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The human cost of gold in Tanzania: And a deadly price to pay

June 27th, 2009

A section of the River Tigethe ecosystem affected by allegedly contaminated water flowing from the nearby Barrick North Mara Gold Mine in Tarime District. Pictured Ms Otiego Mseti, one of the reportedly infected villagers

VILLAGERS living near a gold mine owned and run by Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp. in Tarime District, Mara Region are demanding the immediate closure of the project, saying they are paying a deadly price for the mining activities in the area.

Already, scores of people residing around Barrick’s North Mara Gold Mine are showing serious signs of exposure to pollution in the form of water contaminated with various chemicals allegedly flowing out of the mine and into the nearby River Tigethe.

The villagers accuse the mine management, under the Canadian investor company, of causing fatal health hazards to human beings, livestock, and land in Kebasula Ward in Tarime, where the mine is located.

They say more than 20 people have died in recent weeks as a direct result of the contaminated water.

’’We have no problem with investors. But the investors must respect and treat us like human beings. These Canadians are killing us...they are not doing business,’’ said Ms Esther Mugusuhi, one of a group of affected villagers interviewed by THISDAY in Dar es Salaam yesterday.

Ms Mugusuhi said the mining activities by Barrick Gold have incapacitated her and many others, in her case rendering her right hand dysfunctional.

’’I used to work productively in my farm, but I am now a dependent person...all because of the investors,’’ she asserted.

She called on the Canadian Government to intervene in the environmental nightmare by ensuring medical costs for all the victims of pollution in the area are footed.

Another villager, Mkwave Mwita, pointed an accusing finger at the Tanzanian (home) Government for valuing mining activities by foreign investors more than it values the welfare of its own citizens.

’’I think this is the only country on earth where stones (gold) are more valuable than human beings,’’ Mwita stated.

Like Ms Mugusuhi, he also said the Canadian Government is morally obliged to help those affected by the North Mara Gold Mine operations because ’’it is Canadians that are reaping more benefits from Tanzanian mineral resources than Tanzanians themselves.’’

Pictorial and other evidence from the area strongly indicate a real danger of more people residing around the mine area and using the River Tigethe waters for various household uses contracting serious diseases that have so far remained a puzzle to local medics, and could eventually even kill them.

The villagers described infections that start with increased body itching and frequent yawning, causing victims to scratch their bodies and end up with lacerations.

The chairman of Kebasula Ward’s CCM branch, Keremani Nyakiha, was part of the group interviewed, and said more than 20 people have so far died as a result of the infections within the past couple of months.

He said many more villagers in the area are bed-ridden and with little hope of recovering due to lack of appropriate medical attention, while there are reports that over 150 cattle have died of the ’disease.’

Despite his CCM posting in the ward, Nyakiha did not hesitate to blame the Government for ’’playing politics’’ with the lives of people over this matter.

’’This is not an issue of is about people’s lives,’’ he said, adding: ’’The situation in Kebasula is terrible - people are dying, cattle are dying, dogs are dying, everything is dying. Soon there will be no living organism in the area...not even toads.’’

He castigated district and regional government leaders of deliberately turning a blind eye to reports of villagers dying of the allegedly poisonous infection, and favouring the investors instead.

’’It is ridiculous and shameful for a whole Government leader to dismiss in public what is obvious to everybody. If the Government has nothing to do for its people, it had better just keep quiet,’’ Nyakiha asserted.

Asked to mention any benefits the surrounding village communities may be reaping from the mining project, he retorted: ’’Nothing...just dust and skin diseases.’’

The group of villagers are in Dar es Salaam on a mission to raise public awareness on their case, courtesy of the Norwegian Church Aid non-governmental organisation.

Independent medical experts consulted by THISDAY say the villagers could be suffering from cyanide poisoning as a result of expanded mining activity. It is understood that short-term exposure to high levels of cyanide harms the central nervous system, respiratory system, and cardiovascular system. Even very small concentrations of the toxic substance can kill humans, fish, birds, livestock and plant life.

However, when contacted for comment late yesterday, Barrick Tanzania spokesperson Teweli Teweli dismissed the allegations as baseless, saying Kebasula Ward – situated about 30 kilometres from the mine – is too far to be vulnerable to any seepage from the mine’s sewage pond.

He named villages surrounding the mine as Nyangoto, Kewanja, Genkuru, and Nyamongo.

’’Following the problem of water leakage on May 9 this year, we conducted a meeting with the surrounding communities and agreed that any anomaly to cattle or human beings should be reported to us...but we heard nothing until the ward councillor wrote to us about the deaths of 18 people,’’ Teweli told THISDAY.

He dismissed any chance of a ’’scientific’’ connection between the claimed deaths and Barrick North Mara Mine operations.

Teweli said initial remedial work to intercept and divert water from the mine from reaching waterways in the vicinity has been completed and ongoing remediation and monitoring continues.

’’Management and monitoring of this specific situation will remain a priority of the mine,’’ he added.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda yesterday directed the Minister for Home Affairs, Lawrence Masha, to investigate the reported pollution at the Barrick North Mara Gold Mine.

The premier gave the directive when responding to a question from the Tarime Member of Parliament, Charles Mwera (CHADEMA), who wanted to know from the Government what is to be the fate of victims of the reported mine pollution.


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