While a worldwide shortage in gem rough sends prices spiralling upward, gem deposits in Africa are lying unworked, or underworked, due to lack of development funds. A prime example of the problem is northern Tanzania — including the well-known tanzanite mines at Merelani.
Anyone who buys or sells tanzanite has noticed that prices have gone through the roof lately. The market is used to riding out the ups and downs of mine production, but the problem today is more fundamental than a simple slump in production.
“Today, at a mine depth of 450 meters [1,476 feet], a tanzanite small-mine owner would require a work force of about 80 to 120 Wana-Apollo [small-scale miners] to do the work of pulling out sand bags before tanzanite is produced,” explained Salum Ngoya, the secretary of the Merelani dispute committee, a group that mediates conflicts between miners. “It is very expensive to get food, torches, batteries, and medicine for such a big group of Wana-Apollo. As a result, many small tanzanite mine owners have stopped mining tanzanite because they lack funds.”
Stella Shayo, chairperson of the dispute committee, elaborated that due to this problem, the Wana-Apollo nowadays are nomads who don’t settle near the mines. Instead, a new system has been put in place, nicknamed “bingo.” When a mine owner reaches a tanzanite vein, he contracts the number of Wana-Apollo needed to remove any sand in the way. This is accomplished by lining up from the bottom of the shaft to the top and relaying the bags of sand upward.
The deeper the shafts, the more people needed to do the work, increasing the costs for the mine owners. But that’s not the only problem.
“About 90 meters [295 feet] underground, the mines here reach the water table, creating another mining problem — pulling water out before continuing,” said Salome Chami, a small-mine owner.
Shayo, also a miner, explained that the lack of production has led to security problems outside the mines. Theft and armed robbery are on the rise in Merelani township, and between that and the rising costs, some legitimate miners have sold their mines and joined the illegal, unlicensed brokers.
The tanzanite mines are divided into four blocks, labeled A through D. Of the four, Blocks B and D are being actively mined by independent, small-scale miners, while Block C is mined by South Africa-based TanzaniteOne. A total of 430 plots are available in Blocks B and D, but only 250 are currently operating; 180 plot owners have stopped production due to lack of funds.
Block A is technically open for foreign investors, but local miners believe it should be worked by independent miners instead. “Another problem facing Merelani today is the government invading small-scale miner plots in Block A and distributing them to people with much money and big companies,” alleged Ngoya. A better solution, she continued, would be for those companies to fund the small-scale miners’ operations.
Meanwhile, prices continue to rise. For example, one gram of rough tanzanite of very good quality sold for US$500-600 in 2004, but the price now is $800-900. In 1999, a piece of the same size and quality might have gone for $250-300 in Merelani, disclosed Chami.
In 1994, an onion farmer named Mzee Nanjai was working his fields outside the village of Manghola, in the Manyara region of Tanzania, when he happened to find a mysterious green stone. He sent the stone to Arusha, a city in the region with an active gem trade, hoping his find might be worth something. Several months later, he got word from an Indian gem dealer that the stone was a five-gram emerald. The dealer bought the stone from Nanjai for 800,000 Tanzanian shillings ($714) — more than the farmer could have hoped to make in a year.
Such a find should have sparked a gem rush, especially in a region already thick with independent miners. It didn’t.
It’s not that they didn’t hear about the find, explained a local emerald miner, Naftal Zungu Kitandu. “Manghola is a very remote area, about 260 kilometers [161 miles] away from Arusha. To reach the Manghola mines, one has to travel 60 kilometers [37 miles] by bicycle transport after reaching Karatu,” he said.
Local miners have set up some open-pit mines, and they are producing emerald, but as yet there’s been little to inspire outside miners to come such a long way.
“As of yet, no substantial quantities of Manghola emeralds have been seen in the market, even though some local small-scale miners have succeeded to get a few gems from their local open-cast mining,” confirmed Arusha Region Miners Association (AREMA) Secretary General Isaya Lyetema.
That may change, however, as other sources get more difficult to mine. In January, local miners started to see some new faces arriving from other areas, some nearby and some as far away as Singida and Mwanza. Ten of them were granted licenses to mine, and one — Paradiso Minerals (T) Ltd., which also operates two large tanzanite mines in Merelani — has begun setting up a more mechanized operation.
The full potential of the area remains uncertain. The deposit is alluvial, meaning that most of the emerald is found in a layer of loose dirt six to eight feet deep. The miners around Manghola estimate that the deposit covers an area of about five square miles, although there have been no official surveys to confirm that.
Gem experts agree that the emeralds from Man-ghola can be of good quality, though supply is erratic. In January, some unlicensed miners found some deep green emeralds of good clarity, in sizes of one to 10 grams. The color of the Manghola emeralds is generally darker than those of the nearby Manyara mines, and rough sizes of up to 18 grams have been found. However, during a visit in March, all the miners had to show was cabochon-grade rough.
In addition to emerald, local miners have also found small quantities of alexandrite, blue sapphire, yellow tourmaline, opal, red garnet, and white quartz.
According to Naftal, there are currently about 100 small-scale miners in the area around Manghola. If the deposit yields the kind of material that officials hope it will, they estimate it could support a pool of 15,000 local miners. Most of the people who live in the area are too poor to afford even basic mining equipment, but locals hope that growing interest will bring outsiders willing to invest in building a mining infrastructure — in partnership with the people in the region.
“We need investors to come to work together on a bilateral basis, not exploiting us for their own benefit, like investors are doing in Merelani,” said a Mangholan miner. The widespread perception is that foreign companies who get gem mining licenses are taking the country’s wealth, while leaving the local residents as poor as they were before. “We don’t like that kind of investor,” he concluded.
The Manyara emerald deposit is located near the village of Moya-Mayoka, about 150 miles from Arusha. The mines are close to the boundary of the Marang forest in Manyara National Park (TANAPA), which in turn borders on Lake Manyara, about nine miles from Moya-Mayoka. The lake gives the emerald deposit its name, but the park is what gives the local miners headaches.
Although the area was officially opened for mining in 1988 — along with Merelani and Umba, a sapphire deposit to the south — in 1999 it was decreed to be within the Marang forest conservation zone, and therefore off-limits to digging.
For about six years, small-scale miners from Moya-Mayoka and Arusha have applied to the Ministry of Minerals and Energy to get mining licenses, but all have been denied, said Emanuel Pengo, AREMA’s chairman for Moya-Mayoka.
Licenses issued earlier are still being honored. Pengo points to one company, based in Dar es Salaam, which was granted a mining certificate in 1997. However, it was only in February of this year that the company set up an active mining operation, much to the frustration of local miners who are still lobbying for licenses. The company has about two square miles of land where it’s permitted to work.
For locals, mining is particularly tempting because Manyara has been known to produce some high-quality emerald in the past.
The majority of emeralds from Manyara are very small — under half a carat — and of medium to low quality, according to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Minerals and Energy. But when larger crystals are found, they tend to be unusually clean, with few fractures. Their color ranges from bluish-green for the smaller and paler stones to yellow-green for the larger, darker emeralds.
The story of the discovery of the deposit supports the idea that there are more fine emeralds to be found there. It started in 1969, when a prospector and mining operator known only by the name of Kristen bought the first samples from a businessman called Kanyis in Arusha township. Kristen went to work tracking down the source, and in early 1970 met a local villager who had found emeralds near Manyara while he was prospecting for mica. Not understanding the value of the green crystals he found, he threw them away, but Kristen later discovered them again.
Soon, a man named Papodopoulos came and set up a full mining operation, with about 30 miners working there and living at a compound nearby. Remains of the Papodopoulos buildings are still found in Manyara today.
It was estimated that for the period between July 1970 and April 1972, the Papodopoulos company managed to produce more than 232 kilograms of fine emerald. They also found larger specimens, up to 10 to 20 grams, of medium to fine quality. Some individual crystals weighed between 20 and 150 grams and were quite clean, the source at the Ministry said.
However, production came to an abrupt halt when Papodopoulos was arrested by the late President Julius Kambarage Nyerere. Rumor has it that Papodopoulos arrogantly boasted that the Tanzanian government was “in his hand,” annoying the president. Officially, the reason for his arrest was that he bought gemstones that were mined illegally.
After Papodopoulos’ arrest, the government nationalized the mines, but there were few attempts to mine the deposit even after the government privatized gemstone mining again.
Today, aside from the single company that has been granted a mining license, there are only two small-scale miners operating at Manyara: Emanuel Pengo and Mohamed Muhusin. They are mining under their prospecting license, which is technically illegal, and, in fact, they were once arrested for it.
“Papodopoulos was left for many years to exploit these emerald [mines], giving low production figures to the government until he was arrested. But we citizens are not allowed to enjoy our natural resources, even if we apply for legal certificates. What kind of people’s government is this?” Pengo complained.
Still, he continues mining, and he keeps finding some emerald, and alexandrite, too. Until a better solution comes along, like many small-scale miners in the region, all he can do is keep digging.
In May 2005, a group of Tanzanian women were allowed to enter the tanzanite mines in Merelani, Tanzania, for the first time.
The women of the Tanzanite Women Miners Development Union (TWMDU) have been lobbying for years to get government permission to mine the way the male miners do. They are already allowed to own mines, and all of them do, but they have been forbidden to enter them because of safetly concerns.
“We have applied to the government so that TWMDU members in Merelani be allowed to enter their mines in Block B for mining and checking production on the spot,” said Dorah Heliel Mushi, the chairperson of TWMDU and the managing director of Domale Mining Co., Ltd.
She emphasized that the mining privileges apply to the trained members of the TWMDU; not just any woman.
The TWMDU was put in place in Merelani in mid-2004 by 15 women; it has since grown to 40 members. According to TWMDU members, the organization was created to replace the Tanzania Women Miners Association (TAWOMA), which was producing few results. Although the TWMDU members will continue with their TAWOMA membership, they do not rely on it to empower women miners in Tanzania to get out of poverty, according to Merelani mine dispute committee Chairperson Stella Shayo.
“All of the TWMDU 40 members are active, and every one at least owns one mine in Merelani in either blocks A, B, or D,” said TWMDU treasurer Salome Chami in March 2005.
Chami added that, in order to strengthen their unity as female tanzanite miners, they have purchased a joint tanzanite mining plot in Block B to be used by women as a training tool and for practice in tanzanite mining. The women’s strategy also includes teaching each other how to facet tanzanite in a variety of common shapes.
TWMDU members are taught gem cutting at a gem center located in Merelani township belonging to their chairperson, Dorah Mushi. Mushi’s tanzanite cutting and training center can handle 20 students at a time. Since its inception about one year ago, TWMDU has trained 12 women in gem-cutting techniques, and at press time eight more were continuing their three-month training.
Despite their hard work in competing with male miners, the female miners of Merelani face many obstacles.
“For example, tanzanite women miners in Merelani have cried for mining plots for about six years now, but the Ministry of Minerals and Energy remained quiet,” said Shayo. “To our surprise, very recently the same ministry allocated mining plots to government leaders and rich people while marginalizing us because of being women.”
Members of TWMDU allege that individuals are given mining privilieges based on relationships with government officials, or officials themselves own mining plots and hide the fact under the names of small-scale miners.
Due to the lack of available mining areas, women miners must compete with “take-aways,” or unemployed Wana-Apollo miners, outside privately-owned mines in Blocks A and D. They search for tiny pieces of tanzanite particles in the tailings of the mines there. This can sometimes prove to be dangerous for the women, since many of the take-aways are thought to be thieves, said TWMDU member Yudita Mtu.
Aside from everything else, the TWMDU faces a lack of funds, and is seeking help from worldwide companies in their fight to make a difference in mining in Tanzania. They also hope to attend large gem shows like Tucson to learn more about the gem market and world gem market operations.