'Damn the environment, I need food'

HARARE - Environment is the buzz word globally, and in Zimbabwe, government and lobby groups are not being left out.

Massive campaigns gobbling millions of dollars are running to sensitise citizens.

But in a country where at least eight in 10 adults lack formal employment, such campaigns come as nagging voices only out to disturb a people’s sources of income.

Sand miners, gold panners and firewood demand make up the list of people largely responsible for Zimbabwe’s land degradation.

Yet, struggling to access basic needs, many are shocked when government campaigns against activities they consider a source of livelihood, hence the dearth of Zimbabwe’s green campaign.

My family first and the environment later, seems to be the motto as Zimbabwe goes off the radar in its environment campaign.

Take the case of sand miners in Harare’s dormitory town of Chitungwiza for example.

The Environmental Management Agency (Ema), a statutory body mandated with environmental issues, is constantly at war with illegal sand miners at the borders of Chitungwiza and Manyame rural areas but the miners will not go away.

This is where they get money to pay rent and school fees and even the occasional arrests will not deter them as this is where their bread is buttered.

During a recent field trip, Ema takes journalists to the area. Sand miners grab their shovels and flee at the sight of the group from Ema and journalists.

But one dares and is willing to talk to the group on how the community has benefitted from a business deemed treasonous in environment circles.

“This trade has in a way reduced crime around this area because it has provided a source of income to many,” he says.

“This area used to be known for cattle and goat thieving but because of the sand mining this has become something rare because people are now employed,” he says.

“Gweja” is the special name given to the illegal miners. It means one who digs the soil for wealth, they say.

The term gweja gained traction during the diamond rush in Manicaland’s Marange area when over 30 000 illegal panners descended on the area.

Sand miners here are proud to be referred to as gwejas, not least because their trade brings food on the table.

According to the gwejas, they get $5 from digging a five-tonne heap of sand which they sell to transporters who will sell the same load for around $40 in urban areas.

With housing cooperatives sprouting all over, finding a market is the least of their problems for sand miners.

The Daily News on Sunday returned to the area after the EMA visit and discovered that even college students are earning a livelihood here.

“On a good day I get around $20 after hours and hours of digging. It is not an easy job,” says a 28-year-old who claims to be studying for an accounting course.

“We know it is illegal but what else can I do? The industries are dead. I actually pay my school fees, buy books and stationery and save a little to help at home,” he says, shovel in hand.

Laws do not really matter.

Ema stipulates the transporters be holders of a special license which costs $173 quarterly and provide proof of vehicle roadworthiness.

Yet, a regular transporter of the sand says he is aware of such requirements.

However, his vehicle is a smoking ramshackle which surprisingly makes past several police roadblocks.

“Sand is our diamond here and I would want to comply with the law but on the other hand the money that Ema wants is too much,” he says.

The sand miners are just part of the chain, Ema says.

Local councillors, desperate to gain popularity, have been dishing land without regard to environmental consequences, Ema says.“They should allocate places where sand can be extracted and then the place can be rehabilitated after it has served its purpose,” says Astas Mabwe, the Ema education and publicity officer for Mashonaland East province. - Bridget Mananavire

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