Buried by ignorance – Homeowners unwittingly fund  environmental destruction Degraded land in Pumula North

Nqobile Tshili, [email protected]

BULAWAYO’S housing market is currently enjoying a major boom, with new homes rising across the city at a significant rate.

However, this progress has come at a hidden cost, with the surge in sand poaching causing large-scale environmental destruction throughout the city’s outskirts.

Developers are increasingly turning to sand poaching as a means of sourcing materials to meet the demand for new housing, resulting in the pristine land on the city’s fringes bearing the brunt of this illicit activity.

These areas are now riddled with excavations left behind by illegal operations that are conducted by a shadowy network of sand poachers.

Trucks, known as “Wrong Turn” due to their unroadworthiness condition, are a tell-tale sign of sand poaching.

An investigation by Saturday Chronicle found that these trucks ferry ill-gotten gains throughout the night when there are no police or council rangers to curb their operations.

Construction workers often unwittingly contribute to the sand poaching problem, perpetuating the cycle of environmental destruction.

In addition to individual home builders, brick moulding businesses are also complicit in fuelling the sand poaching trade, further straining the city’s resources.

This situation is further compounded by a lack of public awareness, with many homeowners like Menziwe Ndlovu, who recently completed building a house in Pumula South, unaware of where to acquire legitimate pit or river sand.

“Truly speaking, I don’t even know where pit sand and river sand are sold legally. As I was constructing my house, I just relied on the builder who I had contracted to build the house to ensure the pit sand and river sand were delivered,” said Ndlovu.

Destruction caused by sand poachers in Pumula North

“What I observed is that most of the deliveries were done at night then we paid. It seems it’s a network between builders and sand poachers,” said Ndlovu.

Ndlovu isn’t alone in his reliance on sand poachers. A typical load of illegally obtained sand costs between US$60 and US$80, making it a tempting option for many.

Bulawayo Ward 17 Councillor, Sikhululekile Moyo, confirmed this activity within her constituency, which encompasses the city’s peri-urban areas. She identified bushy areas near Pumula North, Mazwi, and Methodist Village as hotspots for sand poachers. These operations often involve local residents, who are recruited for digging and loading stolen sand.

“The situation is bad, some of the pits are dug too close to housing units, threatening their structural stability. Also, when there are heavy rains we are afraid that some of these pits will result in some people falling into them and drowning because some are very deep,” said Clr Moyo.

“We have also tried to engage those involved in sand poaching because some of them come from our communities, but we have not scored major successes as some bluntly tell us that this is their only source of livelihood,” she said.

Clr Moyo is frustrated with the current approach to tackling the problem, noting that when council rangers conduct raids, the levied fines are minimal and do not act as effective deterrents. This allows the sand poachers to simply resume their illegal activities after paying a small penalty.

The Bulawayo City Council is aware of the situation and is committed to taking corrective action, according to spokesperson Nesisa Mpofu.

“Council will deal ruthlessly with sand poachers to safeguard the environment. As such, the public is advised to use the council-approved sites for the purchase of pit sand at the concessionary rates,” said Mpofu.

“The city has established two legal pit sand sites where sand can be purchased at a subsidised rate of US$10 per tonne. The pits are at St Mary’s pit, Khami area and Mazwi Pit, Mazwi Village in St Peter’s. There are licensed sellers by the council, but anyone can buy from the established sites. Hence the seller should be able to produce a council receipt/permit as proof that they have not poached the pit or river sand,” she said.

For legitimate sand acquisition, Mpofu offered a clear path. Property developers and others can visit designated offices such as the Lands Inspectorate Office in North End or the Parks Office at 807 Tower Block. There, they can obtain a proforma invoice outlining the costs involved, and payment can be made at the Revenue Hall.

“After making payment, the client will be given two receipts, the original and duplicate, and they can then approach any of the above-mentioned sites for sand.

“Upon arrival at the site, the customer produces proof of payment which states the volume of the sand bought and goes on to extract for themselves. The client keeps one copy of the receipt in case he/she meets law enforcement agents in transit,” she said.
A human rights and environment advocate Khumbulani Maphosa highlighted that sand poaching is not only causing environmental destruction, but communities are also being impacted.

He said peri-urban Bulawayo has many pits that have been dug, turning the areas into a breeding ground for mosquitoes and crime.

“They are destroying the environment, they have contributed to river diversion and causing siltation. At Methodist Village, they collapsed a homestead, after digging on either side of the homestead, creating a tunnel underneath which resulted in the house collapsing,” said Maphosa.

He said environmental crimes are a serious concern, and establishing specialised environmental courts could be a potential solution. These courts would focus on environmental damage cases and hold perpetrators accountable, emphasising the protection of the planet.

Bulawayo provincial police assistant spokesperson, Assistant Inspector Nomalanga Msebele, notes that the issue of land degradation is mainly handled by the police and the Environmental Management Agency.

She said the police mainly deal with sand poachers when their vehicles are involved in accidents, with most of their vehicles being unroadworthy and involved in accidents where they hit pedestrians or other vehicles.

“Most of the environmental issues are a city’s by-law issue, and council and the EMA deal with them,” said Asst Insp Msebele. EMA officials said they will provide a comprehensive report on the sand poaching issue in the coming week. —@nqotshili



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