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Penhalonga Gold Plunder: A health-time bomb

PENHALONGA – Looking exhausted, Daniel Sakupwanya (18) an artisanal gold miner pours a few drops of mercury into a bowl of dirty water and stirs it with his bare hands.

He is ignorant that the consequences are disastrous.

Sakupwanya, who looks so worn out that he could easily have passed for 30-years of age, is part of thousands of desperate illegal artisanal miners who are relying on mercury – a highly toxic substance to trap the precious metal from the muddy river waters within the area.

Asked by this reporter if he knew how toxic mercury is, Sakupwanya said: “At this moment it is not an issue. The only thing that matters for now is that I want money and nothing else. This is the only way I can survive. I want to look after my parents and young brothers at home.”

He added: “All I want is money. There are no jobs to talk about. This is my only job.”

Mercury and cyanide are commonly used in artisanal gold mining.

Since gold mines are almost always set up near rivers, often excess chemicals are distributed directly into waterways, thus polluting water sources. Once it becomes embedded in soil or water, cyanide and mercury are extremely toxic to humans and livestock.

The Centre For Research and Development (CRD) has embarked on a research that has revealed that the illegal milling processes in Penhalonga is contaminating the environment through water and air pollution exposing over 20 000 residents and downstream communities to deadly toxins.

The ongoing research by CRD is on human rights impacts of gold mining operations around Penhalonga.

In a recent interview with this publication, the CRD director James Mupfumi said information gathered so far shows that there is uncontrolled use of mercury and cyanide in illegal gold hammer mills that is seeping into community rivers and areas of human settlement around Penhalonga.

Mupfumi said they have observed that several hammer mills and cyanidation sites were illegally processing gold at different locations in Penhalonga in violation of Statutory Instrument 258 of 2018 Environmental Management (Control of Alluvial Mining) (Amendment) Regulations, which prohibit processing plants, washing plants, ore stockpiles, slime dams or settling ponds to be constructed within 500 metres from the river bank or the highest flood line of any water

“During this exercise we established that the illegal millers were processing gold ore using mercury, cyanide and other toxic chemicals. We noticed that the milling sites were unprotected, exposing people and livestock to toxic chemicals,” explained Mupfumi.

“Our closer look at the milling sites showed toxic waste from makeshift ponds flowing into water streams. More so, contaminated soils around the milling plants were also transmitting toxins to the environment through soil erosion. We also observed that deadly chemicals from cyanidation tanks were also being released to the environment through vaporization,” said Mupfumi.

The research has culminated into citizen groups led by CRD writing a letter to President Emmerson Mnangagwa demanding accountability for environmental crime and looting of gold taking place in Penhalonga.

Other citizens groups are Penhalonga Residents and Ratepayers’ Trust and Penhalonga Youth Development Trust.

In a letter addressed to the Manicaland Provincial Mining Director – Ernest Mugandani – dated 29 October in possession of this publication reads

“We the undersigned are residents of Penhalonga and representatives of Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) advancing Environmental Social and Economic rights of Penhalonga and surrounding communities, we raise concern on the establishment of illegal gold hammer mills (HMs) and cyanidation sites
along river streams flowing along residential areas of Penhalonga and surrounding farming communities,”

“Section 73 of the constitution of Zimbabwe protects citizens from an environment that is not harmful to their health and well-being. The section also compels the state to take measures to prevent pollution,secure ecological sustainability and use of natural resources to promote economic and social development of citizens,”

“It is our firm belief that government through its ministries including the Ministry of Mines, which your office falls under, upholds these constitutional obligations and constitutional founding values of transparency, justice, accountability and responsiveness….

“The mandate of the Ministry of Mines is to ensure that proper mining methods are followed. It is our firm belief that you are aware of the existence of these illegal gold processing plants in Penhalonga and surrounding communities…..

“It is undeniable that their operations are illegal because they do not have certificate of registration/mining licenses and approved siting of work plan(SOWPs) from your Ministry. As residents and representatives of affected communities we are appalled by your Ministry’s dereliction of duty which is a violation of the constitution. We hereby demand:

“That your ministry and relevant government agencies such as EMA, ZRP, RBZ, Fidelity Printers and Refinery and ZINWA immediately clamp down on illegal gold processing operations that are endangering the environment and human lives in Penhalonga and surrounding communities,” said the residents groups.

The concerns from the residents groups has resulted in a joint operation involving police, Ministry of Mines, EMA and Mutasa Rural District Council that is aimed at closing hammer mills and cyanidation plants in the area.

Acting Manicaland Province Police Spokesperson Wiseman Chinyoka said Police have engaged Ministry of Mines, EMA and Mutasa Rural District Council in a joint operation to flash out illegal gold panners.

“I am yet to get statistics as to how many arrests have been made so farnsince the commencement of the operation,” Chinyoka said.

EMA Provincial Education and Publicity Officer, Alice Chivese-Rutsvara said: “Currently EMA and its stakeholders are conducting an operation in the area. My office will have full details of the inspection report as soon as the operation is complete.”

The operation begun on 9 November 2021.

MDC Member of Parliament for Mutasa South constituency that covers Penhalonga, Regai Tsunga, said there was now an urgent need to have solutions to the growing concerns in the area.

“Artisanal mining has brought to the fore some social and environmental problems. But, what we now need to do is to have a stakeholders meeting and share ideas on how best we can find a lasting solution,” Tsunga said.

“Artisanal mining has come as a result of serious unemployment in the country. This why we have seen an upsurge in the number of artisanal miners who are seeking a living through these mining activities.”

“We have seen the environment being destroyed as they dig for survival. We need to have sustainable solutions to protect the environment and also to protect the erosion of our social well being and economic status.”

Tsunga said he has since written to the Minister of State for Manicaland Province Nokuthula Matsikenyere, the Ministry of Mines Minister Winstone Chitando and the Chief Executive Officer of Mutasa Rural District Council George Bandure calling for a multi stakeholders meeting to discuss the issue.

“We are going to have a multi sector meeting with various stakeholders to find lasting solutions regarding this issue in Penhalonga. It now requires everyone’s input to save the situation,” said Tsunga.

As the economy continues to slump, there are fears of irreversible damage to land and the risk of cultural degradation.