Environment under siege from illegal panners

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The discovery of alluvial gold deposits usually results in stampedes involving people from the area hoping for a golden opportunity to amass instant riches.

Panners almost always have no regard for the environment and their “work” is characterised by indiscriminate cutting down of trees and the land is usually left “bleeding and suffocated”.

Holes and pits dug in endless search of precious minerals are not filled posing danger to fauna roaming in the mining areas.

The Great Dyke area is the richest mineral belt in the country and because of that, it has been the most degraded area. Though the belt has other minerals such as chrome, it is illegal gold panning which has reduced the mineral-rich area into a land of dongas and gullies.

“We can not mine other minerals such as chrome because there are no ready buyers. There is lucrative market for gold, that is why it is popular here,” said an illegal gold panner in Shurugwi.

“Some of the big companies which are here require people to have lots of qualifications when applying for jobs. Besides, the money that they pay after 31 days is much less than what we get when we sell gold acquired in a few hours,” said one of the panners who refused to be named.

“It is our belief we should enjoy the resources that are readily available in our area. It’s our wealth and it should benefit the community. Whether it’s lawful or not is not our worry as long as we get money to put food on the table and send our children to school. We can not fill the gullies because we are constantly playing ‘cat-and-mouse’ with the police,” added the panner.

Sanyati River has suffered from illegal panner activity in the area with water usually polluted and some parts of the river badly damaged.

The panners kill every animal they come across and the area is fast degenerating into a desert.

Panners have no regard for the infrastructure as the current land degradation caused by them is only worsening the state of roads. Most telephone poles and cables in the area have fallen and been vandalised.

Despite police attempts to clamp down on the illegal activity, there are still many panners working in the area.

Environmentalists have warned if urgent action is not taken to end the current situation, the area will have a disaster on its hands. Recently, Phanuel Mangisi, the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) ecosystems protection officer, said a lot of damage had been caused by the illegal panners.

“The first problem we are faced with is the destruction of vegetation. The panners are also using dangerous chemicals like cyanide and mercury in rivers which endanger livestock and people who use the water.

“The underground shafts miners have opened up are also understood to be encroaching into the road, thereby increasing chances of accidents,” said Mangisi.

He added infrastructure had been severely compromised by the panners.

“Telephone poles and electricity poles have been uprooted. Panners will stop at nothing to get gold,” he said.

Henry Madhiri, a local environmentalist, added education campaigns and enforcement of the law were crucial.

“The people there need to be educated about the importance of conserving the environment. At the same time, police should continue to make raids and disperse them,” Nyoka said.

Mining companies have also been accused of neglecting the environment after extracting much prized resources.

According to the vice-chairman of the Runde Rural District Council in Zvishavane, Councillor Norman Sibanda, many mining companies have come and gone in the Mapanzure area of Zvishavane, extracted as much chrome as they wanted and dug dam-size pits.

After looting the area, they have disappeared leaving it severely damaged and posing a danger to humans, livestock and water sources.

He said companies like GR Goddard, Zimasco and local small-scale miners were responsible for massive environmental damage and what appalled local communities in the mining areas of the Great Dyke was that these companies dug, took their loot and disappeared without giving back to the community or rehabilitating the environment.

During the visit by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines and Energy in Zvishavane, MPs struggled to get access to the mines as large heaps of rubble were dumped on the road, allegedly by contracted miners who had promised to repair the roads in the area.

The road was almost inaccessible and Sibanda said mining companies had pretended they were interested in levelling the roads, but they just dumped the rubble and after their mining operations were completed they left it lying there.

According to Sibanda, cattle were often falling into the deep pits and some villagers had fallen into pits at night and got injured or lost their lives.

Villagers in mining areas said while all the denigration of the environment was happening, not a single mining company was carrying out sensible corporate social responsibility programmes like providing schools, clinics or even securing water sources.

EMA has in the past issued out tickets to perpetrators of environmental crimes. Most of them did not pay and the police were powerless to force violators to pay fines and to cover the deep pits they left open through their mining operations.

“We has told miners to erect signs to show it is a mining area so that the danger warning signs deter people from entering the dangerous area full of deep pits.

“The area should also be barricaded to minimise accidents, but the problem is that chrome mining areas are vast and they say it is difficult to fence off the area. Fencing off mining areas is regulated in the Mining and Minerals Act,” said EMA district environmental officer for Zvishavane, Sally Masendeke.