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Gold Panning - Shurugwi
David Chidende

Gold panning: Shurugwi turns ugly

SHURUGWI – Blooming trees, thick bushes, valleys and evergreen grasslands were the beauty of Shurugwi. The long winding Boterekwa River and magnificent scenery made the area a hit with tourists from all over the world. This beauty has long been taken away by gold panning activities which left trails of destruction as panners recklessly hunt for gold deposits in the district.

With the escalating cost of living, high unemployment and poverty, illegal panners from all over Zimbabwe have flocked Mangwende and Ruchanyu resettlement areas 25 kilometers north east of Shurugwi in search of precious stones. Mangwende and Ruchanyu resettlement areas fall under Chief Nhema in Shurugwi which is located in the mineral-rich Great Dyke belt 33km outside Gweru. Minerals such as gold, chromite, nickel and platinum are mined around the town.

These minerals are a magnet for people from across the country with the notorious makorokoza have turned the area into a scavenging ground despite frantic efforts by the police to stop them.

They leave behind a trail of destruction; devastated fields and forests, mud-choked rivers, and mercury-tainted water.

“Immense damage is being done, but such is life. You destroy to get what you want,” explains Ephraim Chitiga, a gold panner from Mberengwa.

“Unemployment is the reason why I am here; if I had a job do you think I could be here?”asked Chitiga,

Chitiga graduated from Midlands State University in 2008 with a BA Honours degree in African Languages and Culture, but has never been formally employed. Desperate to survive Chitiga found himself doing odd jobs in Zimbabwe and neighbouring South Africa. He finally ended his journey in the deep and dangerous open shafts of the mines in the Mangwende area.

“Getting a job is something I have scratched off my mind. It’s not easy. I have been to South Africa where I ended up harvesting grapes in the farms and herding goats. Now I have found solace in gold panning,” Chitiga said

The transition from other money earning activities to mining is one made out of desperation because nothing else seems to be working out.

Alphas Makado (35) of Mangwende resettlement area under Chief Nhema in Shurugwi received a small farming plot under the government’s land reform programme in 1999. He was very confident and optimistic after he acquired the asset.

With land being the backbone of peasantry economy in Zimbabwe, the 1999 land reform programme ensured many farmers transfer from the densely populated communal areas to virgin arable land forcibly acquired from white owners. The new setup was set to improve the lives of many, but soon became a dreary nightmare which most find difficult to elude.

Having failed to get a job in the city, Makado looked forward to get a life from the soil. Unfortunately for Makado the enthusiasm to produce was stifled by lack of funds to buy inputs. This combined with erratic and unpredictable climatic regime in Zimbabwe which is characterized by droughts forced him and his family to shelve farming and ventured into gold-panning, instead.

Makado’s story is typical of the life experienced by thousands of families living in the resettlement areas of Mangwende, Ruchanyu and Gutsaruzhinji/Dopota co-operative and other places surrounding Shurugwi.

“I do not have money to buy maize seeds and fertilizers as I am not formally employed so I have no alternative, but to explore the gold deposits in my field for survival” said Zinyama, one of the resettled peasant farmers since 1999. Lack of agricultural inputs and an ever expanding family among other things forced him to suspend his farming activities and turn to searching for gold.

Several fields in Hidden Treasure and Village 4, 5, and 17 along Mutebekwi River have been turned into unauthorized gold claims, with owners hiring panners to harvest the precious mineral.

“I acquired this land during the land redistribution exercise, but I no longer use it. Panners mine on it and give me a fraction of their findings,” added Zinyama.

Mike Muyambo (31) and his wife Theresa Rekatai (23) from Chipinge also found themselves in the same predicament. Poverty, looming drought and unemployment drove this couple all the way from Chipinge to Wanderer Mine which is North West of Shurugwi.

In typical excavator style, Muyambo went down into the deep shaft and came back with a sack full of ore which he mechanically loaded onto his back and proceeded to the river where he sadly narrated his story.

“There is nothing I can do, if I remain in the village I will become a thief. Even here money is hard to come by. If you work very hard you can only get enough to take you to the next day,” said Muyambo.

Gold panning is a difficult and dangerous profession for a woman to undertake as it involves deep underground shafts and a lot of bullying from other panners which sometimes degenerates into fist-fights.

Rekatai has adapted to the violent scenes at illegal panning points. She is a very tough and no nonsense woman, and because of that she enjoyed respect from most men around. Clad in a muddy plastered skirt and a tattered t-shirt, wooden panning dish in hand, she remains alert of other responsibilities back home.

“We use this wooden dish to process the ore, but it needs patience especially if the ore is too much,” said Rekatai.

Women in Zimbabwe continue to join in the gold rush despite the dangers of collapsing shafts, lack of proper and clean sanitary wear and crowded squatter settlements.

“I have to carry the burden of looking after the children as well as helping my husband in the pits. I leave our children in other people’s care or take them along to sit by the pits. It’s not easy as it involves hard work and a lot of bullying,” said Miriam Marizhe who is from the area and has joined the panners in their search for precious minerals.

Despite being the source of livelihood for many, gold panning has proved costly to the environment. Deep underground shafts, cutting down of trees, veld fires have turned the land into dongas and gulleys with siltation damaging major rivers servicing the community leading to severe drought.

Sekuru Morgan Munatsi, the village elder lamented the presence of the panners in the area and showed great dismay on the damage caused so far.

“We are very worried about these activities and we always wonder what this area would be like in 5-10 years time if this goes unabated,”

Mrs. Chakahuwa, the ward 14 councilor expressed great concern over this development saying the land has been turned into a wreck.

“The situation is getting worrisome as you can see the land is being ruined, making it very difficult to cultivate. We tried to cover some of the shafts, but everyday new ones surface,” said councilor Chakahuwa.

She cited poverty and unemployment as the major reason for these activities and appealed to the government for agricultural inputs and food aid.

“We urge the government to assist with agricultural inputs and food aid or introduce projects and cooperatives in the area for people to work on because if people are hungry, panning becomes an option,” Chakahuwa added.

Meanwhile, Environmental Management Agency (EMA) officials noted with great concern the extent to which the panners are damaging the environment making agriculture an unreliable source of livelihood.

EMA’s Environment Publicity and Education Manager, Mr. Steady Kangata said whereas mining is a prescribed act under the Mines and Minerals Act, whoever involved should be registered.

“Panning has been the source of livelihood for many families, but at the same time has caused deforestation and siltation resulting climate change and perennial droughts in the country.” said Kangata.

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