THE dust road meanders down to the Mutare River, then breaks into a dirt path.
BY CLAYTON MASEKESA
Red dust puffs up as hundreds of fatigued, barefoot illegal gold miners march in single file, carrying hoes, picks and shovels.
Women, schoolchildren, young and old men wade across the river to the eastern bank. There they cut trees, overturn rocks, and push the debri into Mutare River, choking it with mud.
The disconnected sound of hammers drowns out the rush of the river.
Saungweme Mountains and Mutare River close to Redwing Mine have been besieged by the illegal gold panners.
Pushed by endless poverty, desperate illegal gold seekers have begun a new wave of panning, tearing down Zimbabwe’s countryside in Penhalonga’s DTZ Ozgeo Redwing Mine in search of the precious stone.
They are leaving behind a trail of destruction that includes devastated fields and forests, mud-choked rivers and mercury-tainted water along the Mutare River.
Widespread hunger that has wreaked havoc in the small mining area has forced virtually everybody regardless of gender or age to join the gold rush following the closure of the mine in March this year.
Penhalonga has become synonymous with gold panning where gold seekers follow mining concessions belonging to the gold mining concern.
The Environment Management Agency (EMA), closed sections of the Russian-owned DTZ Ozgeo operations along the Mutare River.
EMA stopped the company from mining, ordering it to rehabilitate land where it carried out previous operations and to complete an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA).
Environment minister Saviour Kasukuwere has said the government will not entertain appeals by the Russian gold miner to be allowed to resume alluvial mining operations at the mine.
The miner, a 60/40 joint venture between Econendra of Russia and the Development Trust of Zimbabwe, in May this year appealed to Parliament to lift a ban on alluvial mining saying it would be forced to dismiss its nearly 500 workers following the closure of the mine.
“We are not backtracking on our stance because DTZ has not communicated with us. Even if they do, it won’t be of any significance,” Kasukuwere said.
He said the ministry was updating legislation to include a ban on riverbed mining practised by several companies.
“We took a decision as government that mining along riverbeds will not be tolerated. The law will prescribe the certain minimum conditions that have to be met before mining can go ahead as in the case of DTZ,” Kasukuwere added.
However, like many of the young unemployed youth, Privilege Kamusoko (25) has joined the gold rush, after hearing that Penhalonga was “overflowing” with gold.
“All I am looking for is survival. I want to survive and fend for my family. I’m here because of hunger, because there is nothing for my family, no food for them,” he said.
Kamusoko, who is one of many Gwejas (illegal gold panners) said in a “lucky” week, he can make more than US$500 from selling gold at US$40 per gramme, but most of the money is used to buy food.
The buyers come from in and outside the country. They are seen milling around the nearby business centres in Chinyanjera and Tsvingwe.
The two business centres have become a hive of activity owing to the cash that is exchanging hands.
“There are many teenagers doing this. If you come in the evening, you’ll see the sheer number of people mining here who come back to their camps in the mountains,” said Kenneth Madziwachando from Tsvingwe in Penhalonga.
Displaced from farms during the farm invasions, hundreds of desperate and poor people have ventured into illegal gold mining in Penhalonga, leaving a trail of environmental destruction of unprecedented magnitude. Farmers, environmentalists, and traditional leaders are alarmed by the destruction.
Mutare River is fast filling with silt, harming ecosystems as well as farming, fishing, and drinking water. The illegal miners cut and burn wood indiscriminately to fuel their makeshift camps.
The illegal panners use mercury and cyanide to separate gold from the ore, and then flush the toxins into the same river.
A visit to some of the mining fields in the area revealed that the illegal panners arrive at the river in the afternoon and during the night in search of the precious mineral.
“Before, there was a lot of gold and few people panned for gold because that time there was food and people didn’t care about gold. Right now, because there is hunger all over, people have come from all over to mine and are competing to have the few pieces of gold,” said Madziwachando.
Children have also joined in the gold hunt and, like countless others, are missing out on education. They have traded the education books for the pick and shovel and are hoping for a golden ticket out of poverty.
Manicaland police spokesperson Assistant Inspector Luxson Chananda said he was still to get information on the new gold rush.
“As of now, I do not have complete information on the invasion of the mine by the gold panners. We will do some investigations and I will come back to you with full information,” said Chananda.
Nevertheless, Chananda said, the police have been urging people to desist from illegal gold mining as it has many dangers associated with it.
The community’s hopes rest on the establishment of mining laws that promote investment and development.
“What we need are international investors to come in and mine for gold and benefit the community,” said Chief Mutasa.
“We need the government to offer licences to locals to do proper mining by giving them claims. This will provide some jobs to the local community and some basic services.”
According to police, an estimated 400 illegal gold panners are refusing to vacate Mutare River banks and Saungweme Mountain in Penhalonga.
Villagers and residents in Penhalonga’s Tsvingwe high-density suburb said the illegal panners were causing serious social problems in the area such as drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution and violence.