MEANDERING up the Christmas Pass is quite an experience with picturesque views of the city of Mutare spread in the valley below. The awe and serene feeling stoked by the breath-taking scenery is drastically shattered as one turns left towards Penhalonga just after completing the Pass.
There is this section on the road linking Mutare to Penhalonga where driving and appreciating nature immediately turns nightmarish, as one is welcomed by hordes of middle-aged, topless and barefooted men that appear plastered with mud, busy digging for gold using picks and shovels.
These men work in pits full of muddy water, sifting the extracted ore in search of the yellow metal, oblivious of health or environmental hazards they will be generating.
As one approaches, the illegal gold panners spontaneously start to move away. They instantly turn hostile as every stranger is possibly a police detail in civilian attire to them.
The road in this stretch is now in grave danger of collapsing into mine shafts that are fast approaching its shoulders, torching anxious moments among residents who fear for the worst, come the rainy season.
Spurred by the desire to unearth more gold deposits along Mutare River, the panners have dug their way right up to the shoulders of the tarred road opposite Penhalonga Police station.
Residents fear that if not stopped, the mining activities might lead to the collapse of the road when the rains come.
A licensed artisanal miner, Cresenzia Chimwanengara, who operates in Old Mutare, but lives in Penhalonga, blamed the illegal miners for environmental degradation and the resultant threat to human life.
“I am worried by their total disregard for human safety and the environment. The environment is suffering because of their recklessness. They make no effort to fill the huge pits or even cordon the shafts some of which are filled with water,” Chimwanengara said.
Chimwanengara also revealed that she was a member of an environment advocacy group, which had submitted reports and complaints concerning the environmental degradation to the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and Mutasa Rural District Council, but had received no response.
Her sentiments are shared by many residents in Penhalonga. They accuse the illegal gold miners of digging pits, shafts and tunnels and leave without reclaiming or securing them, which endangers the lives of both humans and animals.
EMA Manicaland provincial manager, Mr Kingston Chitotombe acknowledged the presence of widespread illegal gold mining activities in the Penhalonga area and the dangers associated with the disused mine shafts and pits left uncovered.
“As an agency we are aware of the high prevalence of panning activities in the area with the DTZ-Ozgeo Farm and Africa University making the major hotspots.
“We have engaged other stakeholders and relevant authorities such as Joint Operations Command (JOC) and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) for arrests and regulation of the activities in the area,” said Mr Chitotombe.
He said their mission was to regulate, monitor and promote sustainable management of natural resources while protecting the environment with stakeholder participation but could not issue warrants of arrest for such activities.
“We are a regulatory body and our hands are tied on the issuing of arrest warrants.
‘‘That is the mandate of stakeholders such as the police to make arrests upon the submission of reports to our office before we engage the police,” he said.
He, however, professed ignorance of the impending threat to the tarred road and its environs adding that his office had not yet received such reports.
Mutasa District Administrator, Mr Tendai Kapenzi said the local authority had the mandate to stop such operations but it was not solely their responsibility and would rather settle for a joint effort approach.
“In as much as there has not been a long lasting solution to the problem as yet, it is up to mine claim owners such as DTZ-Ozgeo to put security measures in place to stop the illegal activities. The council can only do so much to curb the proliferation of the activities but total eradication will need some joint effort,” said Mr Kapenzi.
Despite efforts by Government to formalise and regulate unregistered mining operations, illegal gold mining activities have remained a major problem in Mutasa district leading to the destruction of the ecosystem in many areas endowed with the rich mineral resource.
Illegal mining activities have taken precedence over any other economic activity in gold-rich areas thereby undermining the importance of the environment in which they are being carried out.
The activities have continued to spread in the province in areas such as Odzi and Chimanimani creating the impression that EMA was losing the battle to rein in the illegal gold miners.
EMA has since observed that illegal gold panning would remain a threat to the environment adding that part of the solution was either to register illegal miners into syndicates or co-operatives so that their activities are regulated or adopt a multi-stakeholder approach to deal with the issue.
This problem is however, not only confined to Manicaland but has also caused sleepless nights to authorities in the Midlands province where Kwekwe tops the list as a hotspot.
As just like they have behaved elsewhere, illegal gold miners in Kwekwe have also exhibited violent tendencies towards anyone outside their circles.
Media reports have raised the red flag on the rowdy and unrefined behaviour of the illegal gold panners that operate in the Midlands.
The machete fights among artisanal miners, or ‘makorokozas,’ as they are commonly referred to, have brought a lot of misery among residents of Kwekwe as well as surrounding areas.
Some analysts have attributed this uncouth behaviour to the long term effects of exposure to mercury.
It has been scientifically proven that inhalation of elemental mercury vapours can cause neurological and behavioural disorders such as tremors, emotional instability, insomnia, memory loss and headaches, which in a way attempts to explain the violent nature of the illegal gold panners.