bang every morning. At around 11 o’clock there is something that sounds like an air-raid warning. Then the bang from an explosion resounds throughout the valley. A dust cloud arises from the area where the mine is located. Fifteen minutes later a fine dust layer falls down over us. It covers the fields and the roofs. The frightened villagers do not know whether the dust is toxic.

“In the dry season the dust is unbearable. Many of us get problems breathing, and some start coughing up blood,” Philimon Mugangila, another village resident, relates. “I was born here, and all I own is right here in my yard. If I have to move because of the poison, where could I move to? And how could I pay for it?”

Half an hour after the alarm and the explosion there is a tropical downpour. Many of the families put out pails around the houses and collect the water from the same rooftops where the dust has just settled.

While the mining dust is dripping down into the drinking-water pails of the people of Nyakabale, they continue being terrified about their health. And they are still waiting for an answer as to whether the heavy metals are making them sick, and, if so, whose fault it is.         

anglogold_spokesman_fine_350.jpgThe Company investigates Allegations
Norwatch met with Alan Fine, spokesperson of AngloGold Ashanti, when he attended a seminar in Oslo earlier this month.

He said that they have now commissioned consultancy from the UK-based company SRK. They will go through the gold mine’s existing water sampling programme, and from March 2009 also start taking samples of sediments and plants in the area around the Nyakabale village.

“The final results, which are planned to be ready by the second half of this year, will be shared with local authorities, village representatives and local experts”, Fine said.

Fine underlined that there has been mining activity in the same area since the beginning of 1900s. “If there actually is poison in the water or the soil, it does not necessarily stem from the work of the current Geita Gold Mine”, he said. AngloGold Ashanti has been operating in Geita since year 2000.

“We take this matter seriously. We hope that this study will enable us to identify any possible environmental damage. If we are responsible for any contamination, we will of course tidy up”, he said.

The company has so far carried out four rounds of water analyses since Norwatch’s coverage last year. “The preliminary results suggest that there is no reason to sound the alarm when it comes to the water,” Fine said.

It was the South African branch of the same consultancy firm SRK which in 1999 conducted the initial Environment Impact Assessment of the mining operations in Geita.

The company has also examined the assertions in a master thesis that Norwatch wrote about last year. The thesis claimed that there is a high level of toxicity in the area around the village.

AngloGold Ashanti is also examining the methodology used in the thesis and discussing these with the educational authorities.
Independently of the company’s own studies, the Norwegian Church Aid said to Norwatch that they too are about to make an assessment of the situation in the Nyakabale village next to the mine site. The scope of the study has not yet been decided, but it will most probably also contain a study of the health situation of people in the village.

FACTS: Big Money, Low Income
•    The gold industry is the fastest-growing sector in Tanzania. It is controlled by two big companies: AngloGold Ashanti of South Africa and Barrick Gold of Canada.
•    Tanzania has an abundant supply of gold but earns little on this industry. From 1997 to 2005 Tanzania exported gold worth more than US$2.54 billion. Of this, the authorities have gotten US$28 million in earnings from the companies yearly – in other words, about 10% in the course of the 9-year period.
•    In the period 2000-2007 AngloGold Ashanti is supposed to have paid US$144 million in taxes and duties to Tanzania. In the same period the company is supposed to have produced Tanzanian gold for US$1.55 billion. Only 9% of the earnings from the total sale thus went to the poor Tanzanian authorities.
•    The royalty for gold production in Tanzania is a modest 3%.
•    The corporation tax rate is normally 30%, but so long as the companies declare their losses, they have in practice still not paid much in taxes to the Tanzanian authorities.
•    The Tanzanian authorities do not have ownership in any of the mining companies, and the terms of the mining contracts are often kept secret.
•    Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Source: A Golden Opportunity? Justice and Respect in Mining. By Mark Curtis and Tundu Lissu (2008).