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

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.

Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam