Gold Mining and Environmental Degradation in Tanzania

A NextGen Blog by Jacqueline Jobin, University of Minnesota.

Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG post focuses on East Africa’s Mara River Basin. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed and hydrology education with internships and blog opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series hosts student essays; sponsors a forum for its high school senior, college and grad contributors; and invites proposals from new students to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Jacqueline Jobin is an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota studying Environmental Science, Policy, and Management with a minor in Corporate Environmental Management. Read her earlier NWNL Blog posts Menaces of the Mau Forest, The Plastic Watershed, and Straining the Mara River.

Gold can be seen everywhere, yet it is often enjoyed without regard for the environmental impacts of its production and extraction. Gold mining can lead to soil and water contamination, endangering local communities and their water resources. Just miles from Tanzania’s lower stretch of the Mara River lies the North Mara Gold Mine. This unlikely demolition zone is in the Tarime District, between Lake Victoria and Serengeti National Park, full of wide range of iconic species and thus a World Heritage Site. Since the late 1800’s, continuous mining for gold in this region has polluted tributaries to the Mara River. This critical freshwater resource already faces threats from deforestation, damming and extreme weather patterns, including climate change-induced droughts and floods.

The Mara River Estuary, before entering Lake Victoria at Musoma, Tanzania

The North Mara Gold Mine in Tanzania is located in an area with a rich history of local artisanal mining, as well as foreign investors interested in mass gold extraction. In 2006, London-owned Acacia Mining purchased North Mara, and has since produced over two million ounces of gold, at a net worth of $2.6 billion. This gold mine is one of three gold-exploration mines in Tanzania currently posing extreme threats to the local community members and ecosystems.[mfn]Mugini, Jacob[/mfn]

The North Mara Gold Mine has become a place of intense scrutiny by both neighboring communities and the Tanzania government. The Kuria People (a local Indigenous population) have traditionally relied on artisanal mining to stimulate their economy. But as Acacia Mining moved into the area, these Indigenous communities were evicted and forced to stop mining practices. This displacement led to a loss of income for hundreds who eventually began trespassing into North Mara Gold Mine property to search for gold among piles of tailings. With accusations of rape and murder of these trespassers by mine guards, North Mara Gold Mine has become known as a place of intense violence to the local community. According to Tanzanian politicians, over 300 people are claimed to have died at the site.[mfn]Watts, Jonathan[/mfn]

The North Mara Gold Mine also poses several environmental threats to the Kuria community as mining waste enters the Tigithe River, a Tanzanian tributary to the Mara River and important local water resource to over 70,000 people. Any sort of metal or toxic waste buried at the mining site can easily seep into local soil and water.[mfn]Mohamed, Najat[/mfn] A study conducted in 2012 found arsenic levels in the local aquifers to be much higher than recommended levels from the World Health Organization. The arsenic pollution was traced to a dilapidated dam reservoir built for gold tailings. In 2012, the environmental minister of Tanzania also claimed the reservoir had been contaminating water resources for over 10 years. High arsenic in local water sources has dangerous consequences for the local community including skin rashes, miscarriages and cervical cancer. Tanzanian lawyer and Member of Parliament, Tundu Lissu said, “[Gold mining contamination] has been going on in Tanzania for years…. People live side by side with the piles of waste from the mine; and that is completely illegal in Tanzanian law.”[mfn]Watts, Jonathan[/mfn]

The location of North Mara Gold Mine is especially troubling to environmental scientists currently studying its effects on the Mara River. Its Tigithe River tributary is located just below the mine’s two open pits. Thus, not only is the Tigithe itself affected by the mine’s waste leakage, but it also carries mining toxins into the Mara River, a critical resource for tourism, farming and fishing in Tanzania and Kenya. A 2016 study on fish in the Mara River concluded that all species downstream of the North Mara Gold Mine had evidence of increased levels of chromium, copper, nickel and selenium – dangerous metals that threaten the entire food chain.[mfn]Mohamed, Najat[/mfn]

 “When they finish the gold and go, maybe peace will return to North Mara Gold Mine. Once they finish the gold, they will go, and they will leave the poison behind and these mountains of waste rock” – Tundu Lissu[mfn]Watts, Jonathan[/mfn]

Musoma farmers carry water by hand from Lake Victoria to irrigate their crops

This mining problem for the Mara River has attracted international attention. Thus many NGO’s, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), are beginning to take action. WWF implemented a mercury retention pond for local artisanal miners near the Mara River. That pond allows local miners to safely wash collected gold deposits of harsh metals and toxins which, if washed in local streams, would make their way to the Mara River.[mfn]Mugini, Jacob[/mfn] WWF has also successfully created a major buffer zone composed of over 3,000 trees to filter water resources before they enter the Mara River.[mfn]WWF[/mfn]

Gold mining can create major problems for our freshwater resources. The North Mara Gold Mine is not an isolated incident, but one that continues to cause toxic pollution issues for communities and environments throughout the world. It is through research, storytelling, awareness and respect for local Indigenous communities that real changes and solutions will rise to solve these complex problems. The protection of important waterways like the Tigithe and Mara Rivers is essential for all life in those watersheds. We must all join in to protect our global freshwater resources.

Mohamed, Najat. Impact of North Mara gold mine on the element contents in fish from the river Mara, Tanzania. Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry. Accessed February 27, 2021, by JJ.

Mugini, Jacob.Pond saves Mara River from gold mining pollution. InfoNile, June 2, 2018. Accessed February 27, 2021 by JJ.

Saving the Mara River. WWF, October, 16, 2018. Accessed March 1, 2021, by JJ.

Watts, Jonathan. Murder, rape and claims of contamination at a Tanzanian goldmine. The Guardian, June 18, 2019. Accessed March 1, 2021, by JJ.

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