Last month, with the Open Institute team I had the opportunity to visit the Kasigau mining community in Taita-Taveta county, which is geologically located within the Mozambique belt and is endowed with minerals including industrial minerals and gemstones. Their land is rich with green & yellow tourmaline and green garnet stones. The journey to the mines was a long and tedious one, that led us through a long and dusty rough road. This was my first time visiting any mining site. In my mind, I visualised a lot of machinery at the site, however, this was not the case; instead, it was an open dusty field with mounds of damp tailings, and small makeshift “homes” made out of plastic bags.
A gemstone is a “type of material that is capable of being cut and polished for use in jewellery or other ornamental applications”. They are 5 types of gemstones: mineral, organic, inorganic, rock gems and synthetic, which are further classified into precious or semi-precious stones. The mine in Kasigau is for mineral gemstones.
The Artisanal Small Scale Miners (ASMs) granted the Open Institute team permission to view and picture the mines. Permission because the last time the team was there the miners were very disgruntled and thought the team was working for the person trying to remove them from their land. This time, however, they knew what the teams’ intentions were, which were to capture their voices and grievances.
The mines had very deep man-made trenches, which when on top of them reminded me of the Grand Canyon. Once the miners discover a portion of the land has gemstones they dig through it and form a trench, through the trench they are able to dig into the walls and extract the gemstones. Therefore you are able to see tunnels in the walls of the trenches as seen in the pictures below. I was not able to enter the trenches and tunnels because they were quite scary, in case they decided to cave in. The miners are however not afraid, because this is where they get their daily bread. God forbid the land caves in because emergency services there are non-existent, especially with the area not having any mobile network coverage.
Gemstone mining is a lucrative industry that can generate billions for a country. According to Pact World ASMs in Taita — Taveta county contributes approximately USD 80 million per year to the Kenyan economy and the miners produce and trade approximately USD 120 million worth of gemstones per year. However, “kwa ground vitu ni different” (on the ground things are different) literally. The working and living conditions of ASMs at Kasigau does not reflect the millions supposedly extracted from the mines.
One of the key hindrances to gemstone ASMs profiting from the million shilling trade is their lack of knowledge on the identification of gemstones and their value. On the ground, you will hear many stories of miners who sold gemstones worth millions for some meagre thousands. Gemstone brokers use the miners’ lack of knowledge to their advantage — they buy valuable gemstones at a throwaway price and sell them off to the highest bidder. The miners also face socio-economic problems which lead them to squander their money on alcohol. Which I noticed as I walked through their mining site — they were several empty bottles of chrome vodka.
So what can be done to help gemstone ASMs?
It is important to note that the gemstone industry does not have a Fairtrade model like that being promoted within the gold mining industry in Migori County, Kenya. The fairtrade model makes it easy for miners to benefit from their trade and helps them combat poverty. Globally, governments have not found ways to effectively regulate the gem industry — because the market prices and volatility of gemstones are ever fluctuating.
Kenya is however on the track of ensuring that gemstone miners benefit from their trade through the Voi Gemstone Centre, which will be able to bridge the gap between artisanal small scale miners (ASMs) and traders without the ASMs getting swindled by brokers. The centre has however not been operationalized since it was built. This is just the first step, it is also important for the government to educate miners on the various gemstones and their value, this way they can be able to negotiate from an even playing field.
The allure of beautifully coloured gemstones will continue to entice many consumers, however, the miners who extract these gemstones continue to languish in abject poverty, yet you spend thousands and millions paying for them.