KADOMA, Zimbabwe – On both sides of the 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) stretch from Kadoma town to the Golden Valley mine in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland West province, numerous pits and mangled trees created huge blank land spaces as illegal gold panners have for years descended on this part of the country.
Nothing is amiss with the disappearing trees here for Jason Mavura, a 31-year-old gold panner from the Kadoma district. He and many others have been searching for the precious yellow metal for a long time.
In fact, illegal gold diggers like him are wreaking havoc on the country’s ecosystem by haphazardly digging up huge swaths of land in pursuit of the precious metal, uprooting thousands of trees in the process.
“What we want is money to feed ourselves and our families, and we will not hesitate to uproot every tree that stands in our way while we dig for gold,” Mavura told Anadolu Agency, arguing that “the trees you talk about can’t give us money.”
Poverty to blame
Environmentalists have shifted the blame for deforestation to rising poverty amid the gold panners’ decimation of the forests.
“With the high poverty levels in Zimbabwe, most people are left with no option but to dig for gold in a bid to make ends meet. This then leaves forests at risk of being exterminated, and unless the economy improves, this reality will only escalate to greater extreme levels,” local environmentalist Kudakwashe Makanda told Anadolu Agency.
Apart from deforesting with reckless abandon in their pursuit for gold, many here, like Mavura, have also not spared the environment, which they have dug up and left open, resulting in ugly scenes over huge swaths of land.
Under Zimbabwe’s Forestry Act, anyone who cuts, damages, destroys, collects, takes or removes trees or timber without a license faces a fine of about $100 or two years imprisonment.
Few or no arrests
Yet very few have been held accountable for their actions against the forests and many, like Mavura, are walking scot-free even as they are infringing on the country’s environmental laws.
“These people (illegal gold diggers) are connected to very powerful people in the country, meaning they are untouchable,” Godfrey Sibanda, a climate change expert, told Anadolu Agency. “They also bribe environmental officials, yet there is also little monitoring of their activities,” he alleged.
Irked by the unmitigated actions of the Southern African country’s gold panners, Sibanda said owing to their destructive activities, “we are slowly turning into a desert, and climate change will affect us.”
“They clear the land before digging. They hacked down trees to support underground tunnels. They cut trees for shelter and firewood,” said Sibanda.
Poor wages to blame
But environmentalists like Makanda have also pinned the blame for deforestation on the underpayment of responsible authorities mandated to monitor the environment.
“Institutions that should administer the country’s forests have insufficient human capital or manpower, and poor remuneration in these institutions forces officials to accept bribes from gold panners, making them inefficient in carrying out their duty of preventing deforestation,” Makanda explained.
According to the Forestry Commission, the country is losing 330,000 hectares (more than 815,000 acres) of forest or over 60 million trees every year as a result of actions by gold panners that are rarely challenged by the mighty force of the country’s laws.
There are now only 15.6 million hectares (38.54 million acres) of forests remaining in the country due to rampant deforestation, according to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Timber industry under threat
As gold panners wreak havoc countrywide on the already depleted forests, in Tarka Forest, a timber estate owned by Allied Timbers in the Chimanimani district in Manicaland province, more than 600 hectares of prime timber have been vanquished as gold diggers cleared the land.
This has put the country’s timber at risk from gold scavengers, according to environmental experts.
“Illegal gold miners are reducing the timber plantations all over the country as they search for gold, which in this case, affecting employment either directly or indirectly, as well as reducing resilience to climate change impacts,” Happison Chikova, an environmentalist, told Anadolu Agency.
“In some areas, gold panners ruthlessly uproot young trees that have been planted,” he added.
But according to the Ministry of Mines, artisanal mining sustains the livelihood of about two million Zimbabweans directly and indirectly through supplementary services and secondary economic activities.