HOLWERD, The Netherlands – Some African leaders — including the besainted Nobel Peace Laureate Nelson Mandela — are apparently still closing their eyes to the New African Slavery markets — namely the ones at the coltan mud mines of the eastern Congo and the informal tanzanite gemstone mines near Arusha, below the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro inTanzania.
Coltan is fuelling Congo’s civil war, the UN recently warned that this black eastern Congolese mud — ($80 per kilo, refined into tantalum for cellphones and laptops) — had already created a new African slave trade. However the UN did not mention the thousands of child slaves lowered into impromptu mineshafts to claw out the exquisite tanzanite gemstone of Tanzania.
A scathing report this spring to the United Nations Security Council said that coltan ‘s illegal mine earnings perpetuates Congo’s civil war — which was “mainly about access, control and trade” of minerals, the most important being coltan. The one thing that unites the warring parties, according to the report, is a keen interest in making money off coltan.
The Sunday Times reported (August 12, 2001) that coltan mud is so important to the Western world that the wireless world would grind to a halt without it: refined in American and European factories into tantalum, a superb conductor of electricity, highly resistant to heat. Tantalum powder is a vital ingredient in the manufacture of capacitors, the electronic components that control the flow of current inside miniature circuit boards. Capacitors made of tantalum can be found inside almost every laptop, pager, personal digital assistant and cell phones.
A coltan miner can produce a kilogram of mud sludge a day. Earlier this year, that was worth $80 — a remarkable bounty in a region where most people live on 20 cents a day.
Late last year, exploding demand for tantalum powder created a temporary worldwide shortage, which contributed to Sony’s difficulties in getting its new PlayStation 2 into American stores, as well as to a tenfold price increase on the world tantalum market.
Thousands of Congolese walked into the Ituri forest hoping to get rich quick. It also created a new slavery market at the mining camps, the New York Times reported.
The Congo is a nation in name only. The World Health Organization recently estimated that the monthly toll of “avoidable deaths” in Congo was 72,800.
And the world’s permanent love-affair with exquisite gemstones has also created another new African slave trade. And many of these slaves are small children, clawing out tanzanite gemstone ore from hastily dug, unsupported, 300-metre deep mineshafts with their bare hands.
In the dirt-poor East-African country of Tanzania , this new African slavery market has been allowed to blossom without any government intervention – although a Marxist dictatorship has been in place in Tanzania for many years and in fact often is praised for its benign leadership and its international peace keeping efforts.
Arusha in Tanzania has thus also become the home base for Nelson Mandela, from which to conduct his Congo peace brokering efforts from.
A South African journalist from the Afrikaans-language Beeld newspaper in Johannesburg in August this year visited Arusha’s legal mining operation — Afgem — a highly-skilled South African company, licensed by the Tanzanian government.
Afgem invested $20-million in its hi-tech, legally-licensed and safe mining operation. The Tanzanite gemstones from this mine – to the tune of about $18-million annually — are cut, polished and professionally laser-marked primarily for the American gem market, where the demand for the gem’s truly unique beauty far outstrips market availability. It sells for at least $8000 per carat in New York — often more.
Afgem also reported the considerable troubles they were having with their desperate neighbours: more than 40,000 people packed into a huge, squalid shanty-settlement, many refugees from African wars, living in disease-ridden poverty, who sell their daily ore to the owners of the territory: the Masai pastoral tribalists.
The tribesmen sell the informal miners’ ore to Arusha’s gem dealers — who smuggle these “blood-tanzanites” primarily to the United States, to the tune of $300-million annually. These illegal gems are mined by these desperately hungry African refugees and thousands of their children — and when the monsoon rains come, these “miners” even have been reported to have drowned inside their incredibly unsafe mine shafts. Estimates of such deaths range from 100 to 200 deaths, and many of these “miners” were children.
Because of its uniqueness and truly exquisite blue-purple bronze glow, tanzanite quickly became one of the most sought-after gemstones in the world when it was first discovered by the Masai 24 years ago.
The Beeld journalist visiting the diggings in August this year, saw a great many child slaves digging away. He didn’t call them slaves, but that’s what they were: the children are lowered into the holes which unskilled informal miners dig often only with picks and shovels. They dig horridly dangerous, unsupported holes — many as deep as 300 meters — into which thousands of small children are lowered to dig out the ore. The little ones fit into the dangerous, unsupported shafts so much easier. For their troubles, they might get $2 a month, often paid in a daily meal, according to a trade unionist and a child welfare spokesman of the Tanzanian government, interviewed by the journalist. These children don’t go to school, there are neither Tanzanian government schools nor health clinics for them — in spite of rampant Aids and TB, and desperate malnutrition among all these refugees, which lead to widespread prostitution and spreads Aids into the Tanzanian population.
The Beeld journalist reported the deep concern felt by the South Africans at the Afgem mining operation next door about these terrible conditions — but it also became clear that Afgem is not only being blamed for their own plight by the informal miners next door — Afgem also cannot intervene by trying to improve the social conditions, or even provide engineering advice, as this would undoubtedly be interpreted as criticising the internal affairs of another country: Tanzania.
What is most puzzling, is that the Tanzanian government also seems totally incapable of stopping the ongoing child labour and even the reported enslavement of small children who are forced to work in these impromptu and highly dangerous mineshafts, dug by inexperienced miners.
Amnesty International in The Netherlands (K.Henrard@rechten.rug.nl Amnesty International Africa Desk The Netherlands) this week was formally asked (by me) to probe these mining conditions at the informal tanzanite mines of Arusha — and which conditions are identical to those still found in Angola’s illegal diamond diggings today, and also in the Congo. The infamous Blood Diamond trade also flourished for years under these conditions, also causing the tragedy at its export harbor of Sierra Leone. (which has no diamonds of its own, but exports them). Along this entire route, the Blood diamond trade funded and fuelled years of vicious “warlord” warfare, atrocities by “rebel child soldiers”, years of terrible bloodshed and slavery — and the most horrifying genocides the world had indeed witnessed in front of its TV cameras, such as at Rwanda. Until recently, the world seemed helpless to stop this Blood diamond trade until the British government stepped in and intervened in Sierra Leone.
I asked Amnesty International to prevail upon the Tanzanian government to step in and improve the sociological conditions of the informal miners — to improve the sociological conditions, to set up teaching facilities for the miners — perhaps with the expertise of the South African mining experts of Afgem next door — in which these informal mineworkers working legal Tanzanite claims, could be shown how to mine safely, and also be provided proper materials and legal sales outlets to thus offer their gems under free-market conditions.
I urged Amnesty International to ask the Tanzanian government to set up government schools and health facilities for these refugees and immediately stop the child slavery.
Many of these people are from other African regions — and as refugees they should also be helped by the International Red Cross and the UN-Foodaid agencies.
Twice in the past four years, terrible storms had many of these “miners” — 90% were small children and sub-teens — flee into these hell-holes where several hundreds reportedly drowned when they were flooded.
The Afgem personnel report that the informal mine shafts are death traps, yet children are sent into them with impunity even today.
The informal miners are clearly blaming Afgem for their terrible plight, judging by their actions against this South African mining compound and referring to their “apartheid-era” background — but it’s the Tanzanian government which should be taking the direct responsibility. They sold the informal mining claims next to Afgem — and the Tanzanian government should accept the responsibility for conditions there.
Tanzanian government cites “low labor costs” as an investment advantage:
The Tanzanian government this month launched a major charm offensive in Washington DC (see: http://www.washtimes.com/world/20010906-75538548.htm) to draw new investors, citing the country’s “low labour costs” as one of the inducements for new investments in the dirt-poor Marxist-run African country.
And I also wonder why Nobel Peace Laureate Nelson Mandela — who visits Arusha frequently in his attempts to broker a peace in the Congo — could also not probe the informal tanzanite mines and let us know what he thinks about this new form of African Slavery? Let’s hope that Mandela will not merely cite that permanent African mantra — and once again blame this new African slavery on “poverty, multinational companies, greedy Western capitalists” — or even that biggest African bugbear of all, namely “apartheid”?
Isn’t it high time that all African leaders — and starting with Tanzania’s — also start accepting their own responsibilities for this terrifying new African Slave trade inside their own countries?
Adriana Stuijt is a retired SA medical journalist firstname.lastname@example.org