Nqobile Tshili, Features Reporter
HORRIFIC tales have been told of how machete-wielding gangs are terrorising communities to the extent of killing law enforcement agents.
Their disregard for human life is evident as they can attack anyone at the slightest provocation.
The unruly terror gangs recently attacked and killed a cop, Constable Wonder Hokoyo (27), in Kadoma while injuring another after the illegal miners had raided a mine in the area.
This is just one in many reports of how the machete gangs have shown their violent nature as they have even conducted a series of armed robberies.
Their activities have seen the Zimbabwe Republic Police recently adopting a hardline stance which has seen about four gang leaders being shot dead during violent confrontations with law enforcement agents.
Police have arrested more than 1 000 panners across the country and it has become more apparent that drastic action should be taken against the social misfits.
The public has also commended police among other law enforcement agents for the stance they have taken to deal with the marauding gangs, while the judiciary is setting up special courts to deal with the machete wielding gangs.
However, the machete wielding gangs are not just a societal menace but their gold extraction activities have also extensively damaged the environment.
The artisanal miners have little concern of the environment as their attention is focused on reaping profits from the rich mineral.
An illegal miner, Mr Nkosana Moyo, who operates from Inyathi, Bubi District of Matabeleland North province said his operations do not give him time to be conscious about the environment.
“For starters, we always have running battles with law enforcement agents. What would really move me to rehabilitate the environment, yet when I’m found I’ll be charged for illegal mining? This job is not even safe for us while on the field as panners especially when there is a gold rush. You can get killed just for striking the gold. When you get the gold, it’s best you disappear before becoming a target for attacks and robbery. So really, the environment is the least of my concerns,” said Mr Moyo
A Chronicle news crew visiting the area recently observed many pits left uncovered after the illegal miners had conducted their operations. Communities have raised concern that their livestock were dying after falling into pits.
Mr Moyo accepts that their operations have severely affected the environment but says it is not the panners’ responsibility to rehabilitate the area.
Bubi Rural District Council chief executive officer Mr Patson Mlilo said local authorities are the worst affected by the illegal miners.
He said the panners damage roads while extracting gold, expose livestock and other animals to danger after they dig pits and leave them open.
“Those guys are not subject to any authority. But at the end of the day, if communities continue to lose their livestock, the local authority would be left with no option but to rehabilitate that land. Communities will demand councils to rehabilitate the environment,” he said.
Mr Mlilo said during gold rushes, cases of open defecation increase, resulting in water bodies being contaminated thereby exposing communities to diseases.
He said panners also use dangerous chemicals such as cyanide and mercury to process their gold which also affects the environment and is a health threat to communities.
Traditional leaders are also feeling the impact of the artisanal miners.
Chiefs Council deputy president Chief Mtshane said due to their violent nature, the panners cannot be reasoned with.
“A lot of animals are falling into pits left by these illegal gold miners who have no regard whatsoever for locals. They brutalise people while damaging the environment. They even dig shafts in grazing lands so some of the villagers are now losing their livestock and can’t even confront the violent gold panners,” said Chief Mtshane.
Development practitioner Mr Anglistone Sibanda shared Chief Mtshane’s sentiments, further noting that the environmental damage would take decades to rehabilitate.
“Some districts are actually destroyed; there are no pastures to talk of. I can give so many examples in places such as Insiza, uMzingwane and Matobo. The environmental degradation is bad and the vegetation had been damaged. The impact of illegal gold miners will not just last for a generation but it’s permanent because they randomly dig leaving open pits. Communities are left with this thorn in the flesh. The Matabeleland region is a cattle area so their activities are compounding the challenges we have,” said Mr Sibanda.
He said the panners even use unconventional methods of mining which include burning of the veld to detect gold.
Mr Sibanda added that the panners’ activities come at a price for the nation as it is grappling with devastating effects of climate change.
“We’re at a stage where we’re talking about planting trees and rehabilitating the environment but in Zimbabwe, this illegal gold panning is actually reversing that and exacerbating climate change impacts,” he said.
The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) notes that artisanal gold mining is largely unplanned, unregulated and unmanaged and it leaves a legacy of severe adverse and irreversible environmental and health damage.
EMA spokesperson Mrs Amkele Sidange said while the agency has managed to work with small scale miners so that they become environmentally conscious, it was difficult for it to reach out to artisanal miners.
“With the illegal miners, the major challenge is that they have no formal registration. The moment they see law enforcement agents they flee and go to the next panning point. We have running battles with these illegal miners,” said Mrs Sidange, adding that their violent nature makes it hard for EMA to approach them.
“We also realised that there is violence associated with illegal mining. This is another obstacle which EMA is facing now. The violence makes it so difficult to reach out to these violent illegal miners.”
She said as a result, the environmental watchdog focuses on rehabilitating areas that would have been left damaged by the panners.
Mrs Sidange said EMA is engaging various communities whose environment has been affected by the artisanal miners to rehabilitate the areas.
However, their efforts have not started to bear fruits.
Environment, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu said he has first hand information on the unprecedented environmental degradation caused by illegal mining activities.
He said his Ministry was working on an environmental rehabilitation levy to compel miners to rehabilitate the environment.
Minister Ndlovu said if panners can sell their gold at official markets, ways have to be devised to ensure that they also contribute to the rehabilitation of the environment.
“Every miner has to contribute to the rehabilitation of the land which they are destroying. Imagine every area remaining the same as it was before they started mining. That’s our responsibility. We can’t fail to make them pay if they’re able to destroy the environment and extract something. We’re still looking for ways to make that possible,” said Minister Ndlovu.
He continued: “At this rate, the natural habitat is fast declining, future generations will be left with pits to fill and all we could show for this destruction are machete wielding guys who by any means need to start making a meaningful contribution to the fiscus and national development than the bad image they are creating about our country in such a less forgiving international discourse.” – @nqotshili