Gibson Mhaka, Senior Features Reporter
IT’S a little before 6AM on a bright, humid morning, and already Melusi Sibanda (24) from Bubi District in Matabeleland North province has been hard at work for hours.
Rustling his aluminum pan back and forth through a waist-deep pool of brackish water, he despairingly scrutinises its contents for glimmers of gold. With the sun beginning to beat down mercilessly, the young miner splashes handfuls of the liquid, which is laced with mercury and cyanide to separate gold from unwanted rock, on his face to stay alert. Without hesitation and with flecks of mud on his face, lips and eyes he said: “Being umakorokoza (artisanal miner) is brutal. Just imagine digging soil every day in search of the precious mineral.
The job is physically demanding, the health risks are enormous, and at times the take-away is almost negligible considering the damage you would have caused to the environment.”
“We have people who don’t realise it is our livelihood here, it always has been and always will be.”
From Sibanda’s observation it is clear that although artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) particularly in the gold mining sector, is generally pursued as a route out of poverty or as an activity to complement insufficient income, especially in communities where alternative employment is hard to come by, it has a significant negative impact on the human health and safety and the environment.
His experiences are also a living testimony that even though artisanal gold mining has surpassed agriculture as the main livelihood activity, providing income for both men and women and also as a major contributor to the country’s total gold output, safety, health and environment, (SHE) conditions are poor as farmlands are degraded thereby affecting food production and streams and rivers are polluted, resulting in costly water treatment to make it safe to drink.
In short, the ASM can be disparagingly considered as a ‘get-rich-quick’ activity but big in impact as its unregulated activities worsened the conditions of the already impoverished local communities.
Among the most significant environmental aspects related to artisanal and small-scale mining are deforestation, changes in landscape structure, and chemical pollution of soil and watercourses.
According to a recent report by Zimbabwe Miners Federation (ZMF) from 2017 to 2020, the ASM sector has been producing more than the big mining operations with a record averaging 60 percent of the total gold production as recorded at Fidelity Printers and Refiners (FPR).
During that period the ASM sector produced 60 tonnes compared to 42 tonnes produced by the primary producers, the large-scale mining (LSM) sector, making it an indispensable activity for marginalised communities.
While estimates by International Labour Organisation (ILO) place the number of people working in ASM at over 13 million worldwide, in Zimbabwe although there are no official figures on illegal gold-mining activities, at least 1,5 million artisanal miners operating in the country are not registered.
Observers note that despite its contribution to the economy the ASM sector which relies on a mostly unskilled workforce using rudimentary tools and techniques, the use of hazardous substances for mining puts the health of miners and their communities at risk, and they are exposed, for example, to mercury, zinc vapour, cyanide, or other acids. This is a particular concern in gold mining, where mercury is frequently deployed and cyanide use is growing and most of these risks are borne by women, due to the division of tasks between male and female miners.
Female miner Ms Saliwe Moyo (43) from Gwanda said women just like their male counterparts also disproportionately experience the negative impacts of ASM, as they are primarily involved in crushing, sluicing, washing, panning and sieving.
“Although women all over the world have been involved in mining activities for centuries, the mining industry especially ASM has not been an obvious career choice for women. Their involvement exposes them to the various hazards including improper handling of chemicals, such as mercury which links to water bodies causing both health and environmental hazards,” said Ms Moyo.
It is important to note that while notable awareness raising has been undertaken especially on the dangers associated with ASM activities, the number of accidents and fatalities continue to rise. For example, between February and September 2020, Midlands Province alone recorded more than 60 mining related deaths.
In January this year, Mines and Mining Development Minister, Winston Chitando urged small-scale and artisanal miners to exercise due diligence in their operations to eliminate increased accidents that have led to the loss of lives and injured many in recent months.
He made the call during a visit to Task Mine Syndicate in Chegutu where five artisanal miners had remained trapped following a mineshaft collapse in September last year.Minister Chitando said while many people, particularly youths, were eking out a living from the gold sector, it was critical for them to consider orderly and careful mining to avoid injuries and losses of life.
“It is my wish that the Ministry of Mines and various players including Zimbabwe Miners’ Federation (ZMF) engage for orderly mining across the mining sector. There was a resolution that was passed in Cabinet regarding orderly mining and strict safety health and environment standards and as a Ministry, we are tasked to ensure that all players follow the guidelines,” he said.
Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela), a public interest law group which seeks to promote good governance in the environmental sector embarked on a series of activities to sensitise miners on these issues so that there is a safer working environment for ASM that promotes good mining practices.According to Zela project officer Mrs Joyce Machiri, from a health perspective ASM is exposing the miners to several health risks, especially in gold mining.
“Regardless of ratification of the Minamata convention, miners still use mercury to process their gold ores. Mercury is a very hazardous substance, and its effects ranges are not only confined in the mining activities but also span throughout the mining communities and beyond, owing to its long-range transport in water bodies and atmosphere.
“Use of dry drilling in their operations, with no proper ventilation systems, and personal protective equipment to protect themselves from fine dust particles, also increases the risk of pneumoconiosis (silicosis). Working in confined places without proper ventilation, crowding in very narrow tunnels promotes manifestation of tuberculosis (TB), several miners are at a risk of being infected by TB,” said Mrs Machiri.
According to a recent report released by National Aids Council (Nac), HIV and Aids are also a ticking time bomb in the ASM sector.Turning to environmental challenges Mrs Machiri said: “Environmental safety has never been regarded in the ASM sector. Although efforts have been there to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments, implementation of the environmental management plans is very low.”
Mrs Machiri further said since issues around safety, health, and environment, are generally related to the capacity to prevent, to mitigate and to manage these hazards, as Zela they were conducting education exchange sessions with miners in different districts through the ASM Academy, SHE training and ASM Safety Talks.
“Our safety talk strategy involves going to mining sites to discuss mining hazards from an engineering perspective as well as health hazards from a health science perspective. So far, we have managed to assist miners to develop their mines and managed them through aspects on timbering, dewatering among others.
“Health science also touches on issues of Covid-19, HIV and Aids, mental and physical wellbeing issues among others. Not only has this helped reduce mine accidents in our area of influence but also capacitated miners to adopt the aspects and implement on their own,” she said.
The environmental dangers posed by mining and its related health and safety repercussions for staff and surrounding communities are related to lack of awareness, financial limitations, inadequate technology, and ineffective environmental law. As part of proactive approach in reducing mining accidents, ZMF is on record instructing its members to stop operations if they do not have standard shaft reinforcements especially during the rainy season.This came after dozens of artisanal miners lost their lives in gold rich areas across the country, with the federation indicating that it cannot afford more tragedies.
ZMF spokesperson, Mr Dosman Mangisi said small scale miners without standard shaft reinforcements should consider halting mining operations especially during rainy seasons.“Life is precious; in as much as we are an essential sector, we need to be alive so that we are productive in the future. We urge our hardworking miners to stop mining if they don’t have standard reinforcements as many shafts usually collapse during rainy season.
“There is also need to promote mining health by reducing miners’ exposure to respirable airborne contaminants directly reducing the risk of developing lung disease. This may be done through provision of PPE, implementing of wet drilling and provision of adequate mine ventilation. The sector needs to address these health issues through awareness programs and adoption of safe practices. The Government also needs to assist miners with alternatives to mercury in the ASM sector and pioneer in research on the mercury alternative,” Mr Mangisi said.
He maintained that safety and health in ASM sector is key for sustainable mining development. From his observation it is clear that lack of formalisation system for artisanal and small-scale gold miners creates an environment which promotes unsafe mining activities. There is hardly any monitoring and inspection of mining activities.
The proposed Mines and Minerals Amendment Bill is expected to include provisions that will regulate the conduct of artisanal miners, and ensure their safety when carrying out underground mining activities.The Mines and Minerals Bill was brought before Parliament in 2015 to amend the previous 1961 law, which had become outdated.Formalising these activities will undoubtedly enforce the mandate to inspect the mines, suggest improvements or halt operations where need be.
Although Government efforts are beginning to focus on formalising the ASM sector by encouraging the formation of co-operatives where multiple miners can work the same site and also benefit from health and safety knowledge and management, occupational health and safety in the ASM sector is largely undeveloped.Presently, many ASM workers operate without seeking licences due to certain bottlenecks described as economic, political, social, regulatory, and technological factors.
It is no overstatement that small scale mining contributes quite significantly to economic growth and Government therefore needs to formalise and incentivise their operations.