EVER since Mr Jumanne Ngoma stumbled upon shimmering blue crystals in the shadows of Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, tanzanite has become one of the world’s most sought-after gemstones.
Mr Ngoma says: “I found the tanzanite in Mererani, in the area called Kiteto at the beginning of January 1967. I was on my way to visit some of my relatives who live in Kiteto, when walking through the bush I saw some crystals of a blue mineral lying on the ground.
“They were very nice... They were blue, some were transparent... In a few hours I collected about five kilos. They were all very lovely blue crystals.” A lot of water has gone down the river since that time.
Many fortune seekers have, so far, trooped to the area. When Haima Heke (42) heard that small-scale tanzanite miners at Mererani got rich easily and rather quickly he packed his clothes in a goatskin bag and left his home on the slopes of Mt Kwaraa and headed for the mining villages in Simanjiro District, Manyara Region.
This was in 1968. Upon arrival at Mererani, Heke discovered that there were no easy pickings at the mines. He realized that men of various ages and origins slogged it out for a living all day for months on end without getting anything.
And there were the lucky few who got “filthy rich” in no time. Heke, a member of the Fyomi tribe, toiled for intolerably long hours but got more and more demoralized working at an unproductive mining block that belonged to a holder who brooked no nonsense.
There was virtually nothing in the way of monetary gain. For Heke, this amounted to servitude. After slaving for a year in the mines and gaining almost nothing, Heke packed up his goatskin bag and headed back to the slopes of Mt Kwaraa where he reunited with his family.
“Not all miners at Mererani strike it rich. Most miners end up in greater poverty,” he says. However, the stark truth is that the Tanzanian government does not get much from tanzanite sales abroad. No wonder the State has decided to put up a stiff fight.
President John Magufuli has directed Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) to build a wall fence around tanzanite blocks A to D at Mirerani and instal high-tech equipment to monitor mining activities, so the government can earn proper revenue.
President Magufuli has also directed that trading in tanzanite gemstone should now be conducted in Simanjiro only in order to promote trade and development in the area. The President made the remarks recently when opening a 26km tarmac road from Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA) to Mererani built at a cost of 32.5bn/- and funded solely by the government.
He was speaking from Naisinyai village in Manyara Region. Mr Magufuli said the wall fence would ensure the gemstones pass through official channels of trade so that the government can get proper royalties and put a stop to smuggling and illegal trade of tanzanite.
The President assured Tanzanians in Simanjiro that contracts would be reviewed and signed afresh to ensure the government benefits more- so it can bring water and other essential services to people in Simanjiro and Tanzania in general.
He expressed sadness that the gemstone which is not found anywhere else except Tanzania, has benefitted foreign individuals and foreign countries more, while people in Simanjiro do not have basic needs such as clean water and health services.
Mererani tanzanite mines are situated in Simanjiro District, Manyara Region, about 70 kilometres south of the city of Arusha and 16 kilometres south of Kilimanjaro International Airport. The landscape is dominated by dry bush-land and rocky hills.
Lack of water and deforestation is a great problem, especially in the areas surrounding the mining sites. About one third of the Simanjiro population live in Mererani - a multiethnic community composed of people from all over Tanzania and a few from neighbouring countries.
Administratively the settlement is still classified as a village, but the village government is trying to get town status. Tanzanite mining is concentrated on a six-kilometre long belt four kilometres south of the Mererani settlement.
The mining area is divided into four blocks. Small scale mining for other minerals, such as ruby, green garnet, tourmaline and rodlite takes place in 24 of the villages in the district, and open pits are found everywhere, a report commissioned by the World Bank in 2005 says.
In 1990 Simanjiro District was declared an extension area for surplus people from the densely populated Arumeru District. As a result of this policy and the introduction of large scale commercial farming, most of the Maasai have migrated further south.
Tanzanite is a rare deep blue coloured gemstone discovered in Mererani in 1965. At the time, it was hailed as “the new find of the century” by Tiffany’s in New York. Since then, smaller deposits have been found in Norway.
However, the only economically viable deposits are in Mererani. It is estimated that with the current phase of mining, the resources will be exhausted a decade or two from now.
Mining of tanzanite on a commercial scale was started soon after its discovery. The year 1967 saw a virtual mining “rush” to the area. By 1969, sixty claims had been pegged. While official figures show production by 1970 to be 70 kilos only, other estimates suggest that between 200 and 400 kilos were produced annually.
These producers comprised registered and unregistered miners whose number remains unknown. In 1972, the tanzanite mines were nationalized and operating under Tanzania Gemstone Industries (TGI), a subsidiary of the newly formed State Mining Company (STAMICO).
As many other state-run enterprises in the socialist era, TGI had extremely low production, officially only seven kilos annually from their open pit mines.
Theft from the company is said to have been rife. TGI eventually allowed small-scale miners to the site provided they sold their produce to the company. Since TGI had problems paying for the stones, however, most of the production was smuggled out of the country. By 1986, TGI was declared a failure and the site was left vacant.
The result was an invasion by artisanal miners who constructed a network of underground tunnels. Some of which were 60 metres deep. The population of informal miners stood at 30,000 at the time.
The government’s intention, however, was to have private companies take over the site, since they would be easier to control. A major flooding accident in 1998 left at least 200 miners dead. The accident was also among the factors which made the government opt for more large-scale mining.
In 1990, smallscale miners were ordered to move out of the mining area and the site was divided into four sections --Block A, B, C and D. In 1991, Block A was granted to Kilimanjaro Mines (a local businessman); Block B to Building Utilities (a local businessman of European origin); Block C to Grapthan Ltd (a joint company by British Samax Ltd, African Gems Limited and TGI), the World Bank report says. Block D went to small-scale miners through Arusha Region Miners Association (AREMA).
The largest and potentially most productive block was Block C (which covered two square kilometres). The block was estimated to hold twothirds of the world’s known tanzanite. During their first year of operation, Block A and B officially produced only 1.4 and 1.7 kilos respectively and had less than one hundred employees altogether.
The great bulk of activity took place at Block D. Their production in the same year is recorded as 16.4 kilos, from around one hundred operational mines. According to small-scale miners, Grapthan Ltd was not active and the site was therefore once again invaded by artisanal miners in 1995.
Three years later, in 1998, Block C with all its assets was sold to Mererani Mining Limited, a subsidiary of the South African owned company African Gem Resources (AFGEM). AFGEM started production in 2001.
AFGEM has been involved in serious conflicts with artisanal miners as well as its former director. Artisanal miners were upset by what they saw as an attempt by AFGEM to monopolize the Tanzanite trade. The conflict also revolved around different conceptions of mining rights and permit definition. The exact number of small-scale miners in Mererani is somewhat unclear.
According to the Zonal Mines Office, there are more than 600 claim holders in the northern zone at the moment. Out of the more than 600 claim holders 200 are active at any given time. Arusha Regional Miners Association (AREMA), on the other hand, operated with 700 mines in Mererani alone.
However, 300 mines have stopped production. A common share system in tanzanite small-scale mining is that the sponsor gets 40 per cent, the claim holder 30 per cent, the person owning the compressor 20 per cent, and the workers as a group 10 per cent.