- Environmentalist are concerned about gold mining activities taking place in the Eastern Arc Mountains of Tanzania, which are said to be "destroying globally outstanding conservation areas." The worst affected ares are Amani Nature Reserve, a UNESCO-designated Biosphere Reserve, and Balangai Forest Reserve.
The WWF today expressed its concern about gold mining in Tanzania's East Usambara catchment forest, which houses two reserves and supplies water to more than 200,000 people living in the Tanga region of the country.
- Small-scale artisinal miners have invaded the forests, causing severe environmental destruction by felling valuable old indigenous trees to dig up gold, the environmentalists warn.
The precious mineral was first discovered in the East Usambara Mountains along a stream running adjacent to one of the forest reserves last year. Soon after this, more deposits were discovered upstream at Sakale, a village just outside the Amani Nature Reserve.
As a result, there has been an influx of thousands of people from different parts of Tanzania and beyond to the East Usambara mountains in Tanga in search for this precious mineral. It is estimated that the population in Sakale village has grown from a few hundred to more than 40,000 currently. Similar population increases has been recorded in Western Usambara, in Lushoto district.
The Eastern Arc Mountain Forests, stretching from Kenya's Taita Hills to the Udzungwa Mountains in Tanzania, are globally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot because of their rich, unique, and diverse plant and bird species. They serve as a critical global gene bank and are internationally considered as priority areas for conservation.
The forests of the Eastern Arc Ranges form one of WWF's Global 200 Ecoregions — a science-based global ranking of the world's most biologically outstanding habitats and the regions on which WWF concentrates its efforts, the environmentalists say.
Mining activities in the area first started in 1995 at Mtai Forest Reserve in Muheza district, Tanga, where tommalin, green gannet, and rodolite gemstones were discovered. The Tanzanian government however managed to stop invasion of the forest reserves.
While searching for a permanent solution to the gold mining, the Tanzanian government has not outlawed the mining activities. It has, instead, made statements that appeared to have allowed mining to continue in Sakale village.
- The gold mining taking place in Amani Nature Reserve and surrounding areas is against the principles of sustainable management and utilization of resources, says Hermann Mwageni, WWF’s Representative in Tanzania. "We call upon the Tanzanian government to act fast to stop these destructive activities before an environmental crisis of great proportions occurs in the area," he adds.
According to the reserve's manager, Thomas Sawe, most miners are using Sakale village as an illegal entry point into the protected Amani Nature Reserve, where mining is illegally taking place in eight sites and along riverbeds under the cover of darkness.
- The miners have now invaded the reserve in search of alluvial gold after depleting the mineral in sites adjacent to the protected area, says Mr Sawe. "It is a pity that an ecologically intact and stable system is now being destroyed at an alarming rate."
On another front, south of Sakale in Rugurefu village, local communities have diverted the river from its original course to a man-made canal they have built in order to make way for mining. This area is a source of streams and rivers like Sigi, which supplies water to the people in Muheza District and Tanga Municipality. The water of Sigi River is now contaminated, with unconfirmed reports indicating a possible of presence of mercury which used in processing gold.
WWF is concerned that this indeed is a serious situation that calls for immediate action. "The mining activities in the Usambara Mountains are destroying watercourses and wetlands, which is a clear and obvious violation of numerous Tanzania environmental laws," warns Mr Mwageni. "Given current water shortages in the country, the ongoing destruction will further reduce the water available for future use, creating serious adverse economic and social impacts for the Tanga region and the country at large."
Tanzanian mining laws require that all mineral prospecting and exploration be carried out under valid licenses. If mining is to take place in a protected area, then relevant authorities must be consulted and agreement secured. The current mining activities in the Usambaras are illegal as none of the miners are licensed.
Furthermore, the mining revenues do not benefit the government nor the local authorities in terms of taxes and so on, the environmentalist group holds.
On a visit to the mining sites and Amani Nature Reserve in March, the group got a firsthand feel of the extent and proportions of environmental damage being caused by the illegal gold mining activities. WWF representatives expressed "shock and dismay" at what they saw, especially in Rugurefu area where miners have dug pits as deep as 7 feet in their search for gold.
- WWF hopes that the national leaders will take action and collaboratively find positive solutions to the mining menace, the group says in a statement today. Tanzania's Parliamentary Committee meanwhile has directed the Office of the Vice President to convene a meeting of all stakeholders in order to come up with immediate interventions and long-term solutions to the notorious small-scale mining problem.
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