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The hidden price behind the yellow metal's glitter: Ruthless production policies ignore poverty of indigenous people

Los Angeles Times

Naymongo, Tanzania: Barrick Gold Corp's North Mara mine near the Tanzanian border with Kenya disgorges millions of pounds of waste rock each week, piled high around communities where almost half the people live on less than 33 cents (Dh1.2) a day.

Children in school uniforms scurry across the rubble to reach their classes. Women with water pails atop their heads skirt past the heaps. The piles grow as the longest bull market for gold in at least 90 years pushes Barrick, the world's largest miner of the precious metal, to increase production. Villagers, too, are hunting the ore on the North Mara land that their ancestors worked for decades, sometimes paying with their lives.

Security guards and federal police allegedly have shot and killed people scavenging the gold-laced rocks to sell for small amounts of cash, according to interviews with 28 people, including victims' relatives, witnesses, local officials and human-rights workers.

"They are not arresting them or taking them to court," said Machage Bartholomew Machage, a member of the Tarime District Council, the highest local government body. "They are just shooting them."

At least seven people have been killed in clashes with security forces at the mine in the past two years, according to the 28 people interviewed. In at least four cases, police acknowledged the shootings.

The dead include Mwita Werema, a father of four who was killed one day after gold set another record price in October 2009; Chacha Nyamakono, who was one year from becoming the first in his family to complete a basic education; and Daudi Nyagabure, shot in February, who was eager to build a future for his pregnant wife.

Fifteen people were seriously wounded in the same period, according to the Legal and Human Rights Centre, a human-rights group in the Tanzanian city of Dar-es-Salaam, and Machage, who was the district council vice chairman until August.

Toronto-based Barrick and African Barrick Gold, which is 74 per cent-owned by the Canadian miner, pay the Tanzanian government for federal police protection at the mine and employ private armed guards, according to company documents.

The violence at North Mara is a brutal dividend of gold prices that have risen almost three-fold in the past five years to a record $1,431.25 on December 7.

African Barrick said it frequently faces groups of intruders, often armed, who illegally enter the North Mara mine with the intent of stealing valuable ore.

Andrew Wray, head of investor relations for African Barrick, said in a written response that some thefts, vandalism and other incidents are the result of organised crime, in part stoked by transients in the border region.

The company declined to comment on the number of people killed or injured by security forces in the past two years. In some instances deaths and injuries were inflicted by other trespassers, not by the police or security and some incursions go deep into its mining areas, Barrick said. The Canadian company raised $872 million from the March 19 initial public offering in London of African Barrick.

"The villagers are human beings and so they would like to get the minerals, and the policemen do not want them to get to the minerals. If you tell them to leave, it's not easy to get them to leave," said Constantine Massawe, the commander of federal police forces at the mine and throughout the region.

Security at the mine, where there are four open pit deposits, escalated after a riot in December 2008, African Barrick has said. A group of people invaded one pit after it had been blasted for ore, burned $7 million of equipment and cost the mine several days of production. Police shot and killed one trespasser, Wray said.

John McKay, a Canadian member of Parliament who sponsored a defeated legislation this year that sought to sanction mining companies for human-rights abuses abroad, said he wasn't familiar with the North Mara mine and declined to single out specific operators.

Still, he said the profits delivered by gold's high prices are causing a "moral blindness" at some companies.

"It seems like the attitude is, ‘If we have to knock a few heads along the way, so be it', because there is so much money to be made," he said.

"There is awareness amongst communities that the gold price is so high, but that very little of the benefit from that seems to be coming back to them," said Keith Slack, head of Oxfam America's extractive industries programme.

 

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