Army clears forest of illegal panners

MUTARE - Soldiers have cleared illegal artisanal gold miners who had maintained a two-decade stranglehold on government-owned Allied Timbers' Tarka Forest Reserve - a commercial pine tree plantation in Chimanimani - in a clean sweep that suggests a previous lack of political will in addressing the menace.

The army moved in in April and has kept it clean for nearly two months, putting an end to an overly aggressive form of illegal mining that was washing away the entire landscape, inflicting irreversible environmental damage.

Efforts to pressure the military by Zanu PF politicians, who feared an electoral backlash from locals who had built their livelihoods around the illegal mining operations, have been resisted bringing back sanity to the area.

Aspiring Zanu PF legislator Joshua Sacco reportedly spent hundreds of dollars in bailing out the illegal panners following the initial raids that saw close to a hundred panners appearing at Chipinge Magistrates’ Courts.

Realising that the tone was different from the old dispensation, even gold panners are keeping out of the fields giving hope that either formal mining activities may finally take effect.

Stella Mhondera said the army said the illegal gold mining activities were polluting the rivers and Mozambique was complaining hence the need to drive out the illegal miners.

Spokesperson for the local army unit, 3 Brigade, lieutenant Moreblessing Mugumbate had not confirmed the reasons for their involvement and for how long they hope to remain camped in the area by the time of going to press.

Stopping the illegal mining activities has, however, pulled the rug from under the area’s mining dependent economy as shops are closing down and the transport business is grinding to a halt.

“I had to close shop because besides artisanal mining, there are no significant alternative sources of income around here,” a dejected former second hand clothes shop-owner at Hlabiso Business Centre, who refused to be named, said.

James Muganga said a similar fate had fallen on the nearby Muchadziya Business Centre.

“These communities were now dependent on mining for almost 20 years now and we hope some economic activities will resume in the area soon — we need jobs at least,” the middle-aged man said.

Allied Timbers could no longer work viably in many parts of the forests and had long failed to drive out the illegal miners amidst allegations of corrupt syndicates aiding and abating the illegal mining activities.

A militantly tenacious presence of illegal artisanal mining has rendered the area unworkable in timber production.

Back in 2013, government had even set aside the area for formal mining in a deal that, however, failed to profitably follow through as the deposits were adjudged to be too insignificant to sustain mechanised mining operations.

With the reality that it had no capacity to ward off waves of panners, Allied Timbers has agreed to formal miners moving in for formal operations.

“This is a better option for us because there is no way these illegal gold panners will rehabilitate the forest after the gold runs out,” Allied Timbers’ chief executive officer Joseph Kanyekanye had conceded.

ZMDC was, however, only there for slightly over four months before abandoning it to the artisanal miners it had been fighting off with relative success. The current respite allows some space for government to bring sanity to the estate.

Although the timber producer would prefer to resume its agro-business, the forest is currently classified as a mining area through the Mines and Minerals Act, which enjoys precedence over any other law where minerals would have been discovered.

The Mines ministry confirmed this status during a Zimbabwe Consolidated Mining Company-hosted diamond conference in Mutare recently.

The levels of environmental degradation had reached frightening levels as hordes of illegal gold panners had evolved their artisanal mining engineering to something desperate and totally unsustainable.

While the artisanal mining engineering ingenuity is a marvel, its trade-off with the environment is unreasonably high.

With ecosystems difficult to value in economic terms, there can never be any clue to the total cost.

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