By Estacio Valio and Gesbeen Mohammad
This investigation was partially supported with funding from the African Investigative Publishing Collective in partnership with ZAM magazine, as part of their transnational investigations series
South African business moguls Christo Wiese and Brian Gilbertson loom large behind Gemfields, an "ethical" gemstone company accused of operating in a "militarised" zone in rural northern Mozambique, where forces protecting the mine have allegedly beaten villagers and killed illegal miners.
"My son was shot by the men of Rapid Intervention Force," Geronimo Potia says.
His son, Antonio Geronimo, an 18-year-old artisanal miner, scoured the earth for rubies in Namanhumbir, in Mozambique’s northeastern Montepuez district. The family relied on mining for their livelihoods. Antonio was fatally shot in April last year, allegedly by the government’s security agents, while he was mining.
Guards protect the ruby resources for the mine’s owner, Montepuez Ruby Mining (MRM) – a joint venture between United Kingdom-based company Gemfields and its Mozambican partner, Mwiriti Limitada.
Forty percent of the world’s rubies are expected to come from this 336km2 concession. Only MRM is permitted to produce and sell rubies from this region. It is a lucrative investment; the company holds an exclusive 25-year mining licence over the area, granted by the Mozambican government in November 2011.
The Johannesburg-listed Pallinghurst Resources, a mining investment group, is Gemfields’s largest shareholder. In turn, the group’s largest shareholder is South African retail billionaire Christo Wiese. Pallinghurst is chaired by South African Brian Gilbertson, a former BHP Billiton chief executive. Gemfields’s chief executive, Ian Harebottle, is also South African.
Wiese, Pallinghurst and Gilbertson did not want to respond to questions (see below: “ Gem firm’s SA roots run deep”).
MRM began operations in this ruby deposit in 2012. By October last year, the operations had yielded MRM’s 75% majority shareholder, Gemfields, more than $122-million in revenue at auction.
Gemfields, a world leader in gemstones, formed MRM in partnership with a number of powerful individuals in Mozambique’s ruling Frelimo party. Samora Machel Jr, the son of Mozambique’s first president, chairs MRM’s board. The company’s executive director, Raime Pachinuapa, is the son of Raimundo Pachinuapa, a former senior guerrilla commander of Frelimo during its war against Portuguese colonial rule.
Gemfields has adopted actress Mila Kunis as its brand ambassador. In a promotional video, she glorifies Gemfields for its ethical approach to gemstone mining. “They take so much pride in how socially and ethically responsible they are. I do believe that they believe it,” she said in a previous interview. Kunis did not respond to questions.
With various task forces protecting MRM’s interests by guarding the ruby deposit against anyone trying to mine there, the region has been turned into a “militarised zone”, villagers say.
In Namanhumbir, where Antonio Geronimo lost his life in 2014, the Rapid Intervention Force (FIR), part of the Special Forces section of the Mozambican army, helped MRM ensure that unlicensed miners did not enter the concession area. FIR agents were equipped with AK-47s. They were recently replaced by another government authority, the National Resources Protection Force. About 35 NRPF agents patrol the mine carrying firearms.
Mozambican police have also been known to intervene in the ruby fields.
The provincial police headquarters responsible did not respond to written questions.
Montepuez chief prosecutor Pompilio Xavier Uazanguiua said: “I don’t know why, but we have [state security forces] protecting the mine. In my point of view, it should be the company’s duty to create its own security programme to protect the mine.” Gemfields argues that government law enforcement agents are present “to uphold the law of the land and to protect the national interests of the country”.
In addition to state forces, MRM uses a private security company, Arkhe Risk Solutions, a Mozambican subsidiary of South Africa’s Omega Risk Solutions. Omega has security operations throughout Africa and the Middle East. Arkhe’s team of 470 security operatives ensures that illegal miners are kept out of the ruby fields.
Men of machete
Gemfields says fewer than 3% of Arkhe personnel carry firearms. But locals call the guards nakatanas (men of machete), and claim Arkhe security agents beat them up and shoot at them.
Arkhe did not comment on these allegations.
Gemfields also employs more than 100 other security personnel who, it says, are not armed.
Gemfields disputes that the area has become militarised. Spokesperson Gillian Langmead said: “Our security employees and the Arkhe contractors patrol the MRM concession area to protect it against illegal mining, and to monitor for and report any other illegal activity. They are required to do so in a trained and professional manner.”
But the villagers of Montepuez suggest otherwise.
His eyes full of tears, Geronimo Potia recalls how his son was shot and left to die on the red soil of Namanhumbir. His body was carried home by his friends, foreign ruby smugglers, who collected money to pay for the burial and support the Potia family.
“If it wasn’t for them, my son’s body would have been left there; we wouldn’t have had money for the burial,” says Potia, sitting in his wattle-and-daub home in a village close to Namanhumbir. “The company did not help us; the police did not help us.”
"In 11 [other cases] we’re still gathering evidence … linked to the police... "
Potia was afraid to report the killing of his son to the police, believing he could suffer the same fate. The minister of interior, Jaime Monteiro, who is in charge of the FIR, failed to respond to questions.
Gemfields’s Langmead said the company was not aware of the killing, “but we will, of course, do our best to investigate [it] thoroughly and promptly if you are able to provide further information”.
But she also said Gemfields was aware of a recent Al Jazeera documentary in which Potia described his son’s death.
There are other accounts of artisanal miners being shot and left to die in MRM territory.
Prosecutor Uazanguiua said two FIR officers and an NRPF officer have been convicted for shooting and killing people on MRM’s ruby deposit.
“In 11 [other cases] we’re still gathering evidence … linked to the police, FIR and the Environment Protection Force, who are all involved in patrolling the mine,” he said.
Gemfields’s Harebottle said he was aware of one shooting by Arkhe staff: “[The shooter] was arrested and after investigation was definitely found to be innocent, because a large group of people were attacking him with machetes,” he said.
"... access to ill-gotten rubies is impeded by MRM’s presence"
Langmead acknowledged two incidents “of shooting of illegal miners by security personnel contracted to MRM, including Arkhe”, but said the police had investigated and cleared the accused. She also referred to two cases where FIR agents were convicted for shooting and killing miners; it is not clear whether these were among the convictions listed by Uazanguiua.
“Gemfields plc categorically denies the inference that it condones or sanctions acts of violence,” she said.
Langmead suggested allegations of violence at the mine were “at times instigated by unscrupulous dealers and middlemen whose access to ill-gotten rubies is impeded by MRM’s presence”.
But a visibly angry Uazanguiua objected: “The people are being violently violated. They are being brutally beaten … the numbers speak for themselves.”
Villagers alleged that the nakatanas, “working for the whites”, use wooden sticks to beat them on their knees and other joints so that they can’t work.
A teenager said he “was beaten by the whites 20 times on my buttocks with a baton”, and that his friends had to help him walk to hospital. He and others claimed that, when they are caught digging, the guards also take their money and make them clean their office.
Uazanguiua suggests “the company should talk to the people who work with it so they can stop harassing the people”.
It is not always clear who the perpetrators are until the investigation has been concluded. Uazanguiua believes that MRM has a responsibility to investigate alleged incidents on its profitable concession. MRM insists it does investigate.
‘Shooting to make them afraid’
A video produced by the Gemological Institute of America features a vivid scene of apparently illegal miners on MRM’s concession running away as shots ring out.
This is a clip from the original video, which can be found on YouTube.
The gemologist presenting the film says: “They’re shooting [inaudible] to make them afraid.” An MRM employee says: “We are fighting them seriously.” When the dust settles, the presenter says: “They’re coming with [an earth mover] in order to remove all the mining pits so the miners don’t come back.”
A police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity claimed MRM has ordered state forces to use “all means” necessary to keep illegal miners away from its territory.
“We have to follow orders, so we shoot and sometimes we end up accidentally hitting some of them in the confusion.”
No one dying "in MRM's name"
Gemfields stated “that artisanal miners are not being shot ‘because they are mining in MRM territory’ and security forces are not killing them ‘in MRM’s name’?”.
In the villages near the ruby deposit, many people recounted incidents similar to the one involving Antonio Geronimo. The Pacores of Namanhumbir lived off the proceeds of rubies their son, Manuel Artur, mined in the area. Manuel was shot on the same day that Antonio died. Fellow miners came to tell his father, Artur Pacore, that members of the FIR patrol had shot his son in the stomach.
“They said he dragged himself out of the ruby deposit and crawled for about 100m. Then he died.”
Pacore said he was too afraid to report his son’s death to the police.
Langmead said the company was not aware of the killing of Manuel.
Artisanal miners believe they also face mortal danger from MRM’s earth-moving machines.
Abdul claimed that his cousin was buried alive. “He was working with two others in a three-metre hole. They were about 100m away from us, still working, when I and others went back home. We hid when we heard the machines coming. After a while we went back to look for them. Then we saw the machines. They were filling in the hole on top of them.”
Langmead denied this account. She confirmed that the company does fill in illegal diggings, but says “a stringent process has been put in place to ensure that no MRM ‘digging machine’ has ever killed an illegal miner, whether by accident or intentionally”.
"When I got out of the hole, one of them shot me in the leg"
In many places, MRM’s ruby concession is perforated with narrow pits, many more than three metres deep, dug by artisanal miners. Often, it is difficult to tell whether miners are working in them. The instability of the ground causes it to collapse, burying miners alive without MRM bearing any responsibility.
Uazanguiua said: “There is no evidence that the company has deliberately done such things.
“I am not saying that [claims that people are buried by MRM equipment] are true or false. It might be true, but what we are told is that those people are dead due to ground collapse. It requires a thorough investigation, but we don’t have the means to get to the scene in time to witness such events.”
Without the protection of their own authorities and fearing that they could be killed, hundreds of artisanal miners have stopped trying to mine rubies. They are now mining less valuable garnets in nearby Nkata, which lies outside MRM’s concession. Entering Nkata at dusk, ama-Bhungane saw hundreds of men covered in red dust, carrying pickaxes, returning from work in the garnet pits. The mining area is scattered with excavations of between 3m and 14m deep.
Issufo says garnet mining is far less profitable than digging for rubies. “I don’t find enough to make some money,” he says. “I have five kids and nothing to take home to them.”
He does not want to go back to Namanhumbir.
“I was digging rubies inside a hole when the FIR arrived. They told me to step out. When I got out of the hole, one of them shot me in the leg,” he said.
Inflicted in July 2014, the wounds where the bullet entered and exited his right leg are still visible.
Langmead said the company has never heard of Issufo: “However, the description and timing of the incident do correspond with our records, save that we understand FIR were dispersing a hostile group of illegal miners when one of the miners was shot in the leg by a member of FIR.”
The minister of land, environment and rural development, Celso Correia, and Pedro Couto, mineral resources and energy minister, declined to comment.
Before beginning operations in Mozambique, Montepuez Ruby Mining (MRM) promised benefits to local residents and laid out a corporate social responsibility programme. But people claim many of its promises have not materialised and accuse the company of “legalised land grabbing”.
Villagers say a health centre, crucial to countering rising levels of HIV, has not been built. Rather than rehabilitating a school, said provincial district administrator Arcanjo Cassia, the company gave an old building from the Portuguese colonial era “a new coat of paint”.
MRM boasts that it has drilled 11 boreholes for drinking water, but in some villages these are not working, locals say. They complain that the company takes water from their dams to clean its rubies. Cassia says: “We get nothing. Nothing.”
But Gemfields says it has done more than any other company would have done at such an early stage in a large-scale operation of this nature, emphasising its commitment to corporate social responsibility.
It points to another school it says was built, the installation of lighting, the distribution of chickens to villagers and other projects.
“The company comes and says the area belongs to them.”
The company’s resettlement plan has met resistance, and some claim the police chase them out of their homes by assaulting them and burning their houses. A resident said: “The company comes and says the area belongs to them.”
Gemfields strongly denies this. Spokesperson Gillian Langmead said: “No resettlement of any village has taken place as yet. Any future resettlement will likely only involve the single village of Ntoro.”
She confirmed that structures have been burned, but denied the company played a role. She blamed the destruction on conflict between illegal settlers and villagers.
Gemfields chief executive Ian Harebottle said the houses of “illegitimate” residents had been torched after they had been forced to leave by the police. “No legal village or legal dwelling has ever been burned down,” he said.
Some villagers now refer to Namanhumbir as “El Dobrado” or “the collapsed city” – a bastardisation of the mythical golden city El Dorado. – Estacio Valoi & Gesbeen Mohammad
Although it is listed in London and run from there, mining house Gemfields has strong South African roots.
Its majority shareholder, holding 48%, is Pallinghurst Resources, which is dominated by South African retail tycoon Christo Wiese and mining legend Brian Gilbertson.
According to Pallinghurst’s annual report, nonexecutive director Wiese owns just under 20% of the company. There is no suggestion that he has any role in Gemfields’s operations.
An employee in Wiese’s office said he “does not have time to reply”, but provided an email address to which questions were sent. He did not respond.
Gilbertson, who founded Pallinghurst and owns a 3% stake, runs the natural resources equity investor as its executive chairperson. He has said Gemfields is striving to become the De Beers of gemstones.
Pallinghurst referred all questions to Gemfields and said Gilbertson did not want to comment separately.
South African-born entrepreneur and former mining consultant Ian Harebottle is the Gemfields chief executive and the public face of its “ethically sourced” gemstones. He owns less than 1% of the gem miner.
Gilbertson’s son, Sean, is an executive director at Gemfields. Sean has worked for Rio Tinto and Glencore International, and has a reputation as a formidable dealmaker in the mining industry.
Pallinghurst’s other representative on Gemfields’s board in a nonexecutive role is Finn Behnken, who has a South African identity number and has studied and worked here.
Pallinghurst appears to have a further interest in Gemfields through a Cayman Islands-registered entity called Investec Pallinghurst, a subsidiary of the South African-born investment firm Investec. With a 12.6% stake, this tax haven entity is Gemfields’s third-biggest shareholder. Investec did not answer questions. – Estacio Valoi & Gesbeen Mohammad
Correction: This story originally reported Montepuez chief prosecutor Pompilio Uazanguiua’s statement that four security agents, including one Arkhe Risk Solutions employee, had been tried and convicted for killing people on the mine. We have since discovered that a Cabo Delgado provincial court judge found there was insufficient evidence and the Arkhe employee was acquitted. This version of the story has been corrected.
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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.
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