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There’s rubies in them there hills

10 October 2008

Apart from having lost their land to make way for a game reserve, the Endorois, like many other indigenous peoples throughout the world, have also been adversely affected by opencast mining. Emma Eastwood, MRG’s Trouble in Paradise Campaign Manager, investigates.

In 2003, without consultation with the community, a private company began ruby mining on the land the Endorois had been forced on to after their eviction from Lake Bogoria. After complaints from the community of diarrhoea and stomach cramps, the Endorois’ sole drinking water sources were tested in June 2006 and found to be contaminated by poisonous chemicals used in the mining process. The Kenyan government forced the mine to shut down a few months later.

Wilson Kipsang Kipkazi, Secretary of the Endorois Welfare Council and our guide whilst visiting the area, eagerly shows me a document he recently found on the internet (which was mysteriously withdrawn soon after) detailing the amount of rubies the company running the mining operation had extracted and the market value of the gems – 1grm of rubies sells for around 135, 000 Ksh (approx US$193). He suspects that the company may never have paid any taxes on the revenue it gained from the mine and that the rubies were extracted under a prospecting license rather than a full mining license.

And so we set out to visit the abandoned mine, a two-hour, dusty ride down a road that often resembled a dry riverbed, scattering baboons as we bumped our way further and further into the bush. How they had ever managed to get huge earthmovers and mining machinery into such an isolated area in the first place baffled me.

After various 4-wheel drive dilemmas we ditched the car and continued on foot down a steep track towards the abandoned mine. Although the whole operation was abandoned over 2 years ago, the landscape was still scarred – exposing the purple earth that indicated the presence of rubies beneath the soil.

We forded the river (the very same one that had poisoned the community…. I put thoughts of bilharzia and elephantitis out of mind as I felt my barefoot way across the slippery rocks) and climbed up to inspect the mining equipment. The whole area had an eerie feeling – what was left of the rusted, derelict machinery had been ransacked and vandalised in the post-election violence according to Kipkazi, a couple of donkeys (looking considerably fatter and well fed than the poor beasts I’d seen toiling away in Morocco a few years back) eyed us docilely from the top of the mine shaft, ubiquitous goats, dotted around the site, bleated mournfully.

Abandoned machinery at the mine site
Abandoned machinery at the mine site

A small group of Endorois men who’d been tending their goats nearby appeared from nowhere – the sense of remoteness I felt was misleading, the area is far more densely populated than it first appears. Kipkazi and Richard Yegon, an elder from an Endorois village called Kapkuikui who was also accompanying us, chatted with them about their experience of the mine.

Endorois men who live and tend their goats close to the mine
Endorois men who live and tend their goats close to the mine

Apparently hardly any of the people from the surrounding area were employed here – and when they were it was only to shovel dirt into the cleaning and sorting machines, they were never allowed to see the rubies. They were also prevented from grazing their goats and cattle within the vicinity of the mine (bear in mind that we’re on Endorois land here and permission was never sought for the mining operations from the community) and were often harassed by security guards.

Whilst Kipkazi and Richard poked around in the dry, purple earth (hoping they might get lucky?) one of the men showed me a ruby the size of a sunflower seed, which would fetch around 1000 Ksh at a local dealers. When I asked him what he thought about the mine he said, “I wish it had never existed.”

A ruby found at the mine site
A ruby found at the mine site

Kipkazi tells me that a 2006 Mining Bill, which contemplates payment to local communities for mining privileges, is stagnating at a draft stage. Same old story…

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.