Dispute in Namibia: Local gemstone miners are evicted from their settlements by a company part-owned by Tony Buckingham, the British buccaneer businessman linked to the firm behind the arms-to-Africa scandal; Hope of treasure turns to dust for miners

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The Independent Online
LUCKY METIRAPI squints through the dust as another sand storm erupts in the wake of a passing pick-up. The thick clouds descend on his baby son, squatting half-naked in the middle of a settlement, pitiful even by African standards.

Holes yawn through patchworks of dirty rag, polythene, and hessian, which only partially cover a long, shambolic line of shacks strung along both sides of the dirt road, south of Karibib, in the wild, semi-desert of central Namibia.

Hundreds are struggling to survive along this isolated roadside with no running water, no electricity and no sanitation, knowing a strong wind is all it would take to displace the stones holding down the shack coverings and flatten their homes.

Lucky, 32, the articulate Bob Marley look-alike who leads these people, calls them the Lost Community of Neu Schwaben. He and his neighbours have been squatting on the edge of Neu Schwaben farm since their eviction two months ago by Indigo Sky Gems, a mining company which bought the exclusive prospecting rights on the farm in 1996, and whose principal shareholder is Tony Buckingham.

Mr Buckingham is a publicity shy millionaire businessman, better known in connection with the Sandline and arms to Sierra Leone affair. Before Indigo arrived, local "small" miners - indigenous diggers who operate alone or in small groups - had been engaged in an illegal, but unchallenged free-for-all in their search for tourmaline, a semi-precious gem stone. At Neu Schwaben the tourmaline equivalent of a gold rush had sucked in 1,000 diggers. Namibians were joined by miners from across southern Africa; somehow rumours of rich tourmaline deposits had spread as far as Zaire and Mozambique.

The meeting of Third World miners, surviving from day to day, and a foreign commercial firm eager to expand in a country half the size of western Europe and with unexploited mineral wealth, has proved an ugly mix. Attempts by Indigo to bring some order to operations, and stamp their ownership on the mine, has met with fierce opposition.

There have been evictions, court battles and violent confrontations. Later this month, Indigo, the first foreign company to attempt to mine Namibian tourmaline in a systematic way, will again be in court seeking an injunction against the Mayor of Karibib and a local MP, who is a government minister, to prevent them coming on site and "inciting" the workers.

This week the miners' committee gathered to discuss their strategy. They sat by the road side: Lucky, Kones Haikali, 48, Ben Katambo, 34, all perched on rusting tin cans, and Endelena Hinyelewa, 52, a mother of seven, sitting flat out in the dirt.

As another dust cloud churned up and a drunk miner rolled up to stab a finger at the farm's perimeter fence and shout insults at Indigo's owners, Lucky insisted Indigo, its sister company Camelthorn Mining, and Mr Buckingham were to blame for the squalor. And he accused the Namibian government - the former black liberation force the South West African Peoples Organisation (Swapo), which took power in 1990 - of helping Indigo to move against the workers.

"The company promised the government it would keep us on the mine to win its licence" he says. "But when they got it they came up with an excuse to evict us. And the government has done nothing to help."

In his calloused hands Lucky clutches shards of blue tourmaline. It is for this that he risks his life every day, gouging the earth, then lowering himself precariously from a rope into holes up to five metres deep.

The "bitch of minerals" is notoriously difficult to mine. Local dealers insist tourmaline cannot be commercially extracted in the Namibian desert and whisper mysteriously that Indigo must have a "hidden agenda".

Miners can toil for three, or even six months without locating a tourmaline pocket; only those with no other options and nothing to lose would scratch on. Asked why they do not move from the roadside to look for other work, Lucky looks incredulous. "Move on where, madam?" he asks. "There is nowhere to go."

None of the miners has met Mr Buckingham but they all know his name, and amazingly, given their resources and isolation, they have an Internet printout about his links with mercenary companies Executive Outcomes and Sandline International. "Madam, can you get me a picture of Tony Buckingham?" asks Lucky. "So we can know who we are fighting. He has been to Namibia but never come to visit, though I'm sure he knows our situation."

In the leather-chaired lounge of the Kalahari Sands, one of Windhoek's top hotels, Russell Hay, an English businessman and director of Indigo and Camelthorn, shrugs off Namibian newspaper reports that the government is investigating allegations that his companies lied about their connections, through Mr Buckingham, with mercenary outfits.

"The government is welcome to investigate," says Mr Hay, a long-time Swapo supporter, who says his government connections have led to a host of company directorships. "We have nothing to hide." He also dismisses rumours that Sandline is to provide security at the troubled Neu Schwaben mine.

Mr Hay denies there are links between Indigo, Camelthorn and Sandline and EO, adding that EO has been "a force for good in Africa". For a man who championed the cause of black Namibia against oppressive white South Africa in the 1970s, he has an unsentimental view of the evicted workers, with whom he says there was never any promise to keep.

"We are perfectly within our rights to kick them off," he says. "And to tell the deputy minister and the Mayor to stay away. Tourmaline was being smuggled out left, right and centre and we were offered the rubbish."

Indigo had promised to set up a US$1m (pounds 620,000) cutting and polishing plant in Windhoek to process gems from all over the country. The absence of such a plant in Namibia boosts the illegal flood of gems across its borders. The government was, therefore, delighted by Indigo's promised investment.

Indigo's critics ask what has become of the plant. But Mr Hay says the Neu Schwaben mining dispute - a "PR disaster" - is preventing the company fulfilling its promise. "The long-term objective is to establish Namibia as the centre of the gem industry," says Mr Hay. "But that needs order."

This week there is deadlock. More than 400 miners in the roadside squat have been issued by Indigo with passes to mine. The foreign miners have gone. But Indigo is not buying from those still digging.

Meanwhile, the government speaks with many voices. Jesaya Nyamu, the Deputy Minister for Mines and Energy, has said the government is investigating allegations that Indigo and Camelthorn provided misleading information about their links with EO and Sandline.

But Hidipo Hamutenya, the Minister for Trade and Industry, has defended the companies, insisting it was unreasonable to expect them to honour their promise of a factory when workers were defying Namibia's mineral and mining laws.

He has said that when Indigo set up in Namibia, Mr Buckingham's "extra Namibian activities" were not a preoccupation. The government was reassured by his association with Ranger Oil in Namibia and his investment in the Soyu oil installation in Angola.