MASVINGO — Wielding an assortment of tools such as picks, hammers and shovels, gangs of panners trooped into Bikita district following the discovery of diamonds in Devuli Ranch three years ago.
By Tatenda Chitagu
Four diamond-rich kimberlitic pipes had been reportedly discovered in the district under Chief Budzi and Chief Marozva’s areas.
Within weeks the semi-arid district, east of Masvingo town was bustling with activity as fortune seekers arrived in their numbers from all over the country in search of the precious stone.
Enterprising locals cashed in on the sudden influx of visitors, selling second-hand clothes and foodstuffs to the diamond seekers.
The sudden burst of economic activity brought smiles to local businesspeople who soon became accustomed to getting many customers.
But the windfall was short-lived and the villagers’ newfound joy soon dissipated as riot police armed with rifles and batons descended on the panners and cordoned off the diamond field.
“They [police] beat us and unleashed dogs on us and we left,” said a local villager, Marvellous Mukute.
“They said we were doing illegal diamond panning that was causing damage to the environment. But before we could make sense of the move, a Chinese company replaced us and started setting up structures and mining the gems.”
For the first time in his life, Mukute said, he came face to face with Chinese nationals who were employed by Nan Jiang Africa Resources Limited, a company that was given preference ahead of the local villagers.
“Those of us who were into panning were not given jobs by the mine and we were reduced to spectators in our area as the Chinese enjoyed a resource we thought should have benefitted us,” he said.
The few lucky locals who got employed complained of abuse at the hands of their Chinese employers.
A 44-year-old woman, Ronica Ndaverombe of Village Three, was raped and murdered while coming from work at the company in August 2013 after missing the shuttle bus that dropped them at designated points.
Police said Ndaverombe’s body was found with bruises with her clothes torn. He said the police were investigating the matter but up to now, her relatives said the perpetrators were yet to be caught.
Mukute was not the only one aggrieved by the exclusion from the mining venture which ignited a firestorm in the area. Former freedom fighters also claimed Nan Jiang was granted permission to mine in the area under “unclear circumstances”.
The war veterans demanded a share of the cake.
Through their lawyer James Makiya, they wrote to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) in Masvingo on January 22 2013 expressing “grave concern at recent mining ventures that are setting up in Bikita under very unclear circumstances”.
“Our clients believe that the operations are illegal as they did not follow all procedures in the mining laws as well as environmental and empowerment laws,” reads part of the letter.
They demanded explanation from EMA “within 24 hours”.
“Did EMA certify the two mining projects to take place? Are there EMA reports on the two projects? If so, when did they comply and did EMA involve local communities in assessing the two projects?”
The letter was also copied to the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, Police General Headquarters’ legal department and the police in Bikita.
EMA Masvingo provincial head, Milton Muusha, said Nan Jiang, whose trading name was Bayrich, had a prospecting licence from January 2012 to December 2014.
“The company had a prospecting licence from January 2012 to December 2014. They have since left after their licence expired and they told us that they got no minerals.
“But they filled up all the pits they had dug as is required by our compliance plans,” Muusha said.
Villagers in the area also petitioned then Mines and Mining Development minister, Obert Mpofu, seeking answers over Nan Jiang.
They also queried the government’s criteria for giving Nan Jiang the licence to start mining, insisting locals were supposed to get equal employment opportunities with others hired by the mine from outside.
The petition was signed by, among others, former MDC-T MP Sessel Zvidzai, National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) spokesperson Madock Chivasa and former Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ) executive director, Takura Zhangazha — all of whom are originally from Bikita.
The company operated for two years before it declared that “it was doing exploration work and found no diamonds”.
An official from Nan Jiang only identified as Ngirazi denied that they had already started mining when they only had a prospecting licence.
He said the company had closed as the prospecting exercise yielded nothing.
“Why are people spreading those lies that we were mining when we were doing exploration work? We got nothing from our prospecting and the company has since closed shop,” he said.
But then Deputy Mines minister Gift Chimanikire said government then discovered, after a tip-off that led to investigations, that the company had clandestinely started mining diamonds before it was granted a licence.
Last week Chimanikire said they then ordered Nan Jiang to apply for a mining licence as it just had a prospecting licence.
“What they [Nan Jiang] had said was that they were looking for gold. We then sent our team of geological surveyors after hearing rumours that they were already mining diamonds. We were shocked to find a diamond processing mill there,” he said.
Chimanikire described the move as illegal.
“They had not notified us that they were mining diamonds which in itself is illegal. We told them to apply for a licence. I left government before they were granted a licence so I do not know of now,” he said.
Zvidzai claimed that minerals were looted from the country through such shady operations without the government and the locals benefitting.
“We cannot allow such shady deals where locals get nothing from a resource in their area, while the fiscus also gets nothing,” Zvidzai said.
“The government is failing to pay civil servants yet the resources are there but being mismanaged. We have a resource curse caused by greedy powerful Zanu PF officials protecting a few foreigners to loot resources at the expense of the nation.”