By Munyaradzi Musiiwa
Godbless Sango (23), an artisanal miner from Silobela in rural Kwekwe will forever rue the day he hit “a score” at the pits.A score in gold-panning lingo is when one strikes it rich by getting a lot of the precious mineral.
Fluid with cash, Godbless saw reason to take his friends out for a beer drinking binge.
Unbeknown to him, he was under surveillance of criminals.
As he enjoyed a game of pool, knocking around the balls and chugging beers, he craved for smoking and went out of the building.
Tragedy then struck! He was struck from behind with a machete and collapsed.
When he gained consciousness, he was admitted at Loreto Mission Hospital with sutured deep wounds. His left eye was almost gawked out by a “Colombia” knife.
He was later transferred to Kwekwe District Hospital for further specialised treatment.
Godbless’ ordeal is a common experience among artisanal gold miners in Kwekwe, Shurugwi, Zvishavane, Mberengwa and many other mining communities.
The machete fights among artisanal miners, or makorokozas, as they are commonly referred to, have brought a lot of misery among residents of Kwekwe and Shurugwi.
Police in the Midlands say they are having a torrid time containing artisanal miners brawls.
“Violence perpetrated by illegal gold miners is on the surge,” the police say.
Acting Police Officer Commanding Midlands Province Assistant Commissioner Charles Ndoro said the province had recorded an increase in these crimes in the first six months of the year compared to the same period last year.
Crimes of concern include robbery, murder and violence.
“The province in terms of crime reduction in crimes of concern, the province recorded 7 801 cases for the period January to June 2018 as compared to 6 965 cases recorded during the same period last year in 2017 translating to 12 percent increase,” he said.
Police last year banned the carrying of weapons including machetes, axes and iron bars in some areas of the Midlands province, most of which were used in the commission of crimes by artisanal miners.
This followed a series of murder cases in Kwekwe and Shurugwi.
What worsened the situation was that the perpetrators were not being apprehended.
Many theories exist that explain the artisanal miners’ wayward behaviour.
The most recent was their exposure to mercury.
Scientific research has demonstrated that mercury, even in small amounts, can damage the brain, heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, thyroid gland, pituitary gland, adrenal gland, cells, enzymes and hormones and suppress the body’s immune system.
Recent scientific research has shown high levels of mercury in the brains of individuals who died from Alzheimer’s disease.
Other research demonstrates mercury can cause pathological effects in the brain.
Laboratory studies of spinal fluid from Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease patients have confirmed that mercury inhibits key brain detoxification of enzyme systems.
Mercury can be absorbed into the body through the lungs and move easily from the bloodstream into the brain.
It has been scientifically proven that inhalation of elemental mercury vapours can cause neurological and behavioural disorders, such as tremors, emotional instability, insomnia, memory loss, neuromuscular changes and headaches.
Bulawayo psychiatrist, Dr Nemache Mawere, said exposure to mercury could lead to mental disorders such as the madhatter syndrome, an organic mental disorder.
He said it has been scientifically proven that exposure to and mishandling of mercury can lead to mental illness, wayward behaviour, mood swings, loss of memory and many other mental health related illnesses.
Dr Mawere said exposure of artisanal miners and illegal gold panners to mercury was one of the major sources of their wayward behaviour where in most cases they become violent and commit violence related crimes such as murder.
“If you trace back the mad-hatter syndrome you will find out that a mercury solution was commonly used during the process of turning fur into felt, which caused the hatters to breathe in the fumes of this highly toxic metal, a situation exacerbated by the poor ventilation in most of the workshops,” he said.
“This led in turn to an accumulation of mercury in the workers’ bodies, resulting in symptoms such as trembling, loss of coordination, slurred speech, loosening of teeth, memory loss, depression, irritability and anxiety or the The Mad Hatter Syndrome.
“Exposure to mercury has long term effects. I have raised these issues before, but people were slow to react.
“Exposure to mercury can cause organic mental disorders and long term mental problems. It has been scientifically proven that exposure to mercury has effects on people’s mental health.
“We are keen on researching on the effects of mercury particularly on artisanal miners. I have for long raised concerns that their behaviour could be as a result of their exposure to mercury notwithstanding drug and substance abuse.”
Major studies on the effects of mercury have been done in Zimbabwe and these include the Global Mercury Project which was done from 2002 to 2007 and the 2015 diagnostic report on environmental health implication of mercury in artisanal small scale gold mining Zimbabwe.
The projects revealed that mercury was being used by an estimated 1,5 million small-scale miners.
On average, the calculations done proved that more than 50 tonnes of mercury are being used annually in gold processing.
Mercury was found in air, sediments and soil with the largest concentration being in air. Results showed that mercury pollution of water and soils is limited to a radius of less than 5km from the milling centres. Most of the mercury ends up bio-accumulating in the aquatic food chains.
A gold panner Mr Image Nhengo said mercury was the cheapest and easiest method of separating metal.
Mr Nhengo said there is no alternative or substitute that can be used by artisanal miners.
“We have been advised of the effects of mercury but the challenge is that there is no substitute. Most of us do not use protective clothing because a few are oblivious to the consequences,” he said
The Government of Zimbabwe is one of the 135 signatories of the Minamata convention and is in the process of ratifying it so that the country bans the use of mercury in gold mining.
Zimbabwe has an ultimatum which expires in 2020 to ratify the convention and fully implement its principles and provisions.
Recently, Environmental Management Agency (EMA) launched a vigorous campaign educating small-scale and artisanal miners on how to handle, usage, storage and safe disposal of mercury.
EMA Midlands provincial spokesperson, Mr Simon Musasiwa said there was need for Government to intensify campaigns on the usage, storage and safe disposal of mercury as part of the process to ratify Minamata convention.
“As part of the ratification process, we will need to identify and examine the control measures that we need to put in place to meet the key obligations under the convention and how best to ensure that these are effective and sustainable,” he said.
“Through the effective implementation of the convention, Zimbabwe will benefit from new and updated information
about the mercury situation in the country and from increased capacity in managing the risks associated with the use of mercury.”