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Gem Slaves: Tanzanite's child labour

[Tanzania] Mererani in northern Tanzania is the only place on earth where the precious stone tanzanite is mined. Although the industry is worth $300 million a year, the town's residents live in desperate poverty, with children bearing the heaviest load. E
(IRIN Film)

IVT Wilson Peter, 12 year-old child miner:
“At the mines we sift through sand for gems. Sometimes we find nothing. We get hungry and go home. We go to eat. After we eat we go back into the mine. We work until six, then we go home. At home we rest for a while. After resting we change our clothes. Then we go to fetch water to use in the house. Then we help mother with chores. After dark we go to bed.”

Mererani, Tanzania: the only place on earth where the rare gem tanzanite is found.

Despite the mire of poverty, this town is the source of a 300 million dollar a year industry - yet 30 percent of the 200,000 people who call this place home, survive on less than a dollar a day.

Each year, thousands of people from all over Tanzania rush here in hopes of finding the rare gem.

Most find an endless cycle of poverty.

In this desperate daily battle for survival, children bear the heaviest load.

Three kilometers outside the town, some 30,000 miners work to depths of up to 300 meters without safety regulations, or a daily wage.

Dynamite accidents, collapsing mines and floods have caused hundreds of deaths during the past five years.

Everyday, 4000 child miners between the ages of 8 and 14 risk their lives in poorly constructed mine shafts for barely a meal a day.

Hundreds of independently operated shafts like this one account for roughly 80 percent of Mererani’s annual tanzanite production.

Those miners who can’t find work in the pits are left to pan for tanzanite in a dry riverbed, most struggle for years without earning a cent.

This marketplace is the economic center in Mererani.

Dealers here sell raw, uncut tanzanite to regional brokers, who in turn, cut and polish the blue gem, and sell it on to local and international retailers.

Much of the raw tanzanite sold here is mined by children.

The finished product can look like this, but few people know the story of how it ended up on their finger.

Harry Mushi is the director of the Mererani-based Good Hope Program, set up to rehabilitate child miners and impoverished families.

In his own words, he is fighting a war.

ITV: Harry Mushi, Director of Good Hope Program of Mererani:
“In Mererani we have a story of a boy, named Wilson Peter. He comes from a very needy family. He lives with his parents, and their story is sad. His father broke his foot in a mining accident and can’t work. His mother sells vegetables from a tiny one-roomed hut where they live. The boy is sent to work in the mines by his parents due to the poverty they face.”

ITV: Wilson Peter
Q: Are there dangers in the mines?
“Yes.”
Q: What kinds of danger?
“Chest pains, falling rocks, falling in the mine.”
Q: What do you fear most?
“I could just fall in the mine. You can slip and fall. The mine can collapse on you.
While sifting, you swallow the dust. You can get really hurt.”
Q: Do you think it is okay for kids to work in the mines?
“No, I do not like it. Because they always send you up and down the pit for water, soda, and the digger, yet you’re just a child.”

With the assistance of Good Hope, some children are lucky enough to leave the pits.

Good Hope provides skills training such as carpentry, tailoring and auto mechanics. By doing this, it helps families break the dependence on tanzanite mining.

These former child miners are now receiving training at a local garage.

ITV Muthias, Former child miner:
“Life in the mines was very hard. I would often work for no money and no food. Because of dust and bad air in the pits, I had problems with my chest. I met a mechanic who used to repair vehicles. I pleaded to him for help, because I didn’t want to stay at the mines. After I got this job as a mechanic I left the mine. There are about 50 boys still working in the mine. Once qualified as a mechanic, I want to help kids just like I was helped.”

Just 50 kilometers away from the filth of Mererani, Arusha town demonstrates the global hunger for tanzanite.

Far removed from the wretched world of Wilson Peter and his fellow miners, tourists here can spend between 5,000 and 20,000 dollars a day on the precious stone.

But while a minority of those in the tanzanite business have built a fortune from the gem, Mererani children remain caught in the grip of poverty.

The battle against child labor in this region seems endless.

Grace Banya coordinates the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor from the International Labor Office in Nairobi, Kenya.

Though the organization believes the worst forms of child labor can be eliminated globally in 10 years, high population growth, stifling poverty and the HIV/AIDS epidemic has retarded its fight against child labor in Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of child laborers of any region in the world.

The causes and long-term effects of this reality are painfully bleak.

ITV Grace Banya, Chief Technical Advisor, ILO-IPEC, Kenya
“The Phenomenon of child labor is very much linked with the social-economic environment of – particularly the Sub-Saharan region – the countries in this region. We have seen over the years that the poverty levels have increased; that families cannot be able to take care of their own children.

The families have to be economically empowered to be able to even deal with those children who would slip off and go back into child labor. So, it’s a whole long term [issue] and it needs a lot of resources. But it’s an issue that if it’s not dealt with, it’s going to affect the future human resource of a nation – of a whole continent – because we are getting a generation of children who are missing out totally on education.

The outcome will be that we will have a gap, or a generation of people who are not educated, who don’t have any skills whatsoever to contribute to human development.”

Child miners and their families are not the only ones suffering from this devastating cycle of poverty and child labor.

Like most in Mererani, this mother and daughter came here several years ago seeking a better life. They have yet to find it.

The mother sells food at the mines, but her income from this business alone is not enough to support them. She cannot afford to send her daughter to school and they repeatedly face the threat of eviction from their home.

This dire situation forces many women to subsidize their income through prostitution. Children are also compelled into sex work in order to survive.

This is a common story for many mothers and daughters in this area.

Mothers of Mererani shoulder a special burden as they bear witness to their children’s suffering. School and a normal childhood are beyond their means.

ITV Mama Peter, Wilson Peter’s mother
“We’re not happy that our kids work in the mines, but our problems make it necessary. They give me money to help us survive, and to help me take care of them – some for food, some to continue our business. That’s why we allow them to try their luck in the mines. We do sympathize with them but we have to bear it. Everyone must carry their own burden. We are not happy with our kids working, but look how we live. As you can see we barely get by. Also, we don’t want our family to blame us for neglecting our children.”

Wilson Peter’s mother can rest a bit easier now that her son is benefiting from the Good Hope Program.

Wilson is finally going to school for the first time in 9 months. At last, he has a chance at a normal childhood.

But their crushing poverty means Wilson’s parents will continue to struggle, even to put food on the table.

The Tanzania government is part of an international strategy to eliminate child labor, but organizations like Good Hope only have resources to reach 10 percent of the child mining population.

ITV Harry Mushi
“This is a big challenge to the government. The government does not want kids work in the mines. It is the government’s wish that all kids go to school. But there aren’t enough schools for these kids, so where will they go? The fact is kids still work in the mines. Currently, the number of child miners is increasing. The government has taken notice, and we all need to cooperate to solve this problem.”

ITV Grace Banya
“Children not working is a right, I mean they have to be in school – it’s a right. But who makes sure that right is realized? It’s me and you and everybody. So, a good policy makes making sure that we enforce the policies that are passed, but also that everybody takes full responsibility to ensure that children don’t go into those holes in the mines; that their health is catered for; that they’re in school, and they remain there; that the girls don’t go into prostitution; that they have alternative ways of living, and they’re in school – first and most important that they are in school – because once in school then they have a future, you know, cut for them ahead.”

Despite hopes for a perfect world, the majority of people in Mererani face life without a net; their future seems rooted in statistics of poverty.

The mining life is deeply imbedded in the culture here. There are few options beyond the tanzanite mines, and putting children to work.

A normal education for most children here is still a dream, and there is no end in sight to the desperation.

Wislon Peter has a simple solution for child labor.

Wilson Peter
“If I were president of Tanzania, I wouldn’t allow kids to work in the mines. I would take people who allow kids work in the mines and lock them up.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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