Artisanal and small-scale miners (ASMs) may have contributed over half the 24,8 tonnes of gold Zimbabwe produced last year, but their unregulated activities might be causing more harm than good to the environment, according to findings of a study by Parliament.
Findings of the research by Parliament concluded that while Zimbabwe desperately needed foreign currency for its imports dependent economy, it was critical for artisanal miners to be regulated before they caused further damage to the environment and livelihoods of other land users.
Artisanal miners’ activities have raised concern even as gold, which most extract, is Zimbabwe’s most strategic mineral, accounting for over 50 percent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. This is because empirical evidence has shown that the benefits might be coming at a huge cost to the country, Parliament noted.
Over the years, artisanal miners have proven that they have capacity to surpass production of large gold miners, as in 2004, when they accounted for 60 percent of total deliveries.
In 2016, the artisanal miners contributed 45 percent of the country’s gold production. As at September 2017, the value of mineral exports stood at $1,62 billion dollars, largely generated from four metals namely gold, chrome, platinum group of metals (PGMs) and diamonds. The target for the whole year stood at $3,7 billion.
Although artisanal and small-scale miners accounted for 53 percent of gold deliveries, tongues are already waging on whether they were a blessing or a curse to Zimbabwe.
A recent policy brief by Parliament says 200 500 square kilometres have been extensively damaged by artisanal miners while 155km of Mazowe River, one of the major rivers in the country, had its life destroyed by alluvial mining.
“Although significant contributions have been made to the fiscus, artisanal miners have caused more harm than good, and costs outweigh benefits in the long run,” Parliament said.
Sustainable mining methods, Parliament’s study noted, should be promoted and inculcated among the artisanal miners in order to protect the interests of current and future generations, particularly in light of the damage on Mazowe River.
“The damaged areas are now characterized by deep pits, with sections of the river heavily silted and part of its course has been diverted,” Parliament’s research notes.
In Manicaland province, estimates say 600 hectares of prime timber owned by Allied Timber, Zimbabwe’s single biggest timber producer and processor, in Chimananimi was extensively damaged due to “illegal” mining.
It has been reported that, elsewhere, the “illegal” activities have damaged public infrastructure, with media often suggesting that deep tunnels were dug beneath roads, railways and buildings in the Kwekwe town area.
“The illegal miners are often violent and threaten other land users. The net result has been the loss of direct and indirect employment by other land users such as those in the wildlife conservation, timber industry and farming.”
Several conflicts have also been reported between farmers and artisanal miners while the greatest concern for farmers was the irreversible damage inflicted on prime land and loss of livestock due to cyanide poisoning, abandoned pits and damage to grazing land.
Furthermore, gold from the “illegal” operations (as decriminalisation of artisanal miners’ activities have not yet be legislated) is often traded on the black market while some of the bullion is smuggled out of the country to neighbouring States such as South Africa and Mozambique.
Even large-scale producers have had some claims invaded by “illegal” miners, threatening the operational life of the mines. It has proven difficult for Government to eradicate most of the ‘illegal’ mining activities because the artisanal miners are not registered and most do not belong to any association.
However, one of the reasons cited by artisanal miners for invasion of claims owned by big mining firms was that large-scale producers own all the lucrative claims leaving no space for new entrants that include the youth and women.
In 2013, only 25 000 of the 500 000 miners had registered claims, representing 5 percent of the total population of such miners. Parliament has since recommended formalisation of artisanal miners with Reserve Bank encouraged to continue to fund their operations to encourage formalisation of the sector.
Parliament also said there was urgent need to decriminalise activities of artisanal miners. The decriminalisation should be inscribed in law and should not be left to the discretion of the Minister of Finance or the Reserve Bank Governor.
“The Gold Trade Act should be amended clearly outlining decriminalisation of artisanal miners,” Parliament proposed.
The legislature also recommended that the “use it or lose it” policy be enacted into law, to open up ground for new entrants. Further, the Environmental Management Agency need to raise awareness and to educate artisanal miners on sustainable mining methods, the policy brief by Parliament said.
The Ministry of Mines and Mining Development, Parly said, and artisanal miners associations need to develop a comprehensive cost structure that is affordable to the sector.
Over 500 000 Zimbabweans are directly employed as artisanal miners, with over 3 million dependants eking a living from the trade.