PB EDITOR'S NOTE:I really think that York's piece is a very important contribution to how we understand Barrick's operations in Africa, but I was disappointed to see that I was misrepresented in my two word quote and feel it's really important for my own work to set the record straight.
This quote was taken out of context and does not reflect the conversation that I had with York, which focused almost exclusively on my listing all of the times that Barrick had been caught lying, deliberately misleading, and covering up scandals to improve their image with governments and the public around the world. In fact, in a follow-up e-mail, I said "Barrick might be worse [than other mining companies] due to the cover-ups and divide-and-conquer tactics that they employ." Sincerely, Sakura Saunders
Across the cavernous pits and the mountains of waste rock, the alarm
wails eerily, warning that an explosion is imminent. Dozens of villagers
gather silently at the edge of a pit, past the holes that have been
torn in the fence, waiting for their chance.
Then comes the blast. As a plume of smoke curls into the sky, the
scavengers scramble into the pit, eager to prise a living from the
freshly smashed rock.
Suddenly the police appear, careering over the rocky road from another
corner of the vast mine. The pickup truck full of armed men in green
uniforms bounces across the wasteland like a scene from Mad Max. The
truck hurtles toward the scavengers, but is halted by a boulder that
they have pulled across its path. By the time the police can leap down
and move the boulder, the scavengers have scattered into the nearby
trees, where they wait for their next opportunity.
This is the daily ritual of conflict at the North Mara gold mine in
Tanzania: Intrude and retreat, pursue and withdraw—punctuated by
flare-ups that sometimes leave people dead.
For an eyewitness, it’s difficult to reconcile this cycle of violence
with the avowed community-friendly policies of the mine’s parent
Barrick Gold Corp. (ABX-T48.01----%) and the professed goal of its
founder, Peter Munk, of making good corporate citizenship the “calling
card that precedes us wherever we go.” How did a leading Canadian
corporate citizen and the world’s top gold producer get itself into this
contradiction? And why does Barrick continue mining in a place where
bloodshed and corruption seem inescapable?
The alternate image of Barrick, fostered by watchdog activists, is that
of a rogue company. These critics are happy to point out that North Mara
is not the only trouble spot in the Barrick empire. Many of the same
problems seen here—violence, pollution, sexual assault—have occurred at
Barrick’s Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea. After repeated denials,
Barrick this year finally admitted the validity of some of the sexual
assault allegations at Porgera, and dismissed some of its employees. But
the remedial measures were accompanied by one of Munk’s most
controversial comments: that “gang rape” is a “cultural habit” in Papua
While activists are targeting Barrick worldwide, it is Tanzania that
still puts the biggest dent in Barrick’s reputation, especially after
police killed at least five intruders at North Mara this year.
Much of the conflict stems from the history of the region: its poverty,
its political culture, and the warrior tradition of its people. But
another key factor is Barrick’s determination to press on at the mine in
an era when the price of, and demand for, gold keeps rising but sources
of the precious metal are ever harder to come by.
The seven villages around North Mara, among the poorest and most
underdeveloped in Tanzania, are located in the northwestern corner of
the country, 30 kilometres from the Kenyan border. Despite the region’s
isolation, its gold wealth has been known since the 19th century, when
small-scale mining began. Today the region is a key contributor to
Tanzania’s gold sector, which has emerged as the country’s most valuable
export, accounting for 40% of export earnings.
As a one-party socialist state until 1992, Tanzania barred foreign
investors and prevented the development of a modern mining industry. By
the time the country was finally opened to foreign miners in the
mid-1990s, about 40,000 villagers in northwestern Tanzania had become
dependent on artisanal mining, using shovels and pickaxes to search for
gold in small mine shafts and surface pits. Most were forced to give up
their livelihood when North Mara and other commercial mines began
operating a decade ago.
The villagers belong mostly to the Kuria people, who were traditionally
cattle farmers. Colonial records described them as “unruly and
backward.” They became notorious for cattle rustling and inter-clan
fighting, and joined the Tanzanian army in huge numbers. But as they
resisted the collectivist policies of the 1970s, the area became an
opposition stronghold, neglected by the government and lacking in basic
To help each other understand the daily clashes on their mine site,
Barrick managers pass around copies of an American ethnographic
treatise, Kuria Cattle Raiders: Violence and Vigilantism on the
Tanzania/Kenya Frontier. But not everything can be explained by
ethnicity. There are other crucial factors that people outside Barrick
One is the cheek-by-jowl existence of the villagers and the mine. Anyone
who flies into the mine’s airstrip can see the surreal sight from the
air: hundreds of houses huddled next to the pits and waste heaps. Some
dwellings are so close that rocks from the waste heaps tumble against
their walls. Children play with empty tear-gas canisters from the daily
About 10,000 families have been displaced by the mine’s growth since
1997, according to a prospectus issued last year by Barrick’s
subsidiary, African Barrick Gold, which is 74% owned by the
Toronto-based mining giant. The relocations began with North Mara’s
original owner, Afrika Mashariki Gold Mines Ltd., which sold the mine in
2003 to Vancouver-based Placer Dome Inc.
Relocation has not guaranteed safety. Magige Nyamhanga, a 31-year-old
farmer who lives about 100 metres from the mine, was accidentally shot
in the abdomen in 2009 while walking on a nearby road as police were
chasing a group of invaders. His house has been relocated twice in the
past dozen years as the mine expanded. He says the blasting at the mine
wakes him up at night, and the dust leaves him coughing and exhausted.
The displaced families were given compensation, but those who were
relocated in the 1990s were paid less because of a socialist-era law
that deemed all land to be owned by the state. The families were
compensated only for their buildings and crops; they never received the
full market value of their homes. “The process suffers from a local
perception of inadequate compensation for previous resettlement,”
African Barrick acknowledged in its prospectus.
Privately, some company officials go further. The early payments were “peanuts,” one official acknowledged.
“The mine is a salutary lesson in how not to establish a mine within or
near to an existing community,” said a report last year by the South
African Institute of International Affairs, an independent think tank
affiliated with the University of the Witwatersrand and funded by the
United Nations. The institute’s researcher was given access to Barrick’s
four Tanzanian mines, and Barrick made management available for
interviews. “There is constant and persistent anecdotal evidence that
the way in which the mine was established was neither transparent, nor
did it secure the support of the local community,” the report said.
“Moreover, there are repeated reports from people involved in mining and
community development work in the area over many years that the
community feels duped and deceived by the way in which the mine was
The report says Barrick inherited a “perfect storm” of problems when it
acquired North Mara in 2006 as part of the Placer Dome purchase. But it
notes that those problems were compounded by Barrick’s own mistakes,
including a much-publicized spill of acidic water from the mine’s
storage ponds in 2009. The report concluded that Barrick may have a
legal licence to operate at North Mara but it lacks a “social licence.”
In other words, it has failed to win the support of the local community,
a crucial requirement for any mining company these days.
What’s more, the report said, “The company has acknowledged that not
only does it not enjoy a social licence to operate the North Mara mine,
but that the very viability of the mine is under threat.”
If someone at Barrick hinted to the institute’s researchers that the
company might abandon North Mara, the company now insists it is fully
committed to it. “We think shutting down a mine that provides employment
and other meaningful benefits to thousands is not a good solution,”
Barrick president Aaron Regent wrote on The Globe and Mail website
recently. (Read Mr. Regent's column: Barrick Gold and North Mara: the
search for common ground)
Those employment benefits, however, are relatively small in comparison
to the population. North Mara employs about 700 Tanzanians, along with
another 900 on contracts. The jobs are far from enough for the community
of about 70,000 villagers around the mine, and the high unemployment
rate has added to their alienation and anger. Half of the Tanzanian
population earns less than $2 a day.
When Barrick acquired the mine, it knew that North Mara would be a
difficult and sensitive challenge. Shooting deaths have been documented
at the mine site for at least the past six years. By last year, the
company was claiming progress in reducing the violence. And then the
deaths began again: At least five villagers were shot dead by Tanzanian
police on May 16 at North Mara.
The Tanzanian government and the company both launched investigations
into the shootings, but it wasn’t enough to stem the tide of bad
The clashes with the invaders are far from the only controversy at North
Mara. There are land and compensation disputes, environmental problems,
arguments over economic benefits and, lately, allegations of sexual
assault by police and security guards at the mine. Adding fuel to all of
these disputes is a ferocious political climate, with Tanzanian and
Canadian activists united in an intense campaign against Barrick, using
everything from street protests to YouTube videos. Barrick has responded
with an array of tactics, from greater transparency at some moments to
threats of legal action at others.
Some activists claim that the mine’s pollution has caused the deaths of
dozens of people and hundreds of farm animals. Activists have circulated
photos and videos of two villagers with gruesome skin diseases, blaming
their illnesses on the company. These allegations seem to be false. The
spill from the storage ponds into a small river in 2009 involved only
acidic water, which damaged the local wetlands. Barrick has provided
convincing testimony from medical experts that the skin conditions of
the two villagers were chronic or genetic disorders that could not
possibly have been caused by environmental factors—especially since the
two villagers live far upstream from the mine. “There is no doubt that
neither of these conditions is the result of contaminated water,” a
South African dermatologist said in the testimony.
Environmental issues do remain. By August, more than two years after the
spill, the company was still working to satisfy government
environmental orders to safeguard and manage the site. Once that is
accomplished, Barrick can apply for crucial permits for water discharges
at the mine. Norwegian scientists, who sampled the soil and water
around North Mara in 2009 on behalf of church groups, have reported
elevated levels of arsenic near the site, but Barrick has disputed their
Barrick tried to distance itself from its North Mara headache with the
move last year to spin off its Tanzanian mines into African Barrick
Gold. Nevertheless, it sees expansion in the future. Greg Hawkins, the
CEO of African Barrick, says the company has invested $100 million in
capital in North Mara this year, along with another $20 million in
exploration around the mine, and it has no intention of giving up,
despite costs that climbed close to $800 per ounce this year, far higher
than the world average (all currency in U.S. dollars).
“We believe quite strongly in the asset,” he said in an interview.
“We’ve stepped up the investment because we see a lot of prospectivity
there. We could be on the ground there for a lot longer than just the 10
years that the reserve life tells us.”
Indeed, despite the high costs, profits are soaring. African Barrick’s
net income from its four mines (all in Tanzania) leaped by 51% to reach
$69.8 million in the second quarter of this year, up from $46.2 million a
year earlier. That translates into about 6% of the parent company’s
earnings from its 26 operating mines around the world.
Hawkins admits there is “frustration” and “venting of historical issues”
in the villages around North Mara, but he is confident that the company
and the government are improving the security situation. “We’re
sticking to our long-term plan,” he says. “We’ve got a clear idea of
where we’re heading. It’s a long-term asset for us, and for Tanzania.
The mine is a key economic driver in the region and the country, and
nobody wants to lose that.”
Yet as gold prices rise and the mine becomes more valuable, the conflict
intensifies. The massive piles of waste rock have become the only real
source of income for the villagers, who have largely abandoned farming
and have little hope of wage employment. And the rising price of gold
has drawn a rush of newcomers from across East Africa.
Hundreds of villagers and migrants enter the mine illegally every day to
scrounge for rock. They have borrowed an English word to describe
themselves: “intruders.” The word has entered the Swahili language, with
no negative connotation, as the name of a new occupation that can
produce money and even wealth. For many of the hundreds of intruders who
enter the mine illegally every day, this is a profitable business.
Nelson Charles, a 22-year-old intruder, was shot in the arm by the
Tanzanian police when he fled the shooting on May 16. He has become a
fugitive, hiding from the police for fear that they will arrest anyone
who was injured that day. His injury has left him too weak to work. But
until now, the life of an intruder has been rewarding.
At the age of 19, Charles was a high-school dropout in a nearby town. A
farmer’s son, he had been unable to afford his school fees. Today, after
working as an intruder for three years, he owns a motorcycle, a
television, a DVD player and a $500 Nokia smartphone. He has spent
thousands of dollars to buy a plot of land in his hometown, and he plans
to build a house there for his family. Several of his friends from
school have followed him to North Mara.
“My lifestyle has changed,” Charles says. “My friends all congratulate me. They say I made a wise decision.”
When he was able to spend his days working, Charles headed to the mine
carrying a hammer, an empty bag for waste rocks, and a bottle of water
so that he could wash the rocks to check for signs of mineralization. He
chopped the rocks into smaller pieces, taking the fragments to small
backyard crushing machines to turn them into powder, hired someone to
rinse the powder with mercury, and then wrapped any gold grains that
emerged in paper and took them to the local gold dealers. Some days he
would earn nothing. On other days, he made hundreds of dollars.
The dealers—who make the biggest profits among local people—weigh the
gold on small scales, using razor blades or bottle caps as units of
measurement. For gold that weighs half of a razor blade, they pay the
equivalent of about $14 to the intruders.
The entire business is protected by corrupt deals with the police, the
security guards and mine employees. The employees tip off the intruders
when the best rocks are being loaded into the waste trucks. The police
accept bribes for access to the pits and the waste heaps—usually a
dollar or two from each intruder. And when conflicts escalate, they open
fire on the same people who normally do business with them.
For the police, shifts at North Mara can be so profitable that they
often bribe their superiors for an assignment at the mine. “The police
are benefiting from the conflicts,” says Maulidi Issa, a 30-year-old
villager who has worked as an intruder for the past 11 years. “They are
becoming wealthy from the bribes.”
Barrick has expressed concerns about the police shootings, but it has
also pointed out that the intruders are illegally trespassing. The
company is aware of the widespread reports that the police allow the
intrusions in exchange for bribes—which raises the question of whether
Barrick is too dependent on a corrupt police force that inevitably comes
into conflict with the villagers in disputes over bribes.
“We are investigating whether employees and police have participated in a
fraudulent scheme of accepting money for access to the site by illegal
miners,” the company said in a statement to The Globe and Mail. “We have
also provided these allegations to the police.”
A researcher at the Legal and Human Rights Centre, a respected Tanzanian
rights group that is partially funded by several European governments,
says the shootings cannot by justified by calling the villagers “illegal
trespassers” if the police have given them access to the mine. “If
they’ve made a deal to collect rocks from the mine, how can you call
them intruders?” asks Onesmo Olengurumwa, a researcher at the centre.
“When there are agreements between the community and the police, and the
police fail to honour it, that’s when the conflicts start.”
The Tanzanian media have documented a long series of killings by police
and security forces at North Mara, dating back to 2005 or earlier. In
December, 2008, just after the mine’s employees had finished blasting
high-grade ore at one of its open pits, hundreds of intruders rushed
into the pit, stealing and setting fire to mining equipment. One person
was shot dead by police, the mine suffered $7 million in damage, and the
company had to suspend operations for several days.
Barrick has never given any estimate of the number of deaths that have
occurred since it took over at North Mara. In the prospectus for the
public listing of its African subsidiary last year, the company
addressed the issue briefly and laconically: “There have been additional
incidents since 2008 involving trespassers…leading to conflict with
security personnel and/or police, which have in some cases resulted in
injuries and/or fatalities.”
A report this year by the Legal and Human Rights Centre concluded that
19 villagers were killed by police and security guards at North Mara
from January, 2009, to June, 2010. Some of the villagers were killed by
stray bullets, while others were victims of “police brutality,” the
report said. Barrick does not agree with the analysis, noting that some
deaths may have occurred in conflicts among illegal miners.
Indeed, not all deaths are caused by the police or security. Apart from
deaths that may have resulted from clashes among the intruders
themselves, two Barrick employees were killed by intruders in 2008. The
villagers acknowledge that some people have carried machetes into the
mine site and fought with other intruders. They say they stopped
carrying machetes when a no-weapons order was issued by village elders.
The company disagrees, saying that machetes are still sometimes carried.
Certainly the violence continues to flow in both directions. The company
counted 70 stoning attacks on its staff or vehicles in the first five
months of this year alone. Its vehicles are riddled with dents and holes
from the stone-throwing attacks. On average, the company says, about
800 people invade the mine on a typical day. “If you chase them away
every day, you’d have a war on your hands,” says a Barrick manager.
But the conflict is already close to a war. The company employs more
than 300 security staff and contractors to protect the mine site, along
with about two dozen police officers who patrol the area under a
separate security agreement (with funding from the company for their
fuel, meals and even a portion of their salaries). Across its Tanzanian
mines, African Barrick spent more than $20 million on security last
The level of violence is obvious from the protective gear of its
security guards, who resemble RoboCops with their bulky layers of body
armour, helmets, boots, gloves, and padding for their arms, shins and
ankles. Unlike the police, the security guards are supposed to be
limited to non-lethal force, so they wield an odd array of weapons,
including tear-gas launchers and shotguns that fire “bean bag”
cartridges. The bean bags (actually fibre socks, filled with shot) are
intended to inflict nothing more than a painful bruising, but their
manufacturer says they can cause “fatal or serious injury” if they hit
the head, neck, thorax, heart or spine.
The police, meanwhile, are equipped with automatic weapons that account
for most of the deaths at North Mara. They also fire weapons that the
company describes as “sound and flash devices.” Villagers describe them
as “bombs” that can cause serious injury.
Over the years, Barrick erected fences around the open pits and the
waste heaps to keep out the villagers, but they were always torn down.
Now it has upped the stakes: It is planning to surround the mine in a
14-kilometre concrete wall, three metres high, planted deep in the
ground and topped by razor wire, at a cost of about $14 million.
The villagers insist that they will breach the barrier. “It won’t make
any difference,” Issa says. “The intruders have many skills, and I’m
sure they will break the wall. They’re always coming up with new ideas
on how to get into the mine.”
Human rights activists believe the bloodshed will continue as long as
the mine is guarded by police who remain unaccountable and immune from
prosecution. There are occasional investigations into the shootings at
North Mara, but police are never prosecuted. “The people doing the
killings are the same people who do the investigations,” Olengurumwa
Chris Albin-Lackey, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who wrote a
highly influential report on abuses by Barrick’s security guards in
Papua New Guinea, believes that ultimately the North Mara situation will
require government oversight. Given the weakness of governments in the
developing world, only the Canadian government can provide any oversight
over Barrick’s activities at North Mara, he said.
The Harper government has consistently opposed this idea. In 2010, with
the help of some Liberal and NDP absenteeism, the minority Conservative
government defeated the proposed Bill C-300, which would have set up a
system of oversight for the human-rights and environmental impact of
Canadian resource companies overseas.
Barrick was among the leaders of the lobbying battle against C-300,
which was proposed by Liberal MP John McKay. In a submission to a
parliamentary committee, Barrick said the bill was “punitive” and would
undermine the reputation of Canadian companies, lead to an exodus of
mining companies from Canada and damage Canada’s position as a global
leader in the mining industry.
Barrick has been energetic in defending its interests in the political
sphere. Until recently, it often took a pugnacious approach, sometimes
threatening its critics with legal action. In 2008, it sued the
publisher of a book on the Canadian mining industry (proceedings are
scheduled for this fall). Last year, it denied The Globe and Mail access
to its North Mara operations. Also last year, it threatened—but thus
far has not pursued—a lawsuit against another book publisher, and it
warned a Tanzanian rights group that it would take legal action unless
it apologized for accusations it made springing from the 2009
This year, the company has been shifting to a more open policy. It made
its about-face conceding problems at its Porgera mine in Papua New
Guinea and announced investigations into sexual assault allegations at
both Porgera and North Mara. It released data on its emissions at its
Tanzanian mines. And after the May 16 shooting incident, it allowed The
Globe and Mail to visit the North Mara site. Even a vocal opponent of
Barrick, social activist Sakura Saunders, says the company has become
“more transparent” than most other miners.
And Barrick has a story to tell about the community benefits of its
Tanzanian mining operations: It has contributed health clinics,
scholarships, water and electricity projects, malaria and AIDS
initiatives, training and income-generating programs. At its Bulyanhulu
site in Tanzania, the company estimates that it has spent more than $19
million on community projects since 1999. And in September, the company
launched a country-wide community fund to which it will contribute $10
million annually—triple its current spending.
At North Mara, the company already has doubled its annual community
relations budget to $2 million and increased its community relations
team to 50 employees. It hired a respected organization, Search for
Common Ground, to train the police in human rights and “conflict
minimization.” Although Barrick worked to defeat Bill C-300, it became
the first Canadian mining company to sign the Voluntary Principles on
Security and Human Rights, an international set of guidelines for
extractive industries. The rules oblige signatories to investigate and
report any credible information about human rights abuses at their
workplaces. And Barrick negotiated an agreement with the Tanzanian
police, requiring the police to use “minimum force” and comply with
Graham Denyer Willis, executive director of the Canadian Centre for the
Study of Resource Conflict, an independent research centre, says
Barrick’s agreement with the police is a deft political strategy. “It
allows them to distance themselves from the police and to squarely
allocate blame on someone else,” he says. “It is short-sighted to think
that police in rural Tanzania understand and have internalized
international human rights standards or that they do not have vested
interests in preserving their own livelihoods and allegiances.”
Willis notes that the police have become dependent on African Barrick
for vehicles, fuel and other daily expenses. “On the one hand, the
company can wash its hands clean of any involvement because of the
formal language of the memorandum of understanding, but on the other
hand it can guarantee the outright allegiance of the police by providing
them with things that are otherwise out of reach. As a result, local
police have little accountability to anyone except Barrick.”
The community benefits, meanwhile, are sometimes less than they might
seem. Barrick’s predecessor, Placer Dome, invested heavily in a small
hospital near the mine—but the hospital was never provided with
electricity, and its water supply soon stopped working. Today, its
operating theatre is abandoned, its laundry block is used as a storeroom
and it relies on kerosene lamps at night. In lieu of washrooms, staff
and patients alike use buckets and outdoor pit latrines. “People from
the community complain that the hospital is dirty and stinking,” says
the chief clinician, George Marwa.
Barrick blames vandals for damaging the water pipes, and the local
government for failing to provide a generator for the hospital. It says
the hospital is a “key priority” in an upcoming agreement on village
benefits. The villagers see it differently: They say the company pledged
to provide a working hospital and broke its promise.
Two years ago, Barrick was ranked as one of Canada’s 50 top corporate
citizens in the annual report of Corporate Knights, which studies the
social responsibility records of Canadian companies. Since then,
however, Barrick has fallen off the list. A report by the research
division of Corporate Knights noted that African Barrick recorded nearly
$63 million in earnings before interest and taxes from North Mara in
2009, yet its spending on social and community benefits for the region
that year were “far lower” than 1% of those earnings. “The extent of the
company’s involvement in the social welfare of the North Mara region is
therefore questionable,” the report said.
Barrick says the North Mara mine has also provided substantial economic
benefits to Tanzania, including $30 million in purchases of goods and
services from Tanzanian businesses last year, along with a $40-million
investment to connect North Mara to the Tanzanian power grid. Critics
argue, however, that Barrick shouldn’t get political credit for what are
normal business expenses.
Ultimately, the violent conflicts at North Mara will continue as long as
the region is plagued by unemployment and poverty. Many intruders say
they would happily give up their invasions and switch to small-scale
mining if they could. Barrick has promised to support the artisanal
sector, but the villagers are skeptical of the company’s promise, which
dates to 2007.
Barrick says the artisanal project has been delayed because its safety
and security aspects require more study. In the meantime, hundreds of
villagers continue to work in highly dangerous conditions in small-scale
mining operations, descending into pits and washing gold-laced powder
with mercury, which carries a variety of health risks.
Theresia Johannes, a 48-year-old mother of nine children, has spent the
past 10 years in a small-scale mining operation near North Mara. She
handles drops of mercury with her bare hands. After years of this
practice, Johannes notices that her hands are often shaking. Tremors are
a common symptom of mercury poisoning. “I’m worried about it,” she
says. Yet she has no other way of supporting her family.
As long as Tanzanians are forced to choose between dying for a living
and the potential wealth that they can gain by invading Barrick’s gold
mine, the bloodshed at North Mara is likely to continue. Weapons and
walls are a poor solution.