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Tanzanite Mining

Tanzanite Mining

by Neelanjana

The Mererani or the Merelani Hills of Tanzania are the sole Tanzanite hub of the world. The sensationally attractive and new born mineral in the world of gemstones owes its birthplace to Tanzania where it was discovered way back in the 1960’s. The Merelani Hill area located just 16 kms south of Kilimanjaro Airport is another 70kms south-east from the district of Arusha, situated at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro. Some also have the idea that Tanzanite was discovered in 1967 in the Umba Valley located in the Usambara Mountains in Tanzania.

This rare mineral was christened as Tanzanite in the year 1968 by Tiffany & Co. and its rarity has played a major role in its popularity in the market today. Infact the considerably large square mile area in the Merelani Hills is the only source of Tanzanite, and unfortunately this mineral is limited to this area alone. This tri-colored mineral with brilliant hues of Blue, violet and purple was discovered some 30 years back by the Masai tribesmen.

According to a local myth, the escorted a gentleman called Manuel D’Souza, a tailor by profession to this area enriched with blue stones, who was on a trip in search of Sapphires in Tanzania. It is claimed that a brush fire which was caused due to lightning, spread over a considerable area of land at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, caused brown zoisite crystals to transform to a deep blue purple due to the emerging heat from the fire that burnt them. However, though the discovery of open Tanzanite mines seemed like a jackpot to the tailor D’Souza, he was unable to hold on to this treasure. This was because the government of Tanzania took possession of the mines in 1971 and later handed them over to the State Mining Corporation in the year 1976.

In Tanzania, this gemstone is mined in four areas which are categorized under A, B, C and D blocks respectively. The B and D blocks are where the local mining takes place, whereas the remaining A and C blocks are restricted to foreign investments. The “Wana-Apollo” is a local term for small scale Tanzanite miners in Tanzania and they employ hundreds of local tribes in the mining process of Tanzanite. These tribes carry out extensive excavations to locate Tanzanite from their respective blocks. On location of a Tanzanite vein, the miners implement a process called ‘Bing’ and the groups of Wana – Apollo jointly put in the effort to exploit the discovered vein. There are a total of 430 plots and the small-scale miners of the Merelani township utilize local hands for Tanzanite mining in these plots. Merelani Hills are basically a township for small scale Tanzanite miners.

A tragedy hit the Tanzanite mines on the sacred day of Good Friday in the year 1998, when a torrential downpour of rain flooded the region for days together. The water from El Nino blanketed the entire area, taking the lives of more than 160 miners. Water engulfed regions in the mines up to 1000 feet deep, outside the Mbuguni township, located in the Merelani Hills, around 25 miles south-east of Arusha. Several safety measures have been implemented in the mines post this tragic flood incident and around 14 new regulations were set up. Roofs have been constructed in place of mine tailings in the entrance areas. The usage of modern amenities to mine has also been enhanced as compared to the past. Tanzanite is believed to have been mined with very primitive concepts and methodologies and though the use of safety equipment has been increased, there seems to be a lot of scope for further improvement.

Image Courtesy: jeff-o-matic

In 2005 a foreign private company called “Tanzanite One Ltd”, took over the C block for Tanzanite mining and earned themselves repute in the trade, just like the “De Beers” who earns the brand name with diamond mining. The C block is infact the largest Tanzanite mine amongst the four blocks. The miners representing the foreign company, Tanzanite One Ltd have already excavated to a depth of 1000 feet and there is a concern is building up about the drying out of resources of this precious gemstone in the future decades.

However, parallel with this fear Tanzanite has indeed been a great discovery in terms of beauty and as well as utility in the fascinating world of gemstones.

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