HomeLocalImpunity, chaos costs lives in gold mining sector

Impunity, chaos costs lives in gold mining sector

On November 15, artisanal miners were buried alive in mine shafts by a Chinese company, which was sub-contracted by a Belarusian mining company at Premier Estates on the outskirts of Mutare.

BY SIMISO MLEVU

So far, bodies of only two artisanal miners have been retrieved while an unknown number remains unaccounted for. Although the figures are disputed, artisanal miners allege that there are 10 or more bodies still buried underground. The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) says they received three reports of missing persons and investigations are in progress, although they seem to doubt that there could be any bodies remaining. The artisanal miners were suffocated to death after the pits they were working in were filled with soil by excavators during a supposedly land reclamation process.

Over 500 000 Zimbabweans, with over three million dependants, have been forced by the failing economy and climate change, among other factors, into small-scale and artisanal mining. However, the artisanal and small-scale mining sector has been characterised by high frequency of accidents resulting in loss of lives, coupled with several bouts of inherent violence.

Hundreds of artisanal miners have died in the pits as a result of criminality in the sector, weak governance, poor environmental management and cold blood murder by politically connected players. This article explores the dynamics surrounding the gold mining sector, and the Premier Estates mining investment deal in particular.

Absence of the social licence
In Zimbabwe, mining companies obtain formal licences from the central government and other regulatory bodies, which govern mining-related activities. Armed with these licences, firms have proceeded to the mining sites without any consideration of consulting local communities. The entry of large-scale miners to any community has been very intrusive to the social, economic and cultural norms of the locals.

Besides being destructive to the environment, mining exacerbates the vulnerability of local communities, especially women, youths and children, as was noted by the chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines and Mining Development, Edmond Mukwaratigwa, during his visit to Premier Estates on November 22. Climate change-induced droughts have caused rain-fed agriculture to be unpredictable. Consequently, there is a growing number of local men and women, who exclusively depend on gold panning for survival.

At Premier Estates, thousands of young people from surrounding villages, Mutare town and even from other provinces have swarmed what used to be farmland in search of gold in order to survive. Thus when a Belarusian company was secretly awarded a special grant to mine alluvial gold deposits at Premier Estates, where hundreds of artisanal miners had been working for a couple of years now, a standoff ensued. Attempts to displace locals were met with stiff resistance.

The mining company then claimed it was no longer interested in mining, but rather farming, in compliance with the Cabinet decision to ban mining in national parks and along rivers. Earthmoving machinery was used to fill the mining shafts despite protests from artisanal miners, who insisted there were people mining underground.

The parliamentary portfolio committee on mines and mining development visited the area on November 22, about a week after the incident, and noted the absence of a social licence for the mining company.

Committee chairperson Mukaratigwa highlighted that the Chinese company contracted by a Belarusian investor did not involve the community leadership in notifying the miners. Therefore, the company lacked the “social acceptability” and “social permission” that is a prerequisite for any business to operate.

“Our concern is that although mining activities are susceptible to accidents, our findings here are pointing to an accident as a result of negligence,” said Mukaratigwa.

“What we see is that the miners were resistant as they went ahead into the shafts despite being told not to. There is also a gap between contractors and the local community, especially in the way they circulated the information on the reclamation.

“They did not involve the local leaders, who have a way of making sure that this type of communication reaches the people more efficiently when such reclamation activities are carried out to eliminate resistance.”

The ZRP acting officer commanding Mutare rural district acknowledged the absence of a social licence and submitted that as the police force, they had to provide security because sections of the community were not happy with the coming in of the investor.

Although the Belarusian and Chinese companies are claiming that they notified the local community of the scheduled operation, which they intended to implement, locals and artisanal miners are disputing the claim.

Impunity and lack of transparency and accountability in the mining sector
Rescue efforts at Premier Estates led to the recovery of two bodies of artisanal miners. Despite that the alleged land reclamation which led to death of the two men identified to date happened in full view of the police, no one has been held accountable over the loss of the two lives. Although the company has already taken responsibility for the deaths of the two by giving their families funeral assistance, police have not preferred any charges against the company.

The attitude by the state shows that the government valorises corporates over protecting citizens’ rights, which has become the blind side of the “Zimbabwe is open for business” mantra.

The ascendancy of President Emmerson Mnangagwa to the helm of the country’s leadership was punctuated by undertones of courting international investors.

“Zimbabwe is open for business” became his mantra, which was aimed at attracting investors, particularly into the mining sector. In October 2019, government launched a mining-centred strategic plan, aimed at achieving a US$12 billion mining economy by 2023.

The strategic plan is part of the broader roadmap of having an upper middle-income economy by 2030. According to the strategic plan, gold, among other minerals, is central to Zimbabwe’s economic recovery plan and it is expected to contribute $4 billion per year by 2023.

However, dubious foreign “investors” with no proven track record in mining have taken advantage of Zimbabwe’s economic policy loopholes and the rent seeking behaviour by the country’s ruling elites to venture into various mining operations in Zimbabwe.

Since these are not established mining firms, they can only extract surface minerals hence the numerous clashes with artisanal miners. Thus, government is teaming up with foreign syndicates to violently displace its own citizens from mining sites and hand over the same to their foreign allies. In Marange artisanal miners have demonstrated since 2006 that they are well capable to extract diamonds using basic tools such as hoes, picks and shovels. The money they generate is circulated locally as opposed to the dodgy companies formed by the ruling elites which former president Robert Mugabe accused of looting $15 billion in potential diamond revenues. .

Government’s appetite for bribes and resource rents has led to fly by night investors recklessly exploiting mineral resources at the expense of the local community’s constitutional right to benefit from locally found natural resources. The “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” call has opened the country to lawless capitalists and organised criminal syndicates who have no respect for local interests and values.

There is also a blatant disregard for the law by the incoming “investors”. It emerged during the tour by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Mines and Mining Development that when the Belarusian first started mining at Premier Estates, they were using tourist visas. It remains unclear how these tourists were awarded with a special mining grant.

When challenged by local community members to declare their interests the Belarusians allegedly retreated and sought protection from the state which provided them with police reinforcements. Police were then instructed to disperse the artisanal miners by the Belarusians. The heavy presence of plain clothes and uniformed police officers at Premier Estate is testimony of the involvement of powerful ruling elites in the activities.

The Belarusian company was reported to have been awarded a special mining grant to embark on riverbed mining along the Mutare river. However, the public relations manager of the company told Centre for Natural Resource Governance that following government directive to ban riverbed mining, the company started to reclaim the area in preparation for commercial farming. It is however not clear if the company’s special mining grant was revoked or they are using the same mining permit to engage in farming. The sudden change of the land use plan raises questions about the expertise and business plans of these investors being courted by the government. Do these investors who intended to undertake mining activities, have the relevant farming skills? If they are genuine mining company, how can they suddenly change their trade from mining to farming? Do they intend to undertake mining under the guise of farming? Where necessary legal and environmental management procedures undertaken for this change from mining to agriculture. All these questions are a speck in the arrangement between the Zimbabwean government and the investors. Amidst this chaos, neither the Mines ministry nor local government officials have stepped forward to explain the legal status of the Belarusians and Chinese at Premier Estate.

The chaos, confusion, criminality and impunity surrounding the Premier Estates incident epitomises the extent of chaos and irregularities characterising the mining sector in Zimbabwe. There is likelihood of an increase of similar disasters in the near future owing to ever rising tensions between guests of the State and local communities who believe they too have a constitutional right to access minerals within their localities. It is also critical for government to engage with locals when they intend to bring an investor. Not only must government seek the free, prior and informed consent of local people, but rather it should acknowledge that locals have a right to say no to certain “investments” if these undermine the local social, economic and environmental rights.

Development must not be forced on the people.

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