Mining and the Environment: Tanzania’s Ongoing Struggle with Small-scale Mining’s Threat to the Natural Environment

Share this article


Tanzania is blessed with abundant mineral resources but has also borne the brunt of the environmental consequences of its extraction. Over 1,000 areas within the country’s borders have been damaged due to small-scale mining activities, prompting the National Environmental Management Council (NEMC) to embark on a crucial restoration mission.

The Director General of the National Conservation and Environmental Management Council (NEMC), Dr Samuel Gwamaka, has shown the grim picture of the environmental situation in Geita and Chunya mining Mbeya region, which is worse.

Almost 30 per cent of all the areas mined in Chunya have been destroyed, and no effects have started to be seen. There is no longer any possibility of those areas being used for agricultural activities, and the water sources have been destroyed.

Quoted to a Daily news report, “NEMC will cooperate with the Mining Commission and the State Mining Corporation (STAMICO) to see how we can boost production for small and medium scale miners. Let us push for professional mining, follow environmental and civilised procedures, for mine establishment and research, mineral screening, and finally keep our environment in a safe state,”

From the first colonial mining law (the 1929 mining ordinance), which preferred large-scale miners, colonial law required mining rights holders to demonstrate the ability to raise sufficient working capital and the capacity to operate a mine, a mandatory requirement that only large-scale miners could fulfil. However, the 2010 Mining Act offers hope after many years of neglect.

The 2009 Mining policy officially recognised Artisanal and Small-scale Mining (ASM), which laid the foundation for the current Mining Act (2010.) The current Mining Act offered more protection and strengthened artisanal miners’ rights. It also emphasizes granting exclusive areas for primary licenses to artisanal miners. The Act also provides for confiscating exploration licenses held for speculative purposes instead of active exploration.

Environmental Threats: Key environmental impacts associated with ASM in Tanzania include deforestation, use of mercury and cyanide in gold processing, dust and noise pollution, generalized water pollution, soil contamination, failure to reclaim mining areas properly, and/or secure or fill-in mine shafts.

Gunson’s study of the Geita District estimated that 27 kg of mercury is released into the environment in the Rwamagasa area each year. In comparison, atmospheric emissions from other amalgamation burning is about 14 kg from the Blue Reef mine site and 7 kg from the other nearby mine sites, including Nyakagwe and Nyamtondo.

Deforestation: Due to the preparation of the area for mineral extraction, the forest is cut frequently. A 2021 study in the Geita Gold Mine area revealed a 17% deforestation rate between 2016 and 2020, directly linked to mining activities. This destroys vital habitats and disrupts ecosystems, jeopardizing biodiversity and contributing to climate change.

Land Degradation: The land bears the brunt of ASM’s relentless pursuit of minerals due to the excavations, leaving gaping pits and waste dumps that scar the landscape. A 2020 report by the Tanzanian Ministry of Environment and Forestry estimated that over 500 hectares of land in the Shinyanga region alone were unproductive due to ASM activities. Soil erosion further worsens the situation, threatening agricultural productivity and food security.

Water Pollution: Toxic chemicals like mercury and cyanide, used in gold processing, find their way into water sources from different distributaries channel of water. This is proven by a 2023 study in Chunya district that found mercury levels in some rivers exceeding WHO guidelines by 10 times. This contaminates drinking water, poses risks to aquatic life, and endangers the health of communities relying on these resources.

Air Pollution: Dust from mining operations and the burning of amalgam (a mercury-mercury compound) pollute the air. A 2020 study in Meatu district attributed a 20% rise in respiratory illnesses to air pollution from ASM activities. This poses significant health risks, particularly for vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.

Despite the strengthening of artisanal miners’ rights in the 2010 Act, artisanal miners are still vulnerable to violence and abuse by multinational companies with close ties to Tanzania’s ruling elites.

Apart from land-use rights conflicts with multinational corporations, artisanal miners in Tanzania face various risks, such as occupational accidents in mines, pollution and mercury contamination.

Efforts to Mitigate the Environmental Impact

Formalization: One of the critical challenges facing ASM is its informal nature. Many miners operate outside regulations, leading to haphazard practices and environmental damage. Tanzania has embarked on a formalization program, issuing licenses and training miners on responsible techniques.

This improves ecological compliance and provides miners access to fair trade practices and better safety standards. In Geita, a gold mining hotspot, the government’s formalization program has shown promising results, where over 10,000 artisanal miners have been registered and received training on safer and more environmentally friendly practices.

This has led to a reduction in deforestation, improved waste management, and a decrease in the use of mercury for gold processing.

Cleaner Technologies: Traditional mining methods often rely on harmful chemicals like mercury, poisoning water sources and harming human health. From that, Tanzania has actively promoted the adoption of cleaner alternatives. For instance, a pilot project in Tanga has introduced mercury-free gold extraction techniques, significantly reducing mercury pollution.

In Chunya, the AGC has facilitated the creation of community-managed reforestation projects, leading to the successful restoration of over 50 hectares of degraded land. The project has distributed over 500 retort furnaces, leading to a 90% reduction in mercury emissions compared to traditional methods.

Community Engagement: Sustainability hinges on community engagement as key programs like the Artisanal Gold Council (AGC), for instance, Mbeya, bring together miners, government officials, and NGOs to share knowledge and best practices. These initiatives raise awareness about environmental risks, promote responsible mining techniques, and empower communities to hold stakeholders accountable.

In Chunya, the AGC has facilitated the creation of community-managed reforestation projects, leading to the successful restoration of over 50 hectares of degraded land.

An Inspiring Example: In Chunya, a community-led initiative has successfully restored degraded land previously used for mining. The community has transformed barren landscapes into productive farmland through tree planting, soil conservation techniques, and NGO collaboration.

The path towards mitigating the environmental impact of ASM in Tanzania is long and arduous. It demands sustained efforts from the government, NGOs, miners, and communities working in unison. Continued investment in formalization, cleaner technologies, and community engagement is crucial.

By fostering innovation, collaboration, and a shared vision for a sustainable future, Tanzania can achieve to ensure that its mineral wealth benefits both people and the planet.

Also read Artisanal Mining in Tanzania: A Blessing, A Vital yet Complex Industry.

A digital personnel and Content Producer who has made a significant impact on media outlets with his exceptional writing skills. He is passionate about creating informative content and conducting research. Salvius obtained his degree in Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine University of Tanzania, where he gained valuable experience through internships at Mwananchi Communication Newspaper. Salvius worked as a news editor and article reviewer at Scooper, also The south African website as the article writer, further refining his skills. Salvius's outstanding work in the field of digital journalism was recognized by Reuters which awarded him a digital journalism certificate. Salvius also is an environmental influence.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Leave a comment
scroll to top