Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
SMALL-scale chrome miners have invaded Mapanzure area in Zvishavane, Midlands Province, where they are conducting illegal mining activities along the Gweru-Zvishavane railway line, amid growing fears of destruction of the infrastructure, which could ultimately lead to derailments.
The illegal miners have also left a trail of destruction on the environment along the mineral-rich Great Dyke where abandoned pits are posing a deadly threat to human life and livestock.
Chrome is a blackish mineral used in the production of stainless steel. The product is in demand in Asia, particularly in China and Singapore.
Most of the chrome mines are dotted along the Great Dyke, a narrow series of long, low ridges and hills stretching for about 515km from near Harare into the Midlands.
Some of the minerals found in the Great Dyke include chrome, gold, silver and platinum.
Increasing demand for chrome on the international market has spurred a rush by both local and foreign companies to set up operations to mine the sought-after mineral in some Midlands districts. Zimbabwe boasts the world’s second largest chrome reserves behind South Africa.
A Chronicle news crew yesterday visited Adams Siding in Mapanzure, about 30km out of Zvishavane Town and observed that the area is littered with disused opencast mine pits that have become death traps to both humans and livestock.
The small-scale miners use heavy-duty equipment to extract chrome with little regard to infrastructure such as roads, railway line and schools. They use some of the most rudimentary techniques that include digging open pits that they later abandon after exhausting the mineral deposits.
Chrome mining activities have caused irreparable damage to the environment, especially in Shurugwi, Zvishavane and Mberengwa.
National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) acting spokesperson Mr Martin Banda said 18 650m of rail has been affected by illegal mining activities that have seen some encroaching into rail leading to the ballast on railway tracks on tracks falling into the pits.
He said the affected area around Adams stretches for about 12km. Other areas in the Midlands affected by illegal panning activities include Lalaphansi, Oreti and Shurugwi.
“The NRZ has observed with concern, the disturbing increasing incidences of illegal mining activities and ground subsidence after heavy rains fill up pits and tunnels left previously by illegal mining activities along the railway system. Adams Siding near Zvishavane is one of the areas where illegal mining activities are taking place too close to the railway line,” said Mr Banda.
Section 38(3)(c) of the Railway Act chapter 13:09 prohibits: “Digging excavation, drilling tunnelling under or otherwise tampering with the ground within 40 metres on either side of the middle of a railway track to the actual or potential detriment of the safety of railway traffic.”
Mr Banda said illegal mining activities are also happening in other parts of the country particularly in Tatagura, Mazowe, Bindura Town, Jumbo Siding in Mashonaland Central Province.
“Illegal miners have however ignored this and in some cases, they dig within two metres from the railway line and under it. This destabilises the formation of the land traversed by the railway line leading to derailments and delays in train movement as the effects significantly result in reduced speed or decommissioning of the affected line until repairs and filling of pits have been done.”
Mr Banda said the illegal mining activities have a negative bearing on NRZ business and the country’s economy.
“In some communities along the line of rail have been dumping garbage on the railway line posing a risk to the passengers and the goods.”
Mr Banda said the rate of encroachment on railway lines where people have built houses on or near the railway line has also increased.
“This is dangerous for people to build any structures within the railway reserve because the company moves hazardous goods such as acids, fuels and in an event of an accident many lives could be lost.
“In other cases, some unscrupulous people have been caught removing concrete sleepers, ballast stones and rail components from the track which in some way causes derailments,” he said.
Mr Banda said plans are underway for NRZ to introduce drones to assist in patrolling along railway servitudes.
He also urged the legislature “to review existing law and increase the mandatory jail term and also to align it to the Railway Act,” as illegal mining activities along railway system are risking lives and the economy of the country.
Chief Mapanzure said most of the illegal mining activities were taking place at night.
“As chief, I am the custodian of Government infrastructure such as roads, dip tanks, schools, health facilities and railway lines. We are aware that because of the economic hardships, we have people engaging in mining activities,” he said.
“We have people digging along the railway lines in search of chrome and such activities are conducted at night. Government has made it clear that mining activities should be between 30 and 50 metres away from a railway line, road or school, but sadly, we are seeing illegal miners violating those regulations by digging close to railway lines.”
Chief Mapanzure said they are working with NRZ, EMA, police and various Government arms in tackling the issue of illegal chrome mining.
“These illegal miners conduct their activities at night and the moment they see a car; they take to their heels. As local chief I had a meeting with locals to explore ways of addressing the issue,” he said.
“We have also asked some local chrome mining companies operating in our area to assist in filling up some of the pits. We have since set up a committee tasked with ensuring that the railway line is protected from illegal miners.”
Runde Rural District Council (RDC) chief executive officer Mr Gorden Moyo said the local authority is disturbed by the illegal chrome mining activities around the Adam Siding railways line.
“The road network and the railway system are very critical in terms of development hence the need to safeguard such infrastructure jealously. Such activities are illegal and as council we believe in responsible mining, which is sustainable and not disturbing all the other economic activities in the country,” he said.
Mr Moyo said council has on several occasions teamed up with EMA and police to conduct raids.
“However, we are incapacitated in terms of resources which affects our effectiveness in fighting such illegal mining activities. We also urge Government to at least strongly capacity regulatory authorities such as EMA and Forestry Commission which deal with environmental management issues,” he said.
“We also advocate that whenever legislative reforms are done, the EMA Act should be reviewed to allow the agency to have arresting powers unlike just being a ticket issuing authority. Despite issuing tickets, people continue with their illegal mining activities because those fines are not prohibitive.”
Mrs Blessing Chidhakwa (52) of Mapanzure said her family has never known peace since chrome deposits were discovered near her home along the Gweru-Zvishavane railway line.
“As a result of illegal chrome mining activities, we are losing our livestock as they fall into disused opencast mine pits abandoned by these miners. Some of these people are digging close to the Gweru-Zvishavane highway and close to schools,” she said
Her nightmare was shared by many in the sprawling village, which has been taken over by syndicates, some of whom are digging close to the Gweru-Zvishavane highway and close to schools.
Mr Luckmore Chimuti said: “Mapanzure is now littered with disused opencast mine pits that have become death traps to us as villagers and our livestock. This is an issue of grave concern to is as locals because we are affected.”
He said he lost three beasts after falling into the pits while his neighbour lost two goats that were never recovered.
EMA spokesperson Amkela Sidange said the scramble for chrome had led to serious environmental degradation in the Midlands.
According to EMA, the unsustainable chrome mining along the Great Dyke was mainly driven by the lifting of the ban on chrome exports, rising prices for the mineral on international markets and the increased number of chrome washing and smelting plants in the Midlands.
“Some miners are operating outside the legal requirements and environmental best practices along the Great Dyke. In addition, there are unrehabilitated pits, which were left some 20 years back, leaving a negative environmental legacy,” she said. – @mashnets