ARTISANAL and small-scale gold mining (ASGM) is undoubtedly a growing sector that contributes significantly to the growth of the country’s economy.
Although, there are no official statistics, estimates suggest that small-scale gold mining in Zimbabwe controls more than 60 percent of active gold deposits in the country, with more than one million people involved in the ASGM.
According to official data from the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development the country’s primary producers yielded 24,8 tonnes of gold in 2017.
In 2016, the sub-sector contributed 40 percent to the country’s total gold output while during the same period, primary producers or the large-scale mining companies accounted for 55 percent of total gold output.
Though, ASGM is considered as a critical poverty reduction strategy for millions of people around the world, according to a recent influential Global Report on artisanal and small-scale mining produced by the Mining, Minerals, and Sustainable Development Project, it is one of the most unsafe human activities which pose serious dangers to human health and the environment.
Research suggests that the industry has, over the years, been marred by recurrent accidents that have killed and maimed dozens of workers, if not scores while on the other hand official estimates indicate that about three mining accidents take place in the artisanal and small-scale miners per day.
Reported leading types of accidents in the ASGM sector include being hit by falling objects, suffocation from chemical fumes, and crushing injuries. Other occupational health hazards in mining include exposure to intense heat, poor ventilation, vibration, poisoning, dust, explosion, fumes, and improper choice of working tools, absence of personal protective equipment and being trapped or buried.
The majority of ASGM-related accidents, fatalities, and ailments are likely undocumented, and as a result are underrepresented in national and international statistics. This is because ASGM activities often take place in rural areas and frequently operate “extra legally”.
There is no doubt that lack of reliable data and regulatory oversight of ASGM activities present obvious obstacles to improving conditions where the health and safety of artisanal and small scale miners and their communities is at risk.
It is important to note that while there is great awareness on the dangers associated with ASGM activities, with the exception of mercury contamination from artisanal gold mining activities, health and safety risks among artisanal miners, their families, and their communities have not been fully addressed by government and regulatory institutions in places where ASGM is prevalent.
It therefore appears that the quest for profit is pushing some artisanal and small scale miners to overlook important occupational health and safety standards.
Research also found that little attention is given to the setting up of solid infrastructure underground to minimise instances of mine collapse since a lot of artisanal and small scale miners go down the shafts without proper equipment or protective clothing.
Spokesperson of the Zimbabwe Miners’ Federation (ZMF), an umbrella body for small scale miners, Mr Dosman Mangisi said inadequate monitoring of the operations and lack of regulatory enforcement by the Government left artisanal and small-scale miners subjected to poor health and safety working conditions.
“It is not a secret that ASGM operations are lacking in the following: safety regulations, reinforcement of mine safety requirements, awareness of the risks inherent in mining, and access to better equipment.
“These risk factors obviously lead to higher health risks and poorer working conditions to this growing sector that contributes significantly to the growth of the country’s economy. Since we have minimal compliance mechanism in the ASGM sector, there is need by Government and all stakeholders in the mining sector to make a commitment to have well established reporting systems for artisanal and small scale miners, which would clearly address their health and safety problems,” said Mr Mangisi.
He said although ground failures resulting from weak unsupported or poorly supported stopes have led to fatalities and various degrees of injury, dust and fumes generated from chiselling, drilling, blasting, grinding and crushing of ore were also potential health threats.
A recent joint tour by the Ministries of Mines and Mining Development and Health and Child Care to some mining sites in Zimbabwe revealed that poor working conditions due to lack of proper mining equipment and protective clothing lead to uncontrolled exposure to harmful chemicals such as mercury, cyanide and sulphuric acid.
It emerged during the tour that scores of mine workers, mainly in the artisanal and small-scale sub-sector, were subjected to poor health and safety working conditions with some fatalities going unreported.
The two ministries then immediately called for improved mining safety and health standards amid concerns over fatal incidents and spread of diseases in the sector.
They also challenged big mining firms to create work related learning programmes to assist small scale and artisanal miners with occupational health and safety standards.
Health Minister, Dr David Parirenyatwa, said diseases such as tuberculosis were also common among workers at small mines as many of them work without protective masks adding that TB and HIV infections in the ASM sector were worrisome.
“Artisanal and small scale miners are a key population to address TB/HIV in the mines. This group of miners works under poor conditions and we must come up with resolutions to coordinate and curb the spread of diseases in the sector.
“We can’t expect miners to bring money while we don’t consider their health. As southern region today we blame Wenela in South Africa which has left a big dent of TB in the region,” he said before tasking ZMF to monitor and promote safety among its members.
One artisanal miner from Inyathi area in Matabeleland North Province Mr Elson Moyo, said lack of equipment and protective clothing exposed them to dangerous chemicals they use in processing the yellow metal, among them mercury, sulphuric acid and cyanide.
Mr Moyo, however, said although efforts by Government and the NGOs have noticeably improved the efficiency of their operations, certain serious concerns continue to be largely ignored by the miners themselves.
He therefore, challenged their representative organisations, among them the ZMF and the Zimbabwe Artisanal and Small-scale Mining Council saying they have a role to play through some kind of peer review mechanism.
Chairperson of Zimbabwe Artisanal and Small Scale Mining Council, Mr Wellington Takavarasha acknowledged the problems bedevilling the ASGM sector saying very little efforts have been put to ascertain and address the safety and environmental issues related to ASGM in Zimbabwe.
“The health, safety and environmental problems bedevilling the ASGM sector can be overcome through the empowerment of local authorities that enforce regulations, health and safety of artisanal and small scale miners.
“There is no doubt that improving the health and safety concerns within the ASGM can reduce fatal incidents and spread of diseases in the sector. This is so because lack of proper mining equipment and protective clothing lead to fatalities and uncontrolled exposure to harmful chemicals such as mercury, cyanide and sulphuric acid,” observed Mr Takavarasha.
Environmentalist and national tree ambassador, Mr Never Bonde, said ASGM activities endanger the environment by inducing land degradation and contaminating surface and groundwater resources. Bonde recently launched a programme called “Mining with Environment in Mind” which has special focus on improving access to information on environmental rehabilitation in mining communities.
He said wide open excavated areas are left unreclaimed while heavy metals, total suspended solids, dissolved solids, and other water contaminants are introduced into water bodies by mining and mineral extraction activities of the small scale and artisanal miners.
“Environmental health and safety programmes among artisanal and small scale miners are lacking in the country. Through our programme (Mining with Environment in Mind) we are sensitising artisanal and small scale miners that mining can be undertaken economically and in an environmentally responsible and successful way.
“Even as not mining workers, people in those communities that have small scale mining operations are still exposed to safety and health hazards due to contamination of the larger environment through water run-off, air contamination, and ground contamination from landslides and subsidence.
“Therefore, it is imperative to invest in the environmental health and safety status of artisanal and small-scale miners by implementing the necessary policies to govern their operations,” said Mr Bonde.
Since the major environmental expectation in the mining industry is for all miners to abide by the provisions of EMA Act Chapter 20:27 particularly the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process which identify the potentially significant environmental effects by making sure that both negative and positive impacts are critically assessed, Mr Bonde suggested that strategies on occupational health and safety of artisanal and small scale miners as well as the environment should be quickly implemented.
Given the above observations it is clear that sustainable ASGM development will not be easy without support for miners to have their activities legalised and formalised.
There is also need for surveillance and regulation by the government and all stakeholders in the mining sector on this type of commercial activity which is contributing significantly to the growth of Zimbabwe’s economy.