Foreign-linked companies — particularly from China and Belarus — are deploying heavy machinery to river banks to mine for gold under the guise that they are desilting the watercourses, it has emerged.
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BY EVERSON MUSHAVA
In the past, river-based mining was associated with informal alluvial miners commonly known as makorokoza.
The largely unknown companies, to which local politically connected elites have been linked, have ratcheted their mining operations despite a September 2020 government ban on river-bank mining.
Some of the mining outfits, however, seem to have local ownership.
Investigations carried out by The Standard, working in collaboration with Information Development Trust, a non-governmental organisation supporting investigative journalism, established that Mashonaland Central and Manicaland provinces are particularly affected by the shady mining activities.
“Initially, the granting of licences was done to desilt the rivers and in the process, mine gold,” Wellington Takavarasha, the Zimbabwe Small-Scale Miners Federation CEO, said.
A senior employee at one of the companies, Tres Balla Syndicate that is involved in stream bank mining along Mazowe River in Mashonaland Central province, name-dropped a top army officer who he claimed was Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga’s brother.
Chiwenga was the Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander and openly entered politics following a military-assisted removal of the late Robert Mugabe from the presidency in November 2017, to make way for his then deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
During investigations, Tres Balla was found using heavy equipment on Mazowe River, an illegal gold panning hotspot.
A man of Asian extraction, who was only identified as Harry, was directing the processing of gold at the site.
A huge excavator and tipper were on site as water was being drawn from a huge water tank perched next to a washing table.
Harry refused to comment on the company’s operations, referring questions to Tadiwanashe Jakarasi, the site manager who claimed that Tres Balla belonged to Chiwenga’s brother.
“The mine is owned by Colonel Guvheya, the brother of Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga. He is called Obert Bastion Guvheya,” Jakarasi said.
Vice-President Chiwenga officially uses Guvheya as one of his names.
Harry said Guvheya was in a partnership with the state-owned Zimbabwe Mining Development Corporation (ZMDC).
But it was not immediately clear if, indeed, the named colonel was the real owner or a relative of the vice-president, or was just being bandied around for political protection.
Company documents seen by The Standard show that Tres Balla Syndicate is owned by one Mike Graham, an electrical and mechanical engineer with a mining history.
Both Graham and Guvheya could not be tracked for comment, but, in Zimbabwe, it is common for investors to use proxies for a range of reasons that include disguising one’s own identity especially where business deals are murky.
These revelations come as an International Crisis Group report published on November 24, 2020 claimed that an unprecedented 1.5 million people have turned to artisanal mining in Zimbabwe due to poverty worsened by Covid-19 and a deteriorating economy.
Proliferation of gold dealers from countries such as China and Belarus has seen artisanal miners venturing into ecologically sensitive areas such as rivers in search of overnight riches, investigations revealed.
Following a public outcry over moves by two Chinese companies to set up coal mines inside Hwange National Park earlier this year, the government on September 8 said it had banned mining activities in national parks and rivers.
Only two rivers — Angwa and Save — were exempted from the ban and government said desiltation would be allowed to continue under strict conditions.
The ban, however, was not accompanied by any new law and some miners are taking advantage of the legal vacuum to continue mining in ecologically fragile sites, river banks included.
Mazowe River, the main source of water for one of Zimbabwe’s most productive farming areas —together with the Masasa area in the same province — is facing irreparable damage following the deployment of heavy-duty machinery to mine for gold.
In some cases, the mining operations entail diverting rivers and, therefore, disturbing natural water flow, a trend that has adversely affected aquatic life and disrupted the livelihoods of hundreds of local households that subsist on the aquaculture.
The mining operations are also associated with massive siltation of watercourses.
Tres Balla’s Jakarasi insisted that the company’s mining activities were above board because they were being carried out about 200 metres from the river bank, but observations showed that the extractions taking place impacted even the bed of the water body.
The company uses an excavator to extract gold ore from Mazowe River and ferries it in a tipper truck to a processing site a few metres away.
Jakarasi said he was aware of the government ban on riverbed mining, and claimed he had not seen any police officer enforcing it during the two months he has been the site manager.
But some panners said the police raided the area sporadically and always spared Tres Balla during the raids.
“In fact, they have caused the arrest of many people here, including a lady who also has claims here. A lot of political power is being used to give the company (Tres Balla) monopoly,” said an artisanal miner.
Government is still adamant that stream bank mining is illegal.
Mines and Mining Development deputy minister Polite Kambamura acknowledged that river-based mining throve on poor policing and lack of effective legislation.
But he added: “Cabinet banned riverbed mining, so in the interim, all riverbed mining licences are suspended. ZMDC is the one which holds titles for alluvial mining, not all those companies. ZMDC formed some joint ventures with the companies, but the title holder remains ZMDC.
“So it’s a matter of ZMDC suspending all those joint ventures and government coming up with a statutory instrument to that effect,” said Kambamura.
The ZMDC board chair, Peter Chimbodza, spoke the same language. “Our position is that all riverbed mining is banned and anyone doing so is operating illegally.”
Chinese syndicates are accused of diverting the flow of Mazowe River in some areas with villagers in surrounding communities saying they fear losing their livestock to poisoning as the miners use mercury to purify the gold.
Most of them are operating close to Iron Duke Mine, close to Mazowe Inn.
The effects of the stream bank mining are being felt scores of kilometres away. The nearby Bindura used to partly depend on water from Mazowe River, but that has since stopped and the mining town now suffers frequent water shortages.
At one of the sites, miners refused to disclose the name of the Chinese who is in a partnership with ZMDC, only calling him Lee.
One of Lee’s workers, who identified himself as Matombo, acknowledged that they were aware of the government ban on riverbank mining, but insisted they would continue because the ban was not legally binding.
“The Chinese are already setting up a processing plant near the river,” said the miner.
Shamiso Mtisi, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association deputy executive director, said illegal riverbed mining was continuing because government was failing to establish requisite laws.
“What government said on September 8 was just an announcement made after a cabinet briefing, so that is not legally binding,” Mtisi said.
“It was just a policy statement issued by the government, which failed to put in place a proper legal instrument to ban riverbed mining.”
Currently, he added, miners could still engage in stream-mining if they applied and carried out environmental impact assessments.
Mtisi urged government to craft a comprehensive legal framework to protect Zimbabwe’s rivers.
In Manicaland, uncontrolled gold mining activities along Mutare River turned tragic on November 11 after two artisanal miners were allegedly buried alive after a Chinese company, Zhondin Investments, sealed shafts at Premier Estates in Penhalonga.
Zhondin was hired by a Belarusian miner, which has gold mining operations along the river.
The Centre for Natural Resources Governance (CNRG), a local organisation that promotes good governance of natural resources, said the Premier Estates tragedy exposed the dangers of uncontrolled gold mining activities in sensitive areas.
“A Belarusian company was secretly awarded a special grant to mine alluvial gold deposits at Premier Estates, where hundreds of artisanal miners were working for a couple of years and a standoff ensued,” the report added.
In an earlier report titled: ‘Penhalonga gold rush’, CNRG complained about the “pollution of Mutare River…by syndicates linked to ruling elites.”
Illegal miners operating along Mutare River in Penhalonga boasted that they enjoyed protection from ruling Zanu PF officials in the area and were not bothered by the government ban.
CNRG spokesperson Simiso Mlevu said: “Mining activities continue unabated on the rivers throughout the country. Artisanal and small-scale miners continue to extract gold and sell it to the government.”
Amkela Sidange, the Environmental Management Agency spokesperson, admitted illegal mining was still taking place across the country, adding that they had enlisted the help of law enforcement agents to stem the problem.