Antionette Makamu / Bongani Ndlovu, Chronicle Reporters
RAMPANT sand poaching and chopping down of trees is causing environmental degradation in and around Bulawayo amid revelations that the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) only has five rangers instead of 74 needed to monitor the whole city.
A drive around Bulawayo and its outskirts, revealed various deep pits created by the numerous sand poachers found there hard at work, digging up and loading sand onto trucks, colloquially called “Wrong Turn”. It seems to be a lucrative business as each truck load is reportedly sold for about US$80.
The pits created by sand poachers vary in depth, with some half a body deep while others are deep enough to bury a whole Honda Fit.
Areas like, Luveve, Pumula, St Peter’s, Mpopoma, Pelandaba West, Nkulumane, Matshobana, Entumbane and Cowdray Park are some of the places where rampant sand poaching is taking place, while, according to the latest council minutes, Mazwi Nature Reserve has experienced rampant chopping down of trees for firewood allegedly by the St Peters community and Khami prison officers.
The pits dug by sand poachers have become death traps and in February this year, a 15-year-old Pelandaba West boy drowned in the suburb in an abandoned pit. The same pit claimed the life of a 12-year-old girl who drowned in December last year.
In March 2020, a 12-year-old boy drowned in a sewer pit between Nketa 8 and Nkulumane 5 suburbs.
As the rain season has commenced there are fears that these pits will fill up and more people, especially children will drown.
During a stakeholders’ meeting with representatives of St Peter’s village last week organised by the Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights, BCC environmental officer Mr Sobhuku Dube said the city was struggling to monitor and control the situation.
“We are struggling with resources as we only have one car and five rangers instead of 74. We have been promised some cars by our director in the near future. We have been left crippled by the freeze to employ staff but we were recently given the green light to employ 24 rangers which was still far below their need,” he said.
Mr Dube urged villagers to visit his office if they faced challenges on the ground so that his office could assist them with speed.
He said even if the city was to have a workforce of 74 rangers, that number will still be very small as the city has grown exponentially over the years.
A member of the St Peter’s environment committee Mr Lawrence Tshuma said wood and sand poaching was a big problem in the area.
“Cowdray Park residents are coming into our community uprooting trees which cause soil erosion. We appeal to the city council to add more rangers to patrol our community. We will write to the councillor for the area (Kidwell Mujuru) so that he speaks to his residents,” said Mr Tshuma.
He said firewood poaching is causing deforestation in the village since they also depend on firewood.
Another committee member Mr Zibusiso Tshuma said veld fires were another problem.
“The main causes of veld fires at the village are sand poachers who cook in the bush and do not put out the fire and smokers who throw away lit cigarette stubs. Cattle rustlers also start fires so that our cattle go far looking for grass which becomes easy for them to steal them,” said Mr Tshuma.
A blitz by BCC rangers and Forestry Commission targeting Mazwi Nature Reserve last month saw one truck and six scotch carts confiscated which were all full of firewood.
Environmental Management Agency (EMA) education and publicity manager Ms Amkela Sidange said a recent countrywide blitz resulted in some arrests.
She 171 sand poachers and 250 illegal sand transporters were arrested across the country.
“We have been out there to try for this to come to a stop. Recently we had a countrywide blitz where 171 sand poachers and 250 illegal sand transporters were brought to book. We have been working with local authorities for them to comply to the dictates of the law, as they should remain key in controlling sand poaching and ensure sand is extracted in a sustainable manner. They should designate sites where river and pit sand can be extracted,” said Ms Sidange.
She said over 1 500 hectares have been degraded across the country because of sand poaching.
“Sand poaching remains a big driver or land degradation in the country. Sand poaching becomes one of the activities that drives degradation of land. In a recent survey that we did as an agency, over 1 500 hectares of land have been affected by sand poaching and most of it is actually in Harare,” said Ms Sidange.
She said the banning of the usage of farm bricks by local authorities was also key in driving down the demand for sand.
Ms Sidange said there should be designated places where sand can be extracted.
“We have local authorities that came up with bans on the use of farm bricks because if these are used in urban areas, they become an initiator of land degradation through sand poaching. We are happy that Chinhoyi has come up in the open to ban the use of farm bricks,” said Ms Sidange.
She said the EMA was committed to actioning some of the National Development Strategy 1 key outcomes such as rehabilitation of degraded areas.
“As agents we have been working flat out to make sure that such areas are actually rehabilitated and repurposed and put into some other productive uses. Up to the third quarter over 290 hectares have been recorded as having put under rehabilitation. They fall under those that have been degraded due to sand poaching. We want to push some more on that aspect so that we don’t actually have more activities such as sand poaching just creating waste lands that cannot be used productively in the country,” said Ms Sidange.