The tarred road from Chimanimani Resort Village in Zimbabwe meandered down to the Haroni River, then broke into a dirt path. Red dust billowed as hundreds of haggard, barefoot illegal diamond miners marched in single file, carrying hoes, picks, and shovels. Women, schoolchildren, young and old men waded across the river to the eastern bank. There they cut trees, overturned rocks, and pushed the debris into the Haroni, choking it with mud. The staccato sound of hammers drowned out the rush of the river.
The Haroni is fast here, driven by gravity where it emerges from the imposing Chimanimani Mountains, which form Zimbabwe’s eastern border with Mozambique. Until recently, the river ran clear. Now it was brown and murky. Until recently, this was coffee, tea, and cattle country, filled with well-tended plantations. Now the landscape had turned to a ghostly panorama of ravaged fields, trees ripped up by their roots and left to rot, gaping holes and tailings, forest cut and burned.
This scene — already familiar in central and western Zimbabwe, where a 19th-century-style gold rush has been taking place since 1990s — has become even more common since 2006, when diamonds were discovered in the country’s eastern areas.
Displaced from farm work and spurred by Zimbabwe’s disastrous economy and an astronomical annual inflation rate of 231 million percent, hundreds of thousands of desperately poor people have ventured into illegal mining, leaving a trail of environmental destruction that is alarming farmers, environmentalists, and traditional leaders.
All of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces bear evidence of the damage. Rivers are filled with silt, harming ecosystems as well as farming, fishing, and drinking water. Miners cut and burn wood indiscriminately to fuel their makeshift camps. Panners use mercury and cyanide to separate gold from the ore, and then flush the toxins into the rivers.
A visibly disturbed deputy environment and tourism minister, Andrew Langa, toured the devastated Chiadzwa diamond fields in the eastern Manicaland province last year. “The cost of reclaiming this land is beyond our means,” he said. “If illegal mining continues at such an alarming rate, Chiadzwa area will be left without a tree or even grass.”
Environment and Tourism Minister Francis Nhema went a step further, telling reporters, “If the illegal mining is not stopped, it could turn the whole country to rubble in the next few years.”
King Solomon’s Mines
The Haroni River is a valuable resource not only for the Chimanimani region of Zimbabwe but also for neighboring Mozambique, as it provides fish and other foods to the people. The river also provides water for hundreds of settlements along the river in both countries. In addition, the Chimanimani region is home to a Zimbabwe national park that is described by the conservation group BirdLife International as “one of the richest ecological complexes in Zimbabwe.”
Illegal miners began flooding into the Chimanimani area in late September 2007, following the discovery of a diamond belt along the Haroni. The miners, who had long hoped for such news — according to myth, the Chimanimani Mountains were the location of King Solomon’s fabulous mines — traveled from as far as Bulawayo, hundreds of miles away in western Zimbabwe.
Barely a day after the diamond belt’s discovery, up to 2,000 illegal miners invaded Charleswood Farm, just across the Haroni River.
Formerly a productive farm owned by opposition party treasurer Roy Bennett, Charleswood was expropriated eight years ago by Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF government and opened up to resettlement under the land reform program. Private ownership of farms had meant strict environmental management. But the new farmers at Charleswood have removed the coffee crop, making way for a meager crop of maize — and lots of illegal mining and poaching.
On the western side of the Chimanimani area, meanwhile, a vicious war erupted between the police and illegal miners following the discovery of yet another belt of diamonds. The miners, operating from the top of the sacred Dziike Mountain, rolled stones down the mountain to scare off police officers who had been sent to evict them.
The High Cost of Gold
The scramble for mineral wealth is damaging not only Zimbabwe’s ecology, but also its struggling economic efforts, experts warn.
Even before the diamond rush began, renowned environmentalist James C. Murombedzi wrote in a 2005 study that “unsustainable gold panning activities are directly leading to the decline in water for irrigation, reducing agricultural output, destroying fisheries, and ultimately threatening the country’s water resources.”
The practice “causes massive damage to river systems through channel and riverbank erosion and the discharge of pollutants (mercury and human waste) into the water, leading to sedimentation and siltation,” reported Murombedzi, formerly the Southern Africa regional director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Murombedzi noted that gold panning expanded most rapidly after the government —responding to pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — implemented Zimbabwe’s Economic Structural Adjustment Program in the early 1990s. The program of privatization, deregulation, and reduced export subsidies caused dramatic job losses and poverty, leaving many workers scrambling for an informal livelihood.
Panning was “a significant source of income” for an estimated 600,000 Zimbabweans, accounting for about a quarter of the country’s total gold output, Murombedzi reported in his 2005 study. But “the cost of environmental damage caused by gold panning is borne by society at large, while the benefits are appropriated by the panners themselves. As such, there are no real incentives for the panners to engage in sustainable methods of panning.”
The University of Zimbabwe’s Institute of Mining Research had previously reported that illegal panning was prevalent along most of the country’s major rivers.
“Mercury is used especially by alluvial gold panners, and it finds its way into the river systems and the atmosphere since there is no process in use for its recovery and use of cyanide for gold recovery is also prevalent in Zimbabwe,” the institute’s report noted.
One of the most affected river systems is the Save (or Sabi) River, which supplies water to the Middle Sabi and Chisumbanje farming areas in Manicaland province, in the east. Panning for gold and diamonds is rampant along the river’s tributaries, creating silting that has reduced the once mighty river to a trickle.
Panning was “a significant source of income” for an estimated 600,000 Zimbabweans, according to a 2005 study.
The Middle Sabi produces more than 25 percent of Zimbabwe’s wheat.
One farmer, Blessing Dube, said in early August that silt had choked his region’s nine giant irrigation pumps for the past two weeks, threatening the entire Middle Sabi farming area — nearly 20,000 acres. “The pumps, the canal, as well as the overnight storage dams, all have been clogged,” he said. “We currently have about 1,830 hectares [more than 4,500 acres] of wheat in various stages of growth and, had it not been for the poor water supply, we were expecting up to 5,400 tons of wheat this season.”
After the diamond rush began last year, Environment and Tourism Minister Nhema — who also chairs the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development — said it had become necessary to put an immediate stop to illegal mining throughout the country.
“We have collectively come to the conclusion that the environmental costs emanating from the panning activities far outweigh the benefits accruing to the panners,” Nhema told journalists.
Nhema said panning had caused chemical contamination of water bodies, indiscriminate cutting down of trees, and destruction of fragile habitats. The mining also eroded any gains from the land reform program as agricultural land was riddled with holes, he said. The minister added that the country’s economic success hinged on economically viable and environmentally sustainable policies.
As pressure mounted from environmentalists last year, Zimbabwe President Mugabe assented to legislation that imposes a sentence of at least five years on anyone convicted of illegally dealing in or possessing precious stones. Early this fall, police announced that they had arrested 9,656 diamond panners and recovered 1,912 diamonds worth quadrillions of inflated Zimbabwean dollars in the Chiadzwa area since January.
Despite arrests, no panner has been convicted of illegal possession of precious minerals since the penalty was increased.
But those figures are misleading. According to court records, no panner has been convicted of illegal possession of precious minerals since the penalty was increased. Convictions have come only for prospecting without a license, a minor offense.
And Manicaland’s new governor, Chris Mushohwe, says illegal mining continues unabated.
“As I speak now,” he told a gathering of church leaders in September, “there are over 20,000 illegal panners hiding in the mountains around Chiadzwa area. I need your support to eradicate this problem.”