Earlier this week, a small scale miner in Tanzania made headlines around the world when he became a multi-millionaire overnight after selling to the government two of the largest Tanzanite rocks ever unearthed.
The government agreed to buy the brilliant violet-blue tinged precious stones, which weighed in at 20.4 and 11.2 pounds respectively, for $3.3 million—which is well below their actual market value— and put them in the country’s museum. Tanzanite has become something of a must-have jewel for celebrities looking to spice up their outfit with a striking blue gem.
Saninu Kuryan Laizer, the 52-year old miner and father of 30—yes, 30!—who discovered the Tanzanite samples, said he planned to invest the money in a shopping mall in the northeastern city of Arusha and to build a local school in the neighboring district of Manyara.
But Laizer’s millionaire moment represents more than just an amazing stroke of luck for one man. It represents a rare victory for an African government in being able to regulate artisanal mining—a practice that employs more than 40 million people around the globe and is implicated in exploitative labor practices, human rights abuses and environmental degradation. With Tanzanite, Tanzania has managed to use market mechanisms to channel the insatiable forces of demand and supply to create a more sustainable and possibly less damaging industry.
Tanzanite is one of the world’s rarest minerals. It is found in only one tiny patch of the globe, just 5 square miles in size, in the Mererani Hills of northern Tanzania, the legacy of a violent clash of tectonic plates 585 million years ago that would also spawn the volcano that is today Mount Kilamanjaro. Only first discovered by a gold prospector in 1967, diamond company DeBeers brought the gem to market for use in jewelry the following year. But in past decade, its popularity has soared, setting off a mining boom in the Merarani Hills.
One large-scale, commercial mine, operated by a Bermuda-registered company called TanzaniteOne Ltd. has an official concession to operate in the area in partnership with the State Mining Company of Tanzania. It was once publicly-listed in London, but is now in private hands.
But hundreds of small-scale, unlicensed pit mines have sprung up all over the area—bringing with them many of the same problems that have plagued artisanal mining of other minerals elsewhere: unsafe working conditions and exploitative labor practices.
Because none of the miners were licensed, miners had to sell the uncut gemstones they excavated illicitly, giving rise to an underground economy of smuggling networks, loan sharks and organized crime. It also spurred government corruption as officials were paid to look the other way. Meanwhile, Tanzania itself lost out of revenues it could have derived from royalty fees and mineral rights. The government estimated in 2017 that 40% of Tanzanite was being smuggled out of the country.
These sorts of problems are common to artisanal mining, according to a 2017 report of the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining, Minerals, Metals and Sustainable Development (IGF). “Environmental and health and …read more