ZIMBABWE: 'Money Comes First, Health Second'

  • by Phyllis Kachere (harare)
  • Tuesday, June 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

As most other artisanal gold miners in the Nyamahumbe and Chishapa areas of the gold-rich Shamva district in Zimbabwe's Mashonaland Central province, Nyarambi carelessly adds a cap of mercury to the zamba to extract the precious metal.

She knows little of the toxicity of mercury and the huge health risks she exposes herself to. With her bare hands, the 26-year-old mixes the contents of the wooden dish until the fluid mercury wraps itself around tiny particles of gold dust, making a nugget.

Dr Cleopas Sibanda, an occupational health expert, says mercury destroys a person’s nerve endings and causes mood swings. 'People exposed to it show signs of irritability, mood swings, a nervous body system and bleeding gums. Failure to concentrate has also been reported on those exposed to the metal,' he told IPS.

'Mercury is a particular threat to pregnant women and their unborn babies.'

Desperate to find gold and a way out of poverty, Nyarambi and her fellow illegal miners are not bothered by potential health risks.

'Mercury is easy and fast to use when extracting gold dust from the ore. After crushing the stones that hold the gold ore, mercury makes the job easier and removes all impurities from the gold,' explains Nyarambi.

'I have heard it causes ill health if you inhale it, but I don’t do that. I only use it to gather tiny gold specks. I have been using mercury for the past five years and never had any problems,' she added.

Thousands of poor and unemployed youths and adults have trekked to Shamva district, which is reported to have rich deposits of alluvial gold, hoping to strike it rich. In the past, a number of illegal panners have managed to accumulate easy wealth here and set up transport and retail businesses from the money made from the gold.

Health risks

Despite the launch of a police operation coded Operation Chikorokoza Chapera (Operation End Illegal Panning) two years ago, police have not managed to stop panners, or makorokoza, as they are called in Shona. With a gram of gold fetching $20, while an ounce, or 23.3 grams, fetches anything above $900 on the international market, panners say they will do anything to find gold.

'It is called making money. Money comes first, health second. It’s simple, either money or health,' said Pfimbikai Mate, one of the makorokoza, who has been making a living from gold panning for the past six years.

In January, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said only six percent of Zimbabweans are formally employed, down from 30 percent in 2003. This sharp decrease is mainly due to the country’s unstable political and economic situation, combined with repeated droughts, which have caused widespread food insecurity.

Mate explains that private gold buyers in Zimbabwe create a market for the panners by smuggling the precious metal to China, South Africa and Angola. They supply panners with mercury to increase production without explaining the health hazards associated with using the metal.

Smuggling rings

Mercury is listed as a highly hazardous substance by Zimbabwe's Environmental Management Agency (EMA). Agency director Phillip Manyaza acknowledges that the agency has so far failed to control and regulate the import of mercury from South Africa and Europe, identified by the United Nations Environmental Programme as the major points of origin for mercury used in Zimbabwe. He says existing legislation against the unsafe use and unlicensed import of the metal has not been easy to enforce.

The law calls for imprisonment of individuals and companies that bring mercury into the country without a license, but smugglers find it easy to bring in the toxic substance, he explains.

'We have good legislation against use of harmful substances, but the enforcement has been difficult. Police do not have adequate expertise and equipment [and enough vehicles] to police these rampant gold panners. It is a problem,' admitted Manyaza.

Gold panning also has a negative impact on the environment. Just a few kilometres from the main digging site in Shamva district, Chief Bushu, the cultural custodian of the area, says entire homesteads have been collapsing because panners dig up soil and boulders in search for gold, excavating unstable underground caves.

The devastated environment is testimony to the makorokozas’ handiwork, which creates deep craters from collapsed caves that have become deadly traps for livestock and human beings. The panners also destroy a variety of protected flora and leave soil vulnerable to erosion.

According to UNEP, small-scale gold mining and panning is the second highest source of mercury environmental pollution globally.

Even the culturally-revered fig tree, the cutting down of which is taboo in Shona culture as it is regarded as the dwelling-place of ancestral spirits, has not been spared. Its trunk is used to carve the wooden panning dishes, mazamba.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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