THIRTY-EIGHT-YEAR-OLD father of four, Ngoni of Ruvimbo Township in Chinhoyi wakes up as early as five o’clock every morning to go to work. In his hands are a shovel, a pick and different other tools. His trade — sand poaching!
SPECIAL REPORT BY JACKIE MBAYIWA-MAKUVATSINE
Ngoni is not the only person who engages in this illegal activity.
Hundreds of other men and women in Chinhoyi and other big cities such as Harare, Gweru and Chitungwiza have turned to sand poaching for survival as the country reels under harsh economic conditions with only less than 15% of the population in formal employment.
In Chinhoyi, Ngoni and others are extracting sand from the prominent Hunyani River and causing siltation. They are also destroying a stream that stretches into that river from the Lucky 7 shopping centre in broad daylight as authorities turn a blind eye.
The rains of the past season eroded the soil in the area and new gorges are being formed.
The Lucky 7 area is now full of dongas, but the sand poachers argue they are not solely responsible for land degradation taking place in the area as the local authorities were also extracting sand from the area and not doing any land reclamation afterwards.
“When Zanu PF held their conference here last year, council workers came to take some sand for construction of the congress venue. They even come to collect these stones. So it is not all our fault as we are only following what the leaders themselves started,” Ngoni said.
A young man who only identified himself as Kabila said siltation of the stream was the least of their worries as they were only concerned about putting food on their tables.
“If the river silts, maybe the government will become serious about creating income-generating projects for us. Why do we have to be worried about siltation when we do not have money to feed our children, I think the latter is more important,” Kabila said.
Kabila claimed that even officials from the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) bought bricks, river and pit sand from them, hence were not strict on enforcing environmental laws against them.
“We could even show you some big houses which some EMA officials are building from material they buy from us, there is also a very big shop there at Lucky 7 which belongs to one of them, so of course they just force us to buy their expensive licenses, but on the other hand they buy the stuff from us,” Kabila said.
Several trucks could be seen loading quarry stones in broad day light, with no sign of any EMA or Chinhoyi municipal police in sight.
After three weeks of soliciting a comment from Chinhoyi Municipality the town planner, Hildah Kabangure refused to comment on the issue.
SAND POACHERS, BRICK MOULDERS BRIBE AUTHORITIES
Away from Chinhoyi, a visit to Domboramwari in Epworth just outside Harare proved that the problem was persisting and a lot still needed to be done to curb the ill.
Sarudzai Malaba, a female brick moulder said she could never leave her profession because that is what put food on the table for her family.
She said she went into brick moulding in 1991 when she got married and has not looked back.
“I started this kind of work 13 years ago and my son helps me. At the end of the day we have some food on the table and are able to send children to school, “she said.
Asked how they managed with authorities on their tails, Malaba said the police were not a problem as they could easily be bribed to turn a blind eye on the activities.
“Police is always on our tail, but tinongotaurirana we negotiate and give them some money. As for the local board, they usually come and confiscate our equipment, but we always buy new tools and life goes on,” she said.
Another brick moulder who identified himself only as “Dread” said they had been forced into brick moulding because they had no choice. He said it was painful having to pay bribes everyday to be allowed to work.
“Mutisvitsirewo chichemo chedu kuna Mudhara kuti kuno maprojects ave kurwadza,” (Please tell the President on our behalf that the brick moulding project is now painful for us,)” Dread lamented.
He said if some better projects were created for them, they were ready to grab them.
He said they moulded an average 30 000 bricks per month and the business was booming because buildings were mushrooming everyday in the area, increasing demand for bricks.
“The brick business is an all-year round business, when it is raining we cover our kilns and all the bricks on the ground with plastic, so we do not lose anything. What is important is that we are able to send our children to school,” Dread said.
There are fears that the moulders may soon cause the collapse of the walls at nearby Domboramwari School, with parents saying they were now worried about their children’s safety as the moulders seemed not to care about the consequences of their activities.
“We even wrote a letter to the local board at some point so that they might help us deal with the matter, but to no avail, the brick moulders continue unabated,” one parent said.
She added that local authorities were reluctant to take action as they wanted to protect the School Development Committee chairperson, who was also among the brick moulders.
In Chitungwiza Unit L extension, a woman who identified herself as Mai Gracia could be seen with a pick and a shovel, digging for quarry for commercial purposes.
She said she sold the quarry stones for $2 per wheelbarrow, adding that business was brisk as there was a new residential area where construction was taking place.
She said despite the land degradation caused by her activities and that of others in the area, local authorities and the police were turning a blind eye.
“We never see any police or local authorities here, maybe down there where sand poaching takes place,” she said, pointing to another area where sand poaching is rampant.
There was also unbridled land degradation taking place in Waterfalls, in an area called Mahalape, which is a wetland.
The sand poachers there said they sometimes played cat and mouse games with EMA officials.
“EMA comes here and there, but we just run away from them. We are making a living from this and there is nothing else we can do about it.”
The question which begs an answer is whether the police, local authorities and EMA have failed to stamp their authority and stop this ill and what the future of the country’s ecosystems will be if those who are supposed to stop the degradation continue to fold their hands and watch?
The Institute of Waste Management chairperson, Simon Bere, who is also an environmental analyst said EMA was a toothless dog because it did not have arresting powers, while offenders easily escaped as there were no serious convictions.
“The fines are not deterrent enough and the whole issue is political because the perpetrators are doing all this as Zanu PF members, hence they are left to do as they please with the environment. They are hiding behind the party and at the end of the day the authorities feel intimidated and do not prosecute such people,” Bere said.
Environmental degradation is one of the 10 threats officially cautioned by the High Level Threat Panel of the United Nations (UN) at the Global Security Threats and Reform of the International System, on November 3 2003. In Zimbabwe, degradation through sand poaching and brick moulding is out of hand.
LEGISLATION IN PLACE
EMA spokesperson, Steady Kangata said his organisation, while wary of the dangers posed by sand poaching and brick moulding, was also alive to the fact that infrastructural development had to take place in any country.
He, however, said there were pieces of legislation such as Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007 which ensured that these activities were done properly after a proper Environmental Impact Assessment Study had been done to protect the environment.
“Those who do so should have licences, if a person does not have one, then they are poachers and the law can catch up with them in one way or the other,” Kangata said.
He said those who are licensed should come up with a plan on how to rehabilitate the degraded land as licensing makes it possible for authorities to do a follow up on the licensed people so that they rehabilitate continuously.
Kangata said they carried out regular raids on sand poachers, including night raids.
“The way forward is to avoid providing a ready market to the poachers and illegal brick moulders because where there is no demand there is no need for supply. The price margin for the bricks and sand from licensed people is not much so at the end of the day there is no need to buy and promote illegal activities” he said.
Kangata said they had launched media campaigns on radio.
“We also write articles in The Chronicle and The Herald every week in a bid to reach the masses about our work. We are also lobbying for an environmental court which will expedite environmental cases, because we feel that at times environmental issues are lightly treated. This we believe will deter the offenders,” Kangata said.
He, however, blamed the local authorities for failing to enforce existing by-laws to deal with the perpetrators.
“It is in their jurisdiction and we superintend over them, so they also should answer on why the ill is persisting under their nose while they are doing nothing about it,” he said.
Kangata said the existing environmental policies were satisfactory as there was no need to add or subtract anything from them.
“What is needed is environmental stewardship, it is the only thing that will put an end to the ills bedevilling the environment,” he said.
Harare City Council spokesperson Leslie Gwindi urged proper abatement measures before the problem reached alarming levels.
He said the situation was a result of arrogance and economic albatross manifesting in poverty, high unemployment rate and high demand for affordable building materials for numerous housing co-operatives.
Gwindi said the council was in the process of implementing the Local Environmental Action Plan (LEAP) to abate such environmental injustices as recommended by the EMA Act 20:27.
“A catchment basin integrated management system is being used to regulate environmental degradation issues of this kind. These include stream bank cultivation, illegal sand abstraction, veld fires and deforestation among others,” he said.
Council would also amend a set of by- laws that govern the use and protection of lands in the city, adding that the regulatory authorities were incapacitated to ensure laws were followed.