3 February 2012

Zimbabwe: Cost of Illegal Gold Panning

Photo: David Morton/IRIN
Zimbabwean gold panners.

OVER the years, vast tracts of land have been dug up and gaping holes left in the earth as panners scour the country for its vast gold resources.

More finds of the yellow metal along rivers and the Great Dyke have triggered a rush of illegal panners in Kwekwe, Kadoma, Bindura and Mazowe areas.

Since time immemorial, gold panning has provided much-needed income to many families. However, panning has increased in the last decade as the economic downturn that hit the country resulted in many companies closing down, creating multitudes of jobless people.

But the search for the yellow metal has come at a cost to the environment.

As environment pressure group, Environment Africa put it, illegal "go-ld panning is the root cause of soil er-osion and rampant land degradation".

"In alluvial gold panning (panning along river banks), soil is loosened and left for erosion as rains come. Aquatic life is affected greatly as the water changes colour permanently," said Kudakwashe Gwande of Environment Africa.

"Living water plants die as they cannot photosynthesise due to the highly turbid water. Where the panning is on land, trees are lost and the land is left degraded," added Gwande.

Gwande explained that the gold rush in Chimanimani in mid 2000 resulted in the loss of a commercial timber in Taka forest.

So, with over 90 percent of the country's population unemployed and 68 percent living below the poverty datum line, the multitudes arriving in areas where gold is discovered are to be expected as they seek to put food on the table.

This has left political parties pushing their agendas for support in the gold fields as witnessed in Kwekwe's Sherwood Block recently, a development critics have said is detrimental to the ecosystem and long term survival of agricultural land.

Late last year, a fierce gold rush erupted in Kwekwe where thousands of illegal gold panners descended on Sherwood Block, about 10 kilometres outside the city following discovery of gold deposits by Amaveni Suburb residents.

The Sherwood gold fields quickly became a political issue with ZANU-PF moving in to claim the area through Owen Ncube who is the party's provincial security officer.

Last year, Bindura also experienced an influx of gold panners with reports that the panners were threatening the town's infrastructure.

Complaints then were that the illegal mining activities, which were being carried out close to the city were dangerous to both the environment and human lives.

Eric Navaya, legislator for Mudzi South also complained about environmental degradation caused by illegal gold panning.

Navaya complained to the media that gullies created by panning were becoming a safety hazard in the local area, Makaha being the most affected by the activities.

Here, small-scale regist-ered miners have set up equipment to mine gold at the heart of the township. Gold buyers, especially foreigners from China and Nigeria, travel from Harare to buy the precious metal.

He bemoaned the pollution in the rivers and the possible eventuality of the rivers drying up due to siltation brought about by gold panning.

Press reports also indicate that most resettled farmers around Kwekwe and Kadoma have had their farms invaded by gold panners or have resorted to panning themselves.

However, the Environmental Management Agency, (EMA) says mining is a prescribed activity in the country and as such is subject to an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

"All miners should be registered, whether they are gold panners or big companies.

They should carryout EIAs. They need a certificate from EMA to allow monitoring, to check if they are doing continuous rehabilitation of the land they are carrying out they mining activities on," said Steady Kangata, the education and publicity manager at EMA.

Kangata explained that the country is rich in natural resources and this has widened the livelihoods options for communities.

He mourned that the high unemployment rate has contributed to the rampant gold panning activities the country has witnessed.

"Their ventures must be sustainable and socially acceptable. They must be environmentally friendly," charged Kangata.

But Gwande was less populist. "The fact that gold panning is not sustainable and cannot be monitored as provided in actual mining through the EIAs, which provide for an environmental plan in line with the Environmental Management Act 20:27."

He accused the panners of not caring for environmental conservation.

"The panners just extract whatever is in the soil and leave it for degradation," charged Gwande.

He lamented the capacity of the EMA to carry out its mandate to police the environment effectively saying there is discord between the EMA Act and the Minerals Act.

Gwande called for government to realign the two Acts so that they complement each other for the good of the environment.

The environmentalist urged politicians to inject enough political will in efforts to curb illegal gold panning activities in the country.

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