Tanzania, Tsavorite mining trip

My  trip to Tanzania to visit Tsavorite mines started in Dar es Salam and with a visit to the Ministry for Energy and Minerals.  The purpose of the visit was two-fold. As this was my first trip to Tanzania I needed to find out about the process of buying and exporting gemstones for foreign buyers. I also wanted information about getting to the mines themselves.  The process for foreign buyers is different in every country and its important to make sure you stick to the rules.  The gemstone trade in Tanzania is well established and the process for exporting stones bought in the country is too.   It involves purchasing from a licensed miner or dealer and then getting the stones sealed in a parcel for export via the ministry at a cost of $200.  This information is available on-line, however in the weeks preceding my visit it was unavailable, plus, its always good to hear these things first hand and you are able to clarify anything that isn’t clear.

As I was on my own in Dar and the hostel was empty I took to a new app called showaround.com which connects travelers to locals and hired John who helped me get around the city.

One of the things I learned at the MoME in Dar es Salam was that I didn’t really need to be there. The process for exporting stones stipulates that the sealing of your package is done by the local branch of the MoME, in the region that you bought the stones, and that they were best placed to advise me on visiting mines in that area.  Helpfully, the official I spoke to gave me the contact details for the people in charge of the areas I was intent on visiting.  With this information I was ready to leave Dar es Salam for my first destination, Arusha.

 

Tanzanian ministry of energy and minerals
The Ministry of Energy and Minerals, Dar es Salam

 

The bus from Dar es Salam to Arusha takes approximately 12 hours, and leaves Dar early in the morning.  It takes you north and then west to Arusha via Moshi and into Tanzania’s mountainous north.   I got the Kilimanjaro express which is one of the higher end bus services on that route.  Sadly, my place on the ‘deluxe bus’ had been double booked, so I had to wait another hour or so before the normal bus arrived.  Although long, the bus journey is interesting for first time riders as it takes you out of the city and through rural Tanzania, stopping on the way for toilet break’s and for lunch.  The ‘normal bus’ is very comfortable, with refreshments handed out at various points along the way and entertainment in the form of music videos and Tanzanian films, which tend to be about witchcraft.  A ticket on the normal bus costs TZS33,000 which is about £12.00

 

Kilimanjaro express bus station
Kilimanjaro express bus station

I arrived in Arusha at around 10PM on a Wednesday evening and quickly checked into a backpackers hotel, ready to get on the gem trail the next morning. Thankfully, Arusha is noticeably cooler than Dar es Salam, especially at night.

Arusha is the center of the gemstone trade in Tanzania, being situation close to the worlds only Tanzanite deposit and in an area that also has Tsavorite, Ruby and other minerals.  It is home to the annual Arusha Gem Show which attracts buyers from all over the world.  The town is home to many dealers and cutters, and it is to Arusha that miners from all over Tanzania come to sell the stones they find.  You can also find stones from the DRC and imported stones from gemstone trading centers like Thailand and Hong Kong.

In the morning, I headed into the town center with a list of names of dealers I had re-searched online and with the address of the local branch for the Ministry of energy and minerals.

Whilst sitting in a shady spot, topping up my phone, I met a guy who it turns out I would spend a good portion of the next 3 weeks with.  Ramma is a Maasai and has been in Arusha for 7 months having previously lived his entire life in his village and speaks no English.  I, despite some effort, speak very little Swahili but with the help of several bi-lingual Tanzanians on the street we managed to get along very well.  Having met on the street, Ramma accompanied me to the Ministry of Energy and Minerals as well as around some dealers, some of which I had planned to go to and some of which were contacts of Ramma’s.  One thing you are not short of in Arusha is company.  With the town being one of the starting points for the ‘Northern circuit’ of Safaris, there is the usual assortment of souvenir and art sellers, as well as beggars and hangers on that you will find in any tourist destination.  Having Ramma around, he was able to explain that I was not a tourist and usher away the more persistent of these characters, as well as chat to locals in the stone business who were able to take me to meet more dealers.  Over the course of the next 3 weeks Ramma was to serve as guide, minder, photographer, chief negotiator and friend.

At the ministry I met the Minister responsible for the northern zone and told him my plans, that I would like to see the mines and that I was looking to export stones.  I was then talked through the process for exporting stones and told that any mine I visited needed to be registered and that certain mining areas, specifically those for Tanzanite, required foreigners to pay $50 to enter.

 

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Ramma

North zone mine office Arusha tanzania gem hunting trip
The Ministry of energy and minerals mines divisions, Northern Zonal mines Office
Ministry of energy and minerals arusha
The Ministry of Energy and minerals, Arusha

Having got these formalities out of the way and feeling confident about the processes for exporting stones I set out into town and arranged a visit to a Tsavorite mine for the next day.

The mining claim belongs to a liscenced Tanzanian gemstone dealer called Saidi, whose family have been in the gemstone trade for generations and have an office in Arusha.  In the office we saw rough stones including Tsavorite, Tourmaline and a huge piece of Obsidian (volcanic glass) while we arranged the visit to the mine.

We set off early in the morning the next day.  The mine is close to the town of Merarani and the journey from Arusha was about 2 hours by car, taking us through Maasai villages, bush and semi desert areas.

Map of Tanzania
Map of Tanzania
Mererani
Mererani on the map

 

In Merarani we stopped briefly to check out the stone market there. This is where miners from the surrounding area bring their stones to sell to dealers.  The dealers then take the stones either to Arusha, to sell to dealers, or sell to visiting buyers in Merarani.  Being close to the worlds only source of Tanzanite, thats what most of the the dealers in Merarani sell and what I think most people come here to buy.   I was greeted with calls of ‘Tanzanite, Tanzanite’ upon arriving and was quickly surrounded by Maasai guys showing me blue and brownish rough Tanzanite stones but it was Tsavorite I wanted to see. We managed to find a table with Tsavorite, better known by the locals as green garnet.  Its here, with the dealer, on the street, that the rough stones begin to be processed and fashioned into finished gemstones.  A process known as ‘cobbing’, performed with pliers and nail clippers, removes unwanted included and cracked material from the stone leaving a clear  area that it is hoped will be suitable for cutting and will yield a faceted stone.  After cobbing the material is sorted roughly into colour grades ready for buyers.  Rough stones like these are sold per gram as opposed to finished gemstones which are priced per carat. 1g=5ct.

 

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Ramma with a large piece of Obsidian
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Obsidian, Volcanic glass
outside Arusha
Chinese workmen clearing trees on the banks of a small stream outside Arusha

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water stop
Stopping off to buy bottled water

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The streets of Merarani
The streets of Merarani
Merarani main street
The main road through Merarani
Tsavorite dealer in merarani
A Tsavorite dealer in Merarani with rough Tsavorites being ‘cobbed’ and sorted

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Entrance to the tanzanite mining area
The entrance to the Tanzanite mining area, $50 entrance for foreigners

 

Arriving at the Tsavorite mine

After a bumpy ride from Merarani through the bush and a large and relatively developed Maasai village we arrive at a clearing and the mine.  At present, the mine is an exploratory shaft with two entrances and which goes down about 30m, dug entirely by hand.  At the mine there are a couple of tents where the miners stay for 2/3 months at a time while they work.  Saidi and his team have been working this site for a year and have found Tsavorite indicators Calcite and Pyrite.  They are hopeful of finding good Tsavorites but progress has been slowed by a lack of money, a problem which is faced by many local miners.  Without the funds to buy a compressor and other equipment Saidi and his team have been blasting and removing the material entirely by hand, having to wait for hours after blasting for the air to clear enough for them to go back down.  Even then, it is still very dusty and with just a t-shirt wrapped around their nose and mouth, uncomfortable for the miners.  Almost all Tanzanian miners are looking for sponsors who help to fund their operations in return for a share of the mines production.  As a foreign visitor to the mine I was asked weather I would like to sponsor the operation and was offered a 40:60 split of the production.  Its a times like this when you begin to piece together why countries with such mineral wealth as Tanzania remain so poor, when mine owners are prepared to begin negotiations at 40%.  Investors are cautious, with exploratory mines proving too speculative for many and Saidi and his family are unlikely to find a sponsor until they can demonstrate a good, gem quality Tsavorite deposit.  Funding the operation until that point is going to be down to them, with condition likely to remain basic. (I sadly don’t have the $15,000 or so that they require)

After arriving at the site, I was keen to get down the mine and see for myself how Tsavorite is mined.  I will admit, I was scared when seeing the entrance to the mine.  Although this is a fully licensed mine there is no provision for health and safety and the mine is very much just a hole in the ground, with minimal supports.  Having spent the last 2 years going on about fair-trade jewellery and having made it all the way to Tanzania and now to a mine, there’s no way I wasn’t going down.  As nervous as I was, its worth remembering that these guys do this everyday and can spend hours underground at a time.  Without the work these guys do we simply wouldn’t have the precious stones and metal that we use in fine jewellery.  Fine jewellers are utterly reliant on miners like these for their supply of materials a fact seems lost on many who dismiss initiatives like Fair trade and Fairmined or any attempt to improve transparency and fairness within the jewellery supply chain.

Again, these conditions are down too money, with investment the mine can be made safer and better equipment provided for workers.  In chatting to miners, I heard that mines owned by Chinese investors, often vilified in the west, make the best provisions for health and safety with helmets and other basic health and safety provision being made.

Coming face to face with the realities of small scale mining has made me all the more determined to help improve things.  Fair-trade and Fairmined gold have started the process with gold and shown that in the face of doubt and opposition it is possible make positive changes in the jewellery industry.  It takes effort and money but is worth it in my opinion.

 

 

 

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Semi desert area near the Tsavorite mine
Maasai village
Well developed Maasai village near to the Tsavorite mine

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In this clearing where the mine is located
Clearing where the mine is located
entrance to the Tsavorite mine
Mine owner Saidi and one of the entrances to the mine
new career in tsavorite mining
Ramma contemplating a new career in Tsavorite mining
Second entrance to the Tsavorite mine
Saidi’s brother Mohammad and the second entrance to the mine

 

The mine winds its way about 30metres underground following the vein of rock that was discovered on the surface.  After the first few feet you’re in total darkness and totally reliant on torches and lights from phones and camera’s.  In places the mine is reasonably flat and you can sit or even stand comfortably and in others there’s sheer drops which need to be negotiated carefully.  As it stands there’s no rope, as in many mines, to haul yourself up and I was glad a have a little bouldering experience to call upon.    Towards the bottom of the shaft there is a void where Saidi and his team had been following a vein and then stopped, which is now a handy place to store the material that has just been blasted before taking it up to the top, it is also home to some bats, which as you can see from the video, I wasn’t expecting.#

 

 

At the bottom of the shaft we spent about an hour as Saidi, his brother Mohammad and one of the miners from their team showed me the rock vein they were following and answered my questions.  Here at the rock face you can see where they were drilling holes for the explosives.   As you can hear in the video, the guys are speaking in English which is not their first language and I think a little gets lost in translation. As nice as it would be  to think they were sitting on a deposit capable of producing 2000ct’s a month, I think its unlikely.

After blasting, material is loaded into sacks and then taken by hand to the surface where it is inspected for signs of Tsavorite or Tsavortie indicators.  The newly exposed rock face is then inspected and any interesting areas are are chipped away at slowly and carefully by hand using a hammer and chisel.

underground tsavorite mining
Mohammad chippping away at the rock
tsavorite indicators
Rocks of interest sorted from newly blasted material. Pyrite and calcite are indicators of Tsavorites
At the bottom of the Tsavorite mine
Mine owner Saidi (in red) and his brother Mohammad at the bottom of the mine
rock vein in tsavorite mine
Rock vein with unidentified green stone

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At the bottom of the tsavorite mine
The view looking up from the bottom of the mine
tunnel
An abandoned tunnel used for storing blasted material

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Mine selfie
A hot and sweaty mine selfie

After about an hour down the mine we went back up to the top as some of the miners were preparing the explosives for blasting.  After about 20 minutes they re-appeared and we were ready to blast. Using a long drill, holes are made in the rock and then stuffed with explosives.  A lead is ran from the explosives to the entrance of the mine and then detonated. Being 30 meteres underground and totally encased in rock the sound from the blast is heavily muffled from the surface, but you can feel the vibrations go through your body.  Because of limited funds Saidi is only blasting 1m at a time, but with backing 3/4m worth of material can be blasted at any one time, maybe more.  Being without a compressor means we had to wait a couple of hours to go down ( I later found out most people leave it much longer, sometimes even with a compressor) and it was time for lunch and to explore the area around the mine, as well as visiting another nearby mining claim.

At this other claim, not 200 metres away , they have found Tsavorite and chrome tourmaline although production has again been slowed by lack of money.  These stones being found close by is a good sign for Saidi and his team.  We also encountered some young Maasai heardsmen with their goats and cows as we took some time to enjoy the view from the top of a small hill.  This and many other mines are in Maasai areas, and as well as buying the permit from the MoEM many miners also have arrangements with the local Maasai chief for access to their claim.  As one mine owner said to me, the Maasai like to sell stones but don’t like to mine them.  Understandable, but this creates another level of middle men adding no value to the product that make it harder for small scale miners.  Many Maasai have become wealthy from the stones found on their land and the village you pass through on the way to this mine, with 4×4’s and brick build houses with solar panel is testament to this.

In some areas disputes between the Maasai and prospectors and miners have lead to gun battles although this is thankfully rare.

lunch at the tsavorite mine
Lunch

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After a couple of hours we ventured back down the mine and as you can see from the photos the air was still full of dust and debris.  The dust reduced visibility and also made breathing less comfortable.  Using just t-shirts to cover their mouths you can imagine the miners inhale plenty of dust while excavating the newly blasted material.  At this stage of the day the priority is getting the newly balsted material back to the surface to inspect,  its still too dusty to inspect the newly exposed rock so its best to clear the debris and wait overnight for the dust to settle and then inspect the new face the next day.

 

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tsavorite
Poor quality tsavorite found at a nearby mine

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blasting tsavorite mine
removing material 2 hours after blasting

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This was my first experience of small scale, closed shaft mining and I would like to thank Saidi and his team for making me feel not only safe but as an honoured and welcome guest at their mine and for answering all my questions.  As it stands Saidi and his team are still looking for a sponsor, if this interests you then please get in touch and I can pass on your details to Saidi.

2 thoughts on “Tanzania, Tsavorite mining trip

  1. What a fascinating read – thanks for bringing it all to life so vividly. Having been down a Fairtrade gold mine in Kenya recently, I believe it is so important we don’t lose sight of what it actually takes to provide the gems and gold we love to wear.

    1. Thank you, I also visited a gold mine on my trip to Tanzania and sadly saw the not so fair trade side of things, child labor and horrible conditions, which I will be writing about soon. I agree, its vital not to loose sight of what it actually takes to make our products and continue to try and improve conditions.

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