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Follow the Zebra: An Interview with Philippe Brunot

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

By Eunsun  Cho

Independent filmmaker Philippe Brunot has committed himself to the mammoth task of producing a series of films about the lives and dreams of miners around the world. In May 2015, he released the first installment in the series, Follow the Zebra, which features the lives of small-scale miners in Tanzania. World Policy Journal sat down to talk with Mr. Brunot about his film and his observations of the mining world. 

World Policy Journal: Where did your interest in capturing mining on film begin?

Philippe Brunot: I have a gemologist friend–Guillaume Soubirraa–who used to travel around the world with two of his mentors, Vincent Pardieu and Richard Hughes. I started getting really interested in his work, and he allowed me to come along to their trip to Tanzania. 

Before I joined the trip, I didn’t know what I was getting into. The fact that I embarked on this journey with total neutrality is what makes this film different. I discovered who the miners are and the specifics of their work in the same way that a viewer does when watching my film.

WPJ: Do you think there is an urgency that people should know about small-scale mining?

Brunot: When I started getting into this world, I learned that there are not many documentaries that provide a fair and balanced portrayal of the gemstone world. There are films like Blood Diamond, but my film specializes in colored gemstones, not diamond or gold. I thought there is a need for people both in and out of the industry for such documentaries.

WPJ: What did you hope to achieve by creating this film?

Brunot: I hope that those who are foreign to the mining world see beyond the material beauty of the gemstone, the extraordinary lives of men and women who are the first in the line of production. My hope is that, with this film revealing the lives and dreams of these individuals, people can recognize and respect their will, effort, and dreams. 

WPJ: How much impact do small-scale miners have on the economy of the country?

Brunot: The impact is pretty big. It was estimated that 550,000 Tanzanians live off small-scale mining, and 95 percent of them are undeclared miners according to the World Bank. One article cited that the value of Tanzanian gemstone exports represented $380 million per year. If you subtract the estimated amount of export made by the registered mining industry, the remaining is supposed to be from undeclared miners. 

WPJ: Were there any surprising facts or realities that you learned over the course of the film?

Brunot: I was amazed to see that independent tribes, such as the Masai, were actually fervent and respected gemstone gatherers. The Masai are probably the first discoverers of tanzanite, the precious blue stone that is uniquely found in Tanzania. They remain cattle herders at heart, but they also trade gemstone to supplement their revenue. 

I saw a parallel when I saw the miners, who are farmers but go on mining during the dry season. Just like the Masai, they don’t depend on that trade. I think this demonstrates how gemstones are integral parts of this country’s wealth and economy.

WPJ: Do small-scale miners have any competitive edge in the market, compared to large big corporations?

Brunot: First, small-scale miners have lower recurring cost. Because they invest less capital into buying heavy machines, when they find and sell a stone, the profit is going to be greater. 

Another advantage is their flexibility. Small-scale miners can venture into some of the most secluded parts of the country, where large companies would not even think about searching for gemstones. They travel around potential sources of gemstones. In other cases, they are already living in those areas. When the miners discover new sources of gemstones, they are the first to make profit.

Lastly, it is very difficult to bring heavy machines to some of these areas. However, small-scale miners can bring their simple tools to those regions. In Vietnam as well, only small-scale miners can exploit the gemstone sources high up in the mountains, because only they can reach those points. 

WPJ: Many Tanzanians turn to unregistered mining, which poses great physical and economic risks, as an alternative career. Does it reflect a lack of viable economic options in Tanzania?

Brunot: Not necessarily. When I had a screening at Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco, on July 23, 2014, to industry professionals, they told me that they were surprised to see how the working conditions of the miners in the film were similar to their own. Although there are some differences, the basics of gemstone mining without machinery are pretty much the same everywhere. 

For many farmers, farming alone doesn’t bring enough income to rise up the social ladder and to feed their family. On the other hand, gems are high value-added products. If they hit a big pocket, people leave the gemstone world for good to set up a completely new business. Even if Tanzanians had other options, I don’t think gemstone mining will ever disappear.

WPJ: How much is the Tanzanian government aware of the miners’ presence and activities? 

Brunot: The government is pretty much aware of the unofficial mining sector. However, because these miners discover new sources of gemstone, they know it will be counterproductive to intervene in the undeclared mining field.

In some cases, the government directly manages the mining sites. In Merelani, for instance, the government made some sites open to foreign investors and large-scale mining companies while leaving other sites reserved for local miners. 

WPJ: Does the physical and economic toil of small-scale mining affect the worldview of the miners?

Brunot: When I was in Merelani, there was a tag on the wall saying, “The price of freedom is not cheap.” That gives me a glimpse of how tough the lives of these miners are. In order to acquire additional financial power and rise up the social ladder, they endure one of the toughest jobs in the world.

WPJ: In Tanzania, what policy changes are needed now to make mining a more feasible and accessible option for all? 

Brunot: In 2003, the Tanzanian government banned the export of unprocessed Tanzanite to India. Instead, the government should try to educate local Tanzanians about gemstone mining techniques, heat treatment, and gem cutting. Miners come from all different fields, so they do not have proper knowledge about mining. Education will allow the miners to add value to the stone before it gets exported, so that more of the income is left in Tanzania. Educating the miners on treating, cutting, and adding value to gemstones will eventually increase the efficiency of their work. 

*****

*****

Eunsun Cho is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Phillipe Brunot]

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