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Cheyo in the soup: allegations of water contaminated by acid seeping from the North Mara Gold Mine

by Samuel Kamndaya, Dodoma and Anthony Mayunga, Tarime The Citizen (Tanzania)
July 1st, 2009

National Assembly speaker Samuel Sitta, yesterday threw Bariadi East MP John Cheyo (UDP) out of the debating chamber.

The incident occurred when he decided to engage the Speaker over allegations of water contaminated by acid seeping from the North Mara Gold Mine in Tarime District.

It all started after Mr Cheyo sought clarification when the House had transformed itself into an appropriation committee to review the budgetary votes allocated to the Vice-President's Office. He rose when the committee was debating vote 94 on the environmental impact assessment at the North Mara Gold Mine.

Mr Cheyo said the problem at North Mara was not new as it had been widely reported by the local press.

He then asked why the Government had decided to leave the issue in the hands of the investor instead of putting in place checks and balances.

"Problems at the North Mara mine did not start yesterday," he pointed out. But before he took his seat, Mr Sitta asked the MP to clarify what he meant as effects from chemicals were felt immediately. But Mr Cheyo answered that he was an expert in chemistry and that was why he had raised the issue.

Then Mr Sitta wanted Mr Cheyo to revisit his science notes. The latter said because the Speaker had said so he would end there, though he was not satisfied with the answer. But the Speaker rose and said: "I think I need time to speak about this as members from the opposition bench have been forcing things to be done their way.

"They are dictatorial but if this is the case who else can raise his voice in UDP?" Mr Cheyo tried to respond but was ordered back into his seat. As he could not take it, the Speaker was left with no option but to order him out of the debating chamber, something which Mr Cheyo obeyed.

"Sit down. Get out – remove that MP," said Mr Sitta before the committee continued with its business. Outside the House, Mr Cheyo said he would report the issue to the Parliamentary Rights and Previleges Committee because the Speaker was unfair to him and had erred in his decision against him.

He said what he had questioned were pertinent issues and this showed how the Government has been loyal to investors to the detriment of common wananchi.

Elaborating, Mr Sitta said Parliament standing regulations should be followed to the letter even if he was not chairing the session. He said he had used section 73 of the regulations to kick Mr Cheyo out.

The section talks about an MP or minister who raises an issue that was not pertinent in the ongoing debate. Meanwhile, calls were made in Parliament yesterday for a select committee comprising MPs to investigate claims of poisoning by toxic seepage from the North Mara Gold Mine in Tarime District.

The chairman of the parliamentary committee on land, natural resources and environment, Mr Job Ndugai, led several MPs in demanding for the probe to establish the truth behind the death and poisoning reports in villages around the mine.

The calls came only a day after deputy minister for Home Affairs Khamisi Kagasheki visited the area and witnessed the seepage of acid into river Tigithe that is blamed for several human and animal deaths in nearby villages.

Mr Kagasheki, who toured the mine on Sunday following numerous complaints, said he was annoyed by attempts by the mine officials to play down the matter.

The deputy minister, who was accompanied by top Mara and Tarime government officials, said he would forward reports about what he had seen to top government organs for further action.

"I have been shocked with what I have seen and lies by Barrick officials have really annoyed me. I am very sorry," he told a meeting of local leaders and villagers in the area. This was after they showed him the areas affected by the leakage.

The minister's apology followed drama in which Barrick officials operating the mine and villagers took the minister to different sites to establish whether there was pollution of river Tigite.

His tour followed allegations that water containing acid leaking from the mine had killed several people and livestock in the area since May.

River Tigite, which is used by thousands of residents especially the rural population, flows into Mara River that discharges water into Lake Victoria on the Tanzania side.

"I am Kagasheki, the President is my employer and I will give this report to the PM as well as the president for further action," he said amid cheers from local leaders.

Efforts yesterday to reach Barrick officials to react to claims they may have deliberately misled the minister were futile as the mobile phones of their managing director and spokesperson were ringing without being answered.

Local leaders accused various government agencies, like the National Environment Management Council (NEMC) for failing to find a lasting solution to the problem.

In Parliament yesterday at least four MPs contributed to the debate on the budget estimates for the Vice President's Office, Environment and Union Affairs for the financial year 2009/2010.

They spoke with concern on how villagers living near North Mara Gold Mine are paying a deadly price for the mining activities.

Mr Ndugai (CCM - Kongwa) first brought up the matter saying: "It's time this parliament formed a committee to study how people in Mara have been affected by the toxic spills."

Reports indicate that those affected hail from Kemambo, Nyamongo and several villages in Tarime District.

Some MPs, including Tarime legislator Charles Mwera, have even demanded that the Government orders Barrick to suspend mining activities there until a thorough analysis of the mine's health impact to neighbouring villages is made.

Mr Mwera said the problems with the mine had been there for years though it has taken a long time for the authorities to establish them.

He proposed that stern action should be taken against public servants who do not perform their duties well until things get worse.

"At one time, we ordered a thorough examination of the water in Tigiti River but it was unfortunate that public servants sent to examine the water said it was clean. It's time these people were put to task,"he said. Ludewa MP Raphael Mwalyosi echoed Mr Mwera's sentiments.

"It sounds awkward that we have issues like the North Mara tragedy while we have a ministry under the Vice-President's office that deals with environmental issues – it just shows that someone is not doing just what he/she is supposed to be doing," he said.

Earlier, the opposition spokesman for the President's office, Environment, Mr Ali Khamis Seif, said the North Mara Gold Mine was also required to compensate people affected by its poisonous metals.

Blaming the tragedy on negligence of civil servants, he also called for stern measures to be taken against those who contributed in any way to bring the problem to its present situation.

"We have been saying this, time and again – the opposition bench expressed fears of possible toxic spills from North Mara Gold Mine and nobody seemed to care – now we need to be told what steps has NEMC taken against the company," he intoned.

In Tarime it took several hours for the Ambassador Kagasheki to witness where the acid is originating from after he was hinted by a member of the public.

He was accompanied by Mara Regional Commissioner Enos Mfuru, Tarime district commissioner Frank Uhahula and the mine's general manager, Mr Kevin Moxam, among other officials.

"Honourable minister, a number of agencies like NEMC have been coming hear but nothing has changed. It has reached a time when we think that the Government has gone on holiday, leaving us suffering.

You should not be surprised when people decide to take the law into their own hands," a local leader from Kewanja village, Mr Fanuel Petro Sasi, lamented.

Earlier, the mine management took the deputy minister and his delegation that included the commissioner of police for operations, Mr Paul Chagonja, to different areas in what was later believed to be a trick to hide the truth of the matter.

"They took me to an area which I was convinced might have a problem, and we agreed that something should be done to find the truth.

"But what disappointed me is that when we started leaving the place a resident tipped me that I had been cheated and showed us the point where water containing acid is flowing into the river.

"This is serious and amazing and you have the right to say that the Government is not taking care of you, but that is not the case," Ambassador Kagasheki told the local leaders.

Meanwhile, experts from NEMC and the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare have been flocking to the areas since the report was disclosed in the media by the Kibasuka ward councilor, Mr Suleiman Joseph (CCM), a few days ago.

Last week human rights groups and the Christian Council of Tanzania called for the closure of the mine to prevent further damage, among other things.

 

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