As unemployment continues to affect an estimated 90% of the population, a growing number of Zimbabweans are turning to sand poaching as a means of bringing money into their homes.
The most recent cases have involved villagers in Chisumbanje, where people employed by an ethanol plant there are resorting to river sand poaching to support their families. The workers have been trying to survive on half pay since the plant suspended operations in February.
The closure of the plant has been linked to political bickering, after ZANU PF Minister Didymus Mutasa gave party crony Billy Rautenbach permission to take over 5,000 hectares of land at the Chisumbanje Estate (then owned by the Agricultural and Rural Development Authority - ARDA) to grow sugarcane for production of ethanol fuel. In the same year Mutasa reportedly signed a letter authorising Rautenbach to operate the ethanol project at Chisumbanje, but never disclosed this to Cabinet.
A government investigation was then launched to resolve issues at the plant and according to a report released by that committee in September, the Ethanol Project was abusing the community and their livestock. The report also said the project had misrepresented the facts of the multi-million-dollar venture to the government.
The report also noted the need for the project to be reopened as soon as possible. In the meantime, thousands of workers and their families have turned to illegal river sand poaching from the Save River to supplement their small income.
A recent report from the area described women and children loading trucks with river sand, in an illegal syndicate that sees the villagers getting paid only five dollars for a 15 ton truck load of sand.
A similar situation has been playing out elsewhere in the country, including around the capital Harare, where sand sellers are digging and excavating anywhere they can. Precious Shumba from the Harare Resident's Trust told SW Radio Africa on Thursday that in areas like Glen Norah, Mabkuva, Tafara and Water Falls, groups of mainly unemployed youths are digging for sand and selling it.
"Along the roads you find trenches have been dug and the result is serious road erosion. There are also other areas where big holes have been dug, and usually you find it is people just trying to supplement their small incomes or make some money," Shumba said.
He said the situation has been allowed to get out of control because of a "systems collapse" at local authority level that means basic monitoring and environmental regulations are not followed. He also said that the myriad of social problems in Zimbabwe means people are becoming increasingly desperate.
"There is a serious challenge to sort this out, because of the multiplicity of problems facing the communities. There are so many problems that need to be addressed," Shumba said.