A cabinet minister, who has witnessed the deliberate burning of bush and trees by illegal gold panners, has warned of the severe damage being done to the environment and urged government to urgently introduce policies that create jobs and protect the environment.
Education Minister David Coltart told SW Radio Africa that he has seen hundreds of thousands of hectares of bush burned over the last three months, as he drives from Bulawayo to his office and cabinet meetings in Harare. The fires he saw were lit close to the road near Shangani.
The Minister stopped and spoke to some of the illegal panners on one occasion, and they told him that they were deliberately lighting fires to get rid of bush, grass and trees that get in the way of their metal detectors. They said a mini gold rush hit the area recently after deposits of alluvial gold were discovered.
The panners are being allowed to do this with impunity by local ZANU PF leaders, under the guise of indigenisation. But Coltart warned that the fires and panning in rivers are destroying river systems and turning the country into a desert.
"I find it ironic that the very same people allowing this rampant abuse of the environment by allowing gold panners to operate without interference from police, are the ones responsible for deterring efforts to create good jobs for the people," Coltart said.
The warning comes amid reports that illegal gold panners are currently being allowed to operate without any interference from the police, when in the past they have been arrested and jailed for at least five years. But it has been reported that ZANU PF is allowing illegal panning as an election campaign tactic, in order to get votes.
"It is critical that everyone understand the issues. And the issue of environment is not being debated adequately. We need serious policies that are not in the interest of just one political party but the interests of all Zimbabwean people and the country," Coltart said.
He warned that unless the illegal panning stops, the country could be transformed into a wasteland and desert.