c John Louis

Gold Rush: Striking inequality in rural Tanzania

The United Republic of Tanzania is one of the largest producers of gold in Africa. Small-scale mining is responsible for a sizable percentage of all exports, but with a distinct lack of regulation in this sector communities are exposed to exploitation, dangerous working conditions and further marginalisation.

Mining in Tanzania is a booming industry accounting for approximately 5% of gross domestic product and a third of all exports. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that small-scale miners are responsible for around 10% of all gold produced, with their numbers ranging from between 500,000 to 1.5 million. The scale and productivity of this industry can construct the illusion that the increase in revenue and employment has an entirely positive impact on the country. What is hidden below the surface is a structure that greatly benefits the rich whilst holding the poor in a state of steady poverty.

Small-scale or ‘artisan’ mining refers to the extraction and processing of precious minerals through basic, low-cost and labour intensive techniques. Its origins can be traced to the Mining Act of 1979 in which searching for and mining minerals was legalised with the provision of a simple permit. This policy was supported during the 1980s when the Government liberalised the production of gold by alleviating State control and encouraging citizens to partake in artisan mining. A further formalisation was achieved through the Mining Act of 1998, which aimed to establish stricter permitting rules and basic environmental and safety standards for small-scale miners.

However, a walk through any of Tanzania’s small-scale mining towns will quickly demonstrate that this policy has been long forgotten. It is common for miners to work 24 hour shifts of backbreaking labour, using nothing but hand tools to crack the solid rock beneath them. They will plunge time and again into the inky darkness of an unstable pit and an uncertain future. Drug and alcohol abuse is also rife as the chosen method to ease the gruelling workload and blunt the awareness of danger. The air is thick with dust and toxic mercury particles created as part of the production process; it is unsurprising that disease, illness and serious accidents are frequent for the miners.

In a small mining town typical to Tanzania’s central regions, 21 year old David begins the daily ritual of securing a rope to his waist; the only lifeline as he descends into the shaft. “I wanted to improve my income level, and since there was no other way I began mining. There was no other employment apart from coming to work at the mine. Life has still not improved for me. I would like to do anything other than work here that would give me income,” said David.

This air of hopelessness is shared by many of David’s colleagues in explaining what attracted them to the mine. It is often a simple lack of options deriving from no job prospects and poor access to education that drives people into the industry. Life as an artisan miner will then mean working in perilous and unhealthy conditions every day with no safety equipment or regulation, consequently creating an unsettling atmosphere which nurtures a lifestyle of substance abuse.

John, another of Tanzania’s small-scale miners describes what leads so many workers to participate in risky behaviour. “The lifestyle of the small miners is hard. I drink and use drugs as I want to forget all the bad problems, especially when I get in the hole. I don’t have to think about the bad things that can happen when I am down there.”

The life threatening conditions that the artisan miners face are magnified by the exploitation enforced by a structure that leaves them powerless. Typically the miners work on a plot of land controlled by a local director and financed by an exterior investor. The wage or percentage of gold that the miners receive is entirely controlled by these two parties, resulting in a dangerous level of power which often results in drastically low rates, deception, and months on end with no pay.

As 28 year old Emmanuel grinds lumps of rock into a fine powder as part of the lengthy gold extraction process, he describes the vulnerable position in which the miners are held.

“In most cases the director takes the money, but does not give back the money he has promised us. The directors have many excuses not to pay us properly, they can blame it on the exchange rate, or lie about the amount of gold. I feel that the wage is not fair, and I am not happy. The wage does not even cover a quarter of what I need for myself.”

If a tentative wage is not cause enough for concern, then the constant fear of being expelled from their work site is another problem for the miners. This is because many of the workers are allowed to operate independently if they pay a certain percentage of their revenue to the owners. However, they will often be moved on without warning when it is no longer useful for them to be there.

“The investor will wait until the hole starts to get deep, and gold can be found, and then comes and claims the land back. The investor is very smart, he can find many ways to get you out. This makes me feel very bad, as I have no other source of income. I feel like there is nothing I can do as they are more powerful than us,” said David.

This is a sinister example of a technique employed by the mines directors, allowing the independent workers to tirelessly dig to identify gold, before they are finally removed when it is more profitable for the owners to take over.

The artisan miners are subject to a lack of empowerment which results in a profound violation of their rights. The level of hierarchy is authoritarian, detached and unchecked, therefore suppressing the voice of the miners and rendering them powerless.

“I feel like we are being exploited, first because of the level of education we have, and secondly because most of the directors are rich and most of us are too scared to talk to them, even about our rights. The reason we cannot talk is because of the way we are treated, from the beginning we feel like it is not our place to say anything,” said Emmanuel.

Local communities greatly feel the impact of exploitation as a large percentage of the residents are often reliant on mining as a source of income. This then leaves an entire population dependent on an industry that cannot provide for their basic needs and offers no further opportunity. It is also not uncommon for mine investors to have a very poor relationship with the local community, and to demonstrate no interest in providing investment for the development of the area they operate within.

Christopher is a leader of a village located nearby a small-scale mining settlement, a ward with zero access to water despite the plentiful supply pumped by the mine only a few kilometres away.

“The investors are meant to donate something to the community, although the investors here do not invest anything. There is a disorganisation from the top down, the Government does not do what they should to make sure the investors give something back to the community,” said Christopher.

It is exactly this lack of Government regulation that has led to the exploitation of the artisan miners. After the Mining Act of 1998, medium and large sized mining was prioritised as it provided the bulk of production. This meant that the small-scale miners were encouraged to participate in a free-trade movement which aimed to increase individual and state wealth, but they were then left behind as they fell into an unequal system that the Government has been unable to monitor.

An immense amount of capital is generated by the mining industry, but an unfair structure established by the unchecked power of its private owners constitutes a vastly unequal distribution of wealth. Income will not trickle-down to the most poor and marginalised people in society if their civil rights are actively denied. The Tanzanian Government must therefore put a renewed focus on enforcing policy and regulating the small-scale mining industry. It is vital that the voices of the artisan miners are heard as the country continues to move towards a bright and poverty free future.

Tony J Spence


Tony is a graduate of International Relations and Philosophy from Nottingham Trent University. He holds a particular interest in social and cultural development issues, and has worked across the sustainable development and humanitarian sectors.

3 comments on “Gold Rush: Striking inequality in rural Tanzania

  1. It is such a critical analysis of what is happening to small miners in many mines that are scattered all around the impoverished Tanzania. Mining Industry accounts to 3.5 of national GDP and Gold accounts to 94 percent of Tanzania mineral export and for that reason we can arguably say that among the 3.5 percent that mining contributes to Tanzania GDP, more than 3 percent comes from Gold exports. This sector has not been recently introduces,it has been here for the past decades, but the very same challenges that the miners started to face in 1980’s are the very same that the contemporary Tanzanians small miners are facing, the government have been deaf and blind ,it neither see nor hear. And this is incidents of small miners to be deprived even of their rights openly by investors is not something occasional, it is something that have been here since ages and I am still wide awake to see when the government will wake up from a deep sleep and start acting accordingly.

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