‘Look at my hands’ – women artisanal miners in Geita, Tanzania


‘Look at my hands’ - women artisanal miners in Geita, Tanzania

On this International Earth Day on 22 April, we pay homage to the struggles of African women to protect ecosystems, as part of opens in a new windowa global movement, to preserve a balance with nature, whilst affirming their land and natural resource rights. But without addressing the structural roots of global inequality embedded in opens in a new windowextractivism, women artisanal miners in particular, remain locked in a gruelling exploitative system that undermines struggles for ecological justice and the pursuit of autonomy and self-determination.

WoMin recently convened a virtual soft launch of a paper on Women and Artisanal and Small-Scale opens in a new windowmining in Africa: Possibilities for Social and Structural Transformation where women artisanal miners from Ghana, South Africa and Tanzania shared their perspectives, demands, concerns and organising priorities. The conversation was refreshing and grappled with the complexity of artisanal opens in a new windowmining that is locked within and subordinated to the global extractivist model of development.

“An alternative livelihood for communities…”

A site visit and exchange by WoMin in June 2022 to Geita, a gold mining area in Tanzania, provided an opportunity to hear from women in the Mugusu Women Miners Cooperative. The Geita mine, which was opened in 1936, was acquired by AngloGold Ashanti in 1996 for 99 years. After a legacy of 86 years of opens in a new windowmining, the topsoil on the concession is no longer conducive for farming. An alternative livelihood for communities has become artisanal mining, which utilises locally made tools to process gold from ores extracted from pits (underground or rivers in other areas). But women were initially excluded.

Men in the Mugusu Cooperative were able to assert their land rights, gain easier access to investors and hire day labourers. During the exchange, one of the participants, Bernadetta Furugenzi Pedro, the leader of Mugusu Women’s Miners Cooperative in the Geita region explains the history of the cooperative:

”In the beginning we had problems … women were not allowed to work in the opens in a new windowmining sector. The reasons that led to us being rejected to enter the opens in a new windowmining sector, are linked to traditions from the elders.’”

Demands made by women in Geita for respect for their economic rights led to their biggest victory: for women to be allowed into mine work, and therefore have an income, and access to the mineral market to sell their gold. But the struggle for economic autonomy is not over.

Artisanal miners in Geita have not benefited from any intervention from the government to support them by upgrading their methods of extracting gold which still relies on mercury exposure posing a serious health and safety risk. This is a neglected area, and a hazard for artisanal mineworkers and host communities, including women. These multiple risks such as going into deep pits which can easily collapse or left exposed; mercury exposure and evaporation; respiratory and cardiovascular problems, birth defects, and maternal mortality risks place miners in deep peril.

Moreover, despite women securing the right to work in the mines, the inequality continues to be reproduced. Men can extract more out of labour and land, largely due to social arrangements that make it easier for them to lay claim over land that has richer ores and deploy coercion to impose labour controls. Meanwhile, the artisanal mining sector which is regulated in Tanzania is also taxed heavily by the government. Investors, pit owners, and those working in the pits are all taxed. A much stiffer regime than what prevails for corporate giants who gain from beneficial conditions and tax holidays. 

Even though the labour-intensive process of extracting gold from rocks in the Mugusu Women’s Miners Cooperative also includes smelting ovens to ensure rocks are softened to break down, the task is still far from easy.

Challenges faced by women artisanal miners

“Aadila Mohamed”, a woman artisanal miner shared, “Look at my hands, the work is very hard “, displaying how rough and hardened her palms have become. Aadila has been a member of the Mugusu Women’s Miners Cooperative since it started and has had to crush stones for the last eight years. As stated earlier, stone crushing is done after heating in clay ovens at the workshop. In a month Aadila earns 20 000-30 000 Tanzanian shillings (approximately 8-12 USD) from crushing stones. It’s exhausting and painful work. She wishes she was doing something else. Mugusu Women’s Miners Cooperative operates at a less lucrative mining concession, while men have access to areas with richer ores. This means women are restricted in the quality of the ores they can access, and therefore must work harder for less returns. 

Bernadetta further shared, 

“The biggest challenge that we face as women working in the mine of Mugusu is … [gaining access to] proper equipment to improve our work and make a better income comparing to the methods we are currently using…the process of getting to the gold is very complex and tiring.” 

She also emphasised the support needed from the government for the women’s cooperative to have access to better concessions in Geita. 

This is line with opens in a new windowPatricia McFaddenopens PDF file , and affirmed by opens in a new windowFrançoise Vergès, on the importance of addressing ‘…the State [on] what it owes us while nonetheless remaining autonomous, state our conditions when we enter into dialogue with institutions…,’ as the Mugusu Women’s Miners Cooperative are certainly doing. 

Artisanal and small-scale opens in a new windowmining (ASM), that remains subordinated by the State to large-scale corporate driven extractivism, draws attention to the historically coercive imposition of a profit maximisation model of wealth creation, that has treated labour and nature as disposable commodities. The imbalance that the extractivist development model has created with environment stands against centuries of resistance by Africans to European colonial encroachment for resource opens in a new windowextraction. Reclaiming how we can relate with our lands and natural resources, by centring the needs of smallholder producers while protecting ecosystems is a crucial dimension of a post-extractivist future.

The shifting global economy

But the global economy is changing rapidly. The increased demand for critical minerals has intensified extractivism in the: booming high technology industry; inputs for non-fossil fuel-based energy; rapidly expanding digital economy. This pattern has impoverished and cheapened labour amongst precarious populations in global South regions such as Africa. The extractivist pattern is persisting in the name of saving the planet and creating decentralised financial system, while artisanal miners and mine host communities carry the true human and ecological cost. 

Even though ASM is embedded in these uneven relations, it still holds greater potential to contribute to domestic economies in Africa. Addressing the obstacles that women face in ASM is part of broader structural shifts that are urgently needed. Integrating environmentally sustainable and safe methods of extraction may increase the cost of production and will require state support, especially for innovations in appropriate technology in the interests of smallholder producers.

On this International Earth Day, we are called upon to centre the struggles at the forefront of resistance to opens in a new windowextractivism, and collectively demand a social and ecologically just equitable global economic system.

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