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Tanzanite thieves must be stopped

Tanzanite thieves must be stopped

CONSTRUCTION of a concrete wall to hem in the tanzanite mining blocks at Mirerani in Simanjiro district is complete. It is hats off to the National Service building brigade which has accomplished the job two months ahead of the appointed time.

What remains to be done now is the installation of surveillance cameras and other electronic devices that will dot the 25-kilometre wall. The wall has only one gate that will serve as the entry and exit point. This will help control potential smugglers and thieves.

But this is not enough. Mineral thieves are cunning elements who could use loaded fly-bynight drones or even dig tunnels beneath the wall to accomplish their escapees. In fact, there are dozens of modern-day gimmicks that dishonest miners can use to evade taxation.

President John Magufuli directed Tanzania People’s Defence Forces (TPDF) to build the wall around tanzanite blocks A to D at Mirerani and install hightech equipment to monitor mining activities, so the government can earn proper revenue in terms of royalties.

The president also directed that trading in tanzanite gemstones should now be conducted in Simanjiro only in order to promote trade and development in the area. It is imperative that this presidential order is heeded once all the security devices are in place.

Recent reports indicate that tanzanite gemstones worth nearly 700 billion/- are smuggled out of the country annually through illegal means with the lot ending up in the neighbouring country of Kenya and to as far afield as India and South Africa.

While Kenya handles Tanzanite Minerals valued at 100m US dollars annually and India documents the blue gemstones worth 300m dollars, it is surprising that Tanzania, the source of the gemstones, earns a miserable 38m dollars worth of tanzanite a year.

This is incredible. It is apparent that most of the tanzanite mined at Mirerani is shunted out of the country tax free. The produce does not benefit Tanzanians -- not even the residents of Simanjiro who actually own the minerals.

This is a laughable affair. 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 Mirelani, Arusha, 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 Mirerani 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 Mirerani, Heke discovered that there were no easy pickings at the mines. He realised 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 people, toiled for intolerably long hours but got more and more demoralised 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 Mirerani 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.

Mirerani 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 Mirerani - a multi-ethnic 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 Mirerani 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 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 Mirerani 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 Mirerani. 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.

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