The Blood Rubies of Montepuez

Some 40 percent of the world’s rubies lie in one mining concession in Mozambique, where a troubling pattern of violence and death contradicts the claim of “responsibly sourced.”

MONTEPUEZ, Mozambique — Mila Kunis embodies just the kind of woman that Gemfields, the world’s leading supplier of rare colored gemstones, wishes to entice: young, sensual, enigmatic — and affluent. The 32-year-old Hollywood actress, best known for her roles in Black Swan and Oz the Great and Powerful, is the star of Gemfields’s promotional short film, showcasing jewelry made by top designers with stones mined at Montepuez, the world’s largest ruby concession and one of Gemfields’s latest acquisitions. Located in northern Mozambique, Montepuez is thought to hold 40 percent of the world’s known supply of a precious stone that, since antiquity, has been associated with wealth and royalty.

The promotional video has a dreamlike quality to it. Kunis’s delicate features, adorned with what the U.K.-based company describes as “the most precious and revered gemstones in the world,” float in and out of the frame in a slow, almost lascivious motion, the crimson color of her lipstick matching that of glittering earrings, elaborate bracelets, and necklaces, their deep hues enhanced by the paleness of her skin. For Gemfields, which spends a substantial share of its revenue to bring colored gemstones “back to their rightful position, at least equal with diamonds,” as Gemfields CEO Ian Harebottle put it in a 2011 interview, Kunis has been the perfect match.

Gemfields advertises Mila Kunis as its new brand ambassador at a launch event in Hollywood on Feb. 19, 2013. Photo credit: STEFANIE KEENAN/WireImages/via Getty Images.

At pains to differentiate its precious red stones from diamonds, which have increasingly become associated with bloody conflicts, Gemfields boasts that its rubies are “responsibly sourced” and “ethical gemstones.” In Kunis, one of Hollywood’s more socially aware role models, Gemfields found someone “that shared [its] value system,” as Harebottle put it in a 2014 promotional video on Gemfields’s work in Mozambique.

Much is at stake for the company. In recent auctions, Montepuez rubies sold for up to $689 per carat, more than 10 times the price of Gemfields’s emeralds, which in 16 auctions earned $276 million. Auctions for Montepuez rubies are oversubscribed, generating millions of dollars in revenue for the company: $33.5 million in Singapore in June 2014 and some $122.2 million in aggregate revenue since then. The tax and royalties it pays to Mozambique also swell state coffers.

But as the market value of what had lain barely hidden under the red soil of northern Mozambique for millions of years becomes evident, tensions and violent clashes, at times deadly ones, have become commonplace.

In the seven years since ruby deposits were first discovered in Montepuez in northern Mozambique, where the Gemfields concession is located and operated by its 75 percent-owned subsidiary Montepuez Ruby Mining (MRM), locals say they have been forced off their land; armed robberies and violence have soared as speculators have flocked to the area; and a growing number of small-scale miners have been beaten and shot. Some say miners even have been buried alive.

The country’s attorney general, Beatriz Buchili, visited the Montepuez area on April 21 to investigate the reports of violence.

In a written statement, the company said: “Gemfields plc categorically denies the inference that it condones or sanctions acts of violence. Neither Montepuez Ruby Mining Limitada nor its officers, staff or contractors are engaged in violence toward or intimidation of the local community.”

Red vein to riches

Mozambicans lug materials in and out of an illegal ruby mine in the Montepuez area in Nov. 2015. Photo credit: ESTACIO VALOI

Discovered by a local farmer in 2009, the ruby deposit in Montepuez has been hailed by the Gemological Institute of America as “the most important ruby discovery” of the 21st century. The gems are of exceptional quality, color, and clarity. So it’s little wonder that the find has attracted foreigners and Mozambicans alike, all driven by the same desire: To strike it rich.

One such individual is Gen. Raimundo Pachinuapa, a member of the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front, or Frelimo, and former governor of Cabo Delgado province, where Montepuez is located. Pachinuapa allegedly appropriated land belonging to the farmer who initially discovered the rubies.

The general has said he paid for the rights to the land. But members of the Namanhumbir Management Community Committee — the local organization in the ruby mining area 20 miles east of Montepuez that educates citizens about land and resource issues — say he didn’t pay and describe the move as a land grab. The farmer in question, Suleimane Hassane, poor and illiterate, was no match for Pachinuapa and couldn’t assert his land-use rights to challenge the takeover as unfair, committee members say. The World Bank has recognized that land rights are a contentious issue in rural Mozambique, where land titles often are unclear and government officials have exploited ill-informed citizens in land grabs.

Not long after Pachinuapa acquired the property, a company he co-owned called Mwiriti obtained a prospecting license to explore the ruby deposit. According to the Mozambican company register, Mwiriti was registered as a distributor of wholesale and retail goods such as office equipment, not for exploration or mining. In November 2009, Mwiriti expanded its claim to cover some 81,000 acres, or roughly one third of the 386 square miles of newly discovered ruby deposits. The company says it acquired the land legally.

In London, Gemfields was following developments in Mozambique. The country’s 16-year civil war had come to an end in 1992, giving way to multiparty democracy with Frelimo at the helm. In 2009, the country joined the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international organization dedicated to improving transparency in the extractives sector, making the ruby discovery even more attractive to the British gemstone giant, which already held emerald mines in neighboring Zambia.

At the same time, Pachinuapa was seeking a foreign partner to exploit the underground treasure. Well-connected in the Mozambican government from his years in Frelimo and as governor of Cabo Delgado, Pachinuapa was a man who could pull strings in high places. By June 2011, Gemfields had struck a deal with Pachinuapa’s Mwiriti to form a new joint venture — Montepuez Ruby Mining. Gemfields acquired a controlling 75 percent stake in the new company, and Harebottle, Gemfields’s CEO, sits on the MRM board.

The following February, the Mozambican government granted MRM a 25-year mining and exploration license for its 81,000 acres in Montepuez. Pachinuapa and his Mwiriti partner, Asghar Fakhralealii, together retain a 25 percent stake in MRM, and Fakhralealii sits on the company’s board. Pachinuapa’s son Raime is MRM’s head of corporate affairs, but the general himself holds no company or board position and referred all questions to Gemfields, which said in a statement that the entire process of acquiring land rights and licensing has been carried out in full accordance with Mozambican legislation.

Unlike so many other mining endeavors in Africa, Harebottle has pledged on the Gemfields’s website that his company aims to “set new benchmarks for environmental, social and safety practices in the coloured gemstone sector.”

What actually happened over the next three years in Montepuez, as MRM dug more than 100 million dollars’ worth of gems from the ground, was something else entirely: A three-year investigation for 100Reporters — including 10 field trips to the mining area, more than 50 interviews with government officials in the four communities where the MRM concession is located, meetings with miners at their camps, and an examination of court cases — revealed a number of human rights concerns over violence and land rights associated with Gemfields’s operations there, raising questions about its pledge of high ethical standards.

Gangs and thieves

Artisanal miners take a break from working at a ruby pit in the Montepuez area in Nov. 2015. Photo credit: ESTACIO VALOI

Just as America’s 19th-century gold rush attracted prospectors from near and far, Mozambique’s ruby rush has led to an influx of impoverished artisanal miners, unlicensed buyers, smugglers, shady middlemen, and gangs of thieves — all looking to extract wealth from the rich red soil. To protect the massive concession from encroachment by artisanal miners, MRM initially relied upon two government security organizations — the regionally controlled Protection Police, backed up by the nation’s elite military corps, the Rapid Intervention Force (FIR).

Additionally, MRM has about 109 of its own internal security staff patrolling the site to safeguard the company’s property, and it has hired Arkhe Risk Solutions, the local subsidiary of South African firm Omega Risk Solutions, which has deep experience in protective services for extractive industries, as a private security force. Arkhe Risk Solutions employs approximately 470 security officers assigned to MRM, whose job it is to guard the concession, arrest miners digging illegally, and hand them over to local police. Gemfields said its own staff are unarmed and that Arkhe forces have just 12 shotguns supplied with rubber bullets and two pistols, meaning that roughly 3 percent of its forces have weapons.

The government and company securities work closely together. Under the terms of its license, MRM provides basic logistical assistance to government forces, including helping to accommodate them, Gemfields said in a written statement. While government forces have a specific mandate to safeguard the ruby deposits for Mozambique on and off its concession, MRM does not direct them nor do they answer to the company, Gemfields said.

As violence mounted in Montepuez, the government last year replaced FIR with the Natural Resources and Environment Protection Force, a police usually assigned to protect state-owned lands from wildlife poachers and illegal loggers.

What has struck fear into the Montepuez community though is a shadowy gang of thugs known locally as the “Nacatanas,” Portuguese for the machetes they carry. These plainclothes men operate on MRM concession areas, charging into artisanal mining areas wielding heavy sticks and machetes, beating the miners and chasing them into the bush, according to eyewitnesses, local residents, and unlicensed miners. Their command structure is unclear. Gemfields said it neither employs nor sponsors any force carrying machetes. But their presence at the mining concession is unmistakable. This reporter observed them living in company housing along with government forces on MRM property and saw them clearing out an artisanal mine in full view of an MRM security officer. Interviews with miners, local police, prosecutors, and community leaders confirmed that the Nacatanas operate with seeming impunity to rid the MRM concession of these small-scale miners. A video produced by the Gemological Institute of America showed shots fired amid confrontations between machete- and baton-wielding men at the hand-dug pits, with one man in a black T-shirt, emblazoned with the word “Security,” chasing miners off the MRM concession.

“Sometimes the security guards come and only grab our goods, including money and cell phones. Sometimes we have to hide in the bush. But when they come with their bosses, white people, we are always beaten and sometimes shot,” said an artisanal miner, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. Other miners made similar statements.

MRM referred all questions to its parent company. Gemfields said it is investigating why there was shooting in the GIA video. While it said it is aware of the term Nacatanas, Gemfields understands the term is used to describe aggressive gangs associated with different groups of artisanal miners working the ruby deposits, not only those on the MRM concession. But it strongly denied they work on behalf of the company.

“The allegation that MRM, or any of its contractors, are sponsoring informal security forces armed with machetes called ‘Nacatanas’ is not only categorically false — it is preposterous and deeply offensive,” Gemfields said in a written statement.

Given the sprawling size of the MRM concession and the density of the bush, it is easy for the artisanal miners, known in Portuguese as garimpeiros, to work without being spotted. But the garimpeiros must dig deep to find rubies, leaving them vulnerable at the bottom of deep hand-hewn pits and in narrow tunnels when they are discovered.

Nacatanas aren’t the only ones to attack them; so too do uniformed government forces, according to eyewitness accounts and court records. Ordinarily, when security forces come across these artisanal mines, they force the garimpeiros out of the pits, sometimes using bulldozers to fill the mineshafts afterward. But, according to witnesses, garimpeiros have been assaulted, abused, and even killed during expulsion operations.

“My son Antonio Geronimo was fatally shot by the men of FIR in Ncoloto-Namanhumbir,” Geronimo Potia said, referring to a mining area within the MRM concession in Cabo Delgado. “He died on the way to the rural hospital.”

Antonio’s father said that no one from MRM or the police helped his son after he’d been shot in April last year. A group of Tanzanian and Somali prospectors pooled their money to take him to the hospital and pay for medical care and transportation. When Antonio died en route, they tied his body to a motorbike and took him home for burial.

Manuel Artur, an 18-year-old miner, met a similar fate. His father, Artur Pacore, said some of his fellow miners had seen an FIR officer shoot Manuel in the abdomen. “He crawled about a hundred meters but did not survive. He died on the way to Namanhumbir hospital,” Pacore said.

Jorge Mamudo, another artisanal miner, said an FIR agent shot at his right foot in the MRM mining area of Ncoloto on July 7, 2014. “When the FIR men arrived, I was in a pit,” Mamudo said. “They told us to come out from the pit. It took me about five minutes, and when I got out, an FIR member shot directly at my foot and went away. Some Somalis and Tanzanians helped me” get to the hospital, he said.

FIR did not respond to requests for an interview. Gemfields said the government replaced FIR on April 22, 2015, with the natural resources police, which has 35 personnel, mandated to protect Mozambique’s natural wealth, operating on or around the MRM license.

Miners say they are often unwilling to come out of the pits for fear of being shot or beaten by the security forces or forced to turn over any rubies they have found. The consequences can be disastrous.

Abdul, an artisanal miner from a village near the Montepuez concession, said he was there when his cousin was buried alive by what he said was an MRM bulldozer. Abdul, who asked to be referred to only by his first name, said he had been prospecting in the region for seven years. Then, in August 2015, tragedy struck. “Three of us were inside a 3- to 4-meter hole, digging. Two of us left to hide rubies in the bush, around 100 meters away from the pit, leaving my cousin behind. When we got back, we saw the bulldozer fill in the hole. My cousin was still inside.”

Gemfields said it would check its records to see whether Abdul’s cousin was buried in the collapse of a mine he had dug and added, in written response to questions: “The inference that MRM buries illegal miners alive by driving its digging machines over their excavations while they are in them is both libellous and unfounded.”

While its policy is to shut down and fill the artisanal mines on the MRM concession, Gemfields said it follows a stringent process to ensure that no MRM machine has ever killed a miner digging illegally, whether by accident or intentionally.

Local authorities claim there is no way of checking if miners are trapped down below. “The dimensions of the tunnels are deep and long, so we cannot affirm whether any deaths occurred,” said Arcanjo Cassia, the Montepuez district administrator. A committee is investigating the underground deaths to determine whether they are caused by tunnels collapsing or by machines that drive over and fill the artisanal mines, he said.

Mining executives in London have been put on notice about mounting violence and security problems at their MRM subsidiary. In a July 2015 report prepared for Gemfields, the firm SRK Consulting wrote that “conflict with illegal miners” constitutes one of “the most significant risks at MRM … related to social issues.”

The rising number of garimpeiros in and around the concession has led to a spike in violence generally. Between December 2013 and December 2014, the district registered its largest upsurge in crime ever, with an average of one assault per day, according to Cassia. Fifteen fatal shootings occurred over the same period, including six murders in broad daylight between June and August 2014. Figures for 2015 were not yet available.

Pompilio Xavier Wazamguia, Montepuez’s attorney general, attributes much of the crime to building tensions between armed security forces charged with protecting the ruby deposits and unlicensed miners prospecting for gems. “Our forces are the ones using weapons, not the miners,” the attorney general said in an interview. “Some security force members were tried and convicted.”

His office processed more than 10 murder cases against police officers between January 2013 and January 2015, plus 35 to 40 cases involving armed robberies allegedly by police officers stealing from locals and miners, according to the attorney general. In another case, two policemen were convicted of severing a resident’s arm, he said.

The surge in crime has led to a severe backlog with some 950 cases pending in the Montepuez district court and in the provincial court in Pemba. Tracking these cases is extremely difficult in a remote part of the country where records are kept in paper files and courts are not computerized, making it hard to determine the extent to which private or government forces tasked with securing the Montepuez ruby concession were responsible for the reported deaths and assaults. Of the nine trials and convictions of security forces implicated in attacks and murders of miners in the ruby mining region since 2012, government forces are implicated in six to date.

Gemfields said it was aware of the FIR shooting and killing of two miners digging illegally, one Mozambican and one Tanzanian, on the MRM concession area. Two Arkhe security guards also have been accused of violence including one killing, a Gemfields spokesman said.

Arkhe security guard Severiano Francisco was charged in the shooting death of Calisto Carlos during a confrontation on July 6, 2012, with some 300 miners digging illegally at the MRM concession. The provincial court judge in Pemba. Dr. Essimela Momade, ruled in 2013 that the evidence in the case was inconclusive and has released Severiano on personal recognizance. The Montepuez attorney general, whose office compiled the evidence, said he was investigating what happened. 

Gemfields pledged to investigate any other incidents.

Many of the worst cases involving artisanal miners remain uninvestigated. According to garimpeiros interviewed for this article, members of the Nacatanas have infiltrated the ranks of miners to discover new veins of the precious stone. When rubies are found, the miners are forcibly removed, sometimes with fatal consequences, but some of the attacks and killings are never officially reported for fear of retaliation, said Wazamguia, the Montepuez attorney general.

Gemfields’s denial that Nacatanas are employed or sponsored by MRM is contradicted by the Montepuez attorney general, local officials, miners, and even company security personnel who spoke to this reporter on the condition they remain anonymous for fear of their safety.

We will not leave, even if they kill us here

Mozambican women balance containers on their heads on March 1, 2016. Photo credit: EPA/ANTONIO SILVA

 The violence in Montepuez is intertwined with the government’s expansion of industrial areas that has seen locals forcibly removed from their homes. On Sept. 15, 2014, more than two years after Gemfields acquired rights to the concession through the joint venture with MRM, FIR operatives burned down some 300 houses in the market villages of Namucho and Ntoro, in the Namanhumbir region of Montepuez, and beat residents, according to interviews with the village chief, local residents, and artisanal miners. A similar burning had occurred in September 2012, which FIR and Protection Police contend was necessary to clean up the mining region ahead of a visit by then-President Armando Guebuza.

“They took our lands and burned our houses,” said one villager, whose testimony was echoed by others. “Now they even want us out of our villages, to abandon our traditions and go to places where there is no water and the land is not good for agriculture. We will not leave, even if they kill us here.”

Ali Abdala, formerly a resident of the Namucho-Ntoro community in Montepuez, accused MRM representatives of forcing residents to sign documents handing over land against their will while promising they would not have to move. “They lied to us,” Abdala said bitterly. “Because we are black and poor, the company thinks they can do whatever they want.”

Members of the 2,000-strong Ntsewe community in Namanhumbir confirmed Abdala’s claim that people were never told they would have to relocate.

Gemfields said that “clearances” of local communities were carried out by state forces in accordance with Mozambican law. Structures were cleared only “after due notice was issued, and due caution was taken to ensure that they were empty and abandoned prior to clearing,” said Olivia Young, the London-based spokeswoman for Gemfields, by email last year. According to Young, the structures that were pulled down had been built illegally by newly arrived migrants; those inhabitants with legitimate historical land claims were registered for resettlement, which has yet to occur.

But the SRK report commissioned by Gemfields paints a somewhat different picture. The report said it could find no evidence of the mining company engaging in comprehensive discussions with the Ntsewe community and other affected parties about removing them from their homes and land. “Evidence of comprehensive stakeholder engagement of all affected parties is absent,” the report read.

Asked about these allegations, Gemfields said in a written statement in March that it has acted legally and that “extensive discussions” with local communities have taken place. Only one village, Ntoro, is likely to be relocated under a plan submitted to the government, while 95 families have reached an “amicable agreement” to receive compensation in line with Mozambican legislation, it said.

“MRM remains fully compliant with resettlement laws in Mozambique and works closely with the authorities and the communities that may come to be affected by resettlement. The insinuation therefore that this is a ‘land grab’ is preposterous,” the company said in its statement.

While Gemfields markets itself as setting “new benchmarks for environmental, safety and social practices in the coloured gemstone mining industry,” some of those who live on its land of buried treasures say they have been stripped of their livelihood without their voices being heard. The SRK report noted that meetings that took place in March 2014 as part of the renewal process for MRM’s environmental license were attended primarily by government representatives without input from local residents. “Community representatives from nearby communities did not participate in this meeting and therefore their issues and concerns were not included in the [Environmental Impact Assessment] process,” the SRK report concludes.

The arrival last year of the Natural Resources and Environment Protection Force, run by the Ministry of Land, Environment, and Rural Development, to replace FIR has done nothing to stem the violence. Wazamguia, the Montepuez attorney general, said that miner deaths have increased, but he did not directly blame the new forces.

“From January to March, we had some deaths connected to their arrival. Four cases are under investigation, and we have photographs illustrating deaths of people found in the mining area. Testimonies clearly say people were killed, and they were not killed from stray bullets. We do not know who the shooters were,” Wazamguia said.

Neither the Land, Environment, and Rural Development Ministry nor the Interior Ministry, which bears ultimate responsibility for the security forces, responded to questions submitted by email or telephone. The Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy declined to comment.

Mutual interest

Riot police suppress democratic protesters in a central port city during municipal elections on Nov. 20, 2013. Photo Credit: MARIA CELESTE MACARTHUR/AFP/Getty Images

The company and government share a clear mutual interest in minimizing the unlicensed mining and smuggling of gemstones from the Montepuez area. For the government, it means protecting tax revenues and foreign currency earnings; for the company, it’s about safeguarding potential profits. This reporter has observed both government and private security forces living and working on the MRM property and in the mining areas.

Gemfields acknowledged its close cooperation with the government. “Government forces present on the concession have a specific mandate and remit to safeguard what is a key national asset of Mozambique,” it said in written response to questions.

“MRM does maintain an active dialogue with the authorities in the interests of upholding the law,” Gemfields said, adding that under the terms of its license, it is obligated to provide basic assistance to government forces, including helping to accommodate them. But it said the company has no authority over them and that government forces do not operate on its behalf.

“That assistance does not mean that the government forces are in any way directed by MRM, or otherwise accountable to MRM. To insinuate or infer that any logistical assistance provided means that MRM directs government forces is of course completely false,” Gemfields said.

“Gemfields has no authority or remit over government forces, and cannot be held accountable for their actions. However, we are certainly disturbed by any act or allegation of violence, and investigate such as a matter of course. We are working with third-party investigators to do so,” the company said.

Gemfields said that it provides human rights training for all its security personnel, both Arkhe and MRM internal security, and that in its dialogue with all levels of Mozambican authorities, it emphasizes the importance of human rights. The SRK report recommends that MRM uphold human rights standards for both government and private forces. It also recommended including in its security contracts reference to “Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights” — international guidelines established in 2000 by governments, companies, and NGOs to guide extractive sector companies in maintaining the safety and security of their operations while also respecting human rights — which Gemfields said is part of Arkhe’s contract. SRK also proposed maintaining a record of the implementation of these guidelines. This reporter in five visits could find no evidence on-site or supplied by MRM that it had complied with this recommendation.

Kunis, the actress featured in Gemfields’s promotional video, did not respond to repeated requests for comment submitted through her public relations representative. But in a 2015 interview with London’s Daily Telegraph, she said that “believing in a brand” was “really important” to her. That’s why she traveled in 2013 to Zambia, where Gemfields mines emeralds, to verify the company’s ethical claims in person, she said. 

This past February, her three-year contract as brand ambassador for Gemfields expired, and the company said it will be phasing out her image on its website. Neither she nor the company gave a reason.

Top photo credit: ROSINO/Flickr

Estacio Valoi is a Mozambican investigative journalist. The investigation was funded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and co-published with 100Reporters.