15 September 2023
By Tafadzwa Mvududu
In the heart of Zimbabwe’s mining communities, a silent struggle unfolds, one that threatens the very essence of childhood. With all the wealth of natural resources in these communities, the rights of children are being eroded by the environmental hazards that surround them. Uncovered pits yawn hungrily, coal fires smolder relentlessly, and the air is laden with toxic pollutants.
This is a story of environmental child rights, a journey into mining communities that goes through uncovered pits and coal fires in Hwange, and details the various factors affecting children in Gwanda, Zvishavane, and Shurugwi.
The Hidden Danger: Uncovered Pits
As the sun rises over the horizon, casting an ethereal glow on the landscape, the shadows of uncovered pits loom large. These remnants of past mining activities have become treacherous traps, hidden beneath the surface, waiting to claim unsuspecting victims. Left unattended and unmarked, these pits pose an imminent danger to children in mining towns. As perilous chasms threaten to swallow dreams whole, communities are left cursing the day mining companies visited them.
Despite being endowed with minerals such as asbestos, platinum, gold, chromite, and other groups of minerals, communities in Zvishavane are not spared by this problem. A sombre atmosphere recently engulfed the Mhondongori area, which is in Ward 5, after a seven-year-old boy from Village 4 fell into an uncovered chrome pit and died.
During a ZELA Runde District Alternative Mining Indaba (DAMI) held at the Rural District Council offices, Monica Shonhiwa, who lives in the area, said the pits gave her sleepless nights, especially because they were now havens for criminals and criminal activity. She alleged that murderers were even throwing the bodies of their victims into the pits.
“We wish to live in a peaceful community, a community without uncovered pits, a community without murderers who throw bodies in these open pits. We ask for government intervention so that these chrome miners at least mark their pits or cover them so that we won’t lose our children or our livestock.”
Hwange’s Burning Issue: Coal Fires
In Hwange, a town known as the hub of coal mining in Zimbabwe, an even darker secret smolders beneath the earth’s surface. Coal fires, ignited by a deadly combination of human negligence and spontaneous combustion, rage relentlessly. With no knowledge of the harm that can be brought by coal, children will be playing and enjoying themselves, unaware that they could suffer from burns at any second or minute. The coal that was supposed to benefit them has instead become their greatest enemy.
Brian Chikumbo, the Greater Hwange Residents Trust Board Chairperson, said the issue of coal fires is of great concern since they are becoming a hazard, especially to children. Chikumbo is a victim of these coal fires; he was burned while he was still young, and up until now, the scars of this unfortunate event on his hands remind him of how this affected him and the pain he went through as a young person. He does not take the problem lightly, so he took the initiative to write a petition that got a positive response from the Parliament of Zimbabwe.
Children’s rights to a safe environment are compromised because of these fires. According to She Corresponds Africa, coal fires continue to harm children in Hwange. In June this year, Anele Mleya (four) and Mzingaye Moyo (seven) were burned while playing.
“Anele Mleya (4) and Mzingaye Moyo (7) were out playing in June this year when they decided to drive away donkeys that were roaming around their homestead. As they were running towards the donkeys, the ground beneath shifted, pulling the two kids into one of the underground fires that burn in Zimbabwe’s coal mining town of Hwange.” (She Corresponds Africa.)
A Toxic Legacy: Health Impacts on Children
The risk of falling into and burning in these pits is just the tip of the iceberg; the fires also release toxic gases and pollutants into the air, a toxic brew that children inhale with every breath. Their lungs now bear the burden of a burning legacy, leaving them vulnerable to a host of respiratory ailments and long-term health complications.
Beyond Hwange, the plight of children in mining towns like Gwanda, Zvishavane, Shurugwi, and Marange persists. Here, the air hangs heavy with the weight of mining-related pollutants. Heavy metals and toxins seep into the soil, infiltrating the water sources upon which these communities depend. The consequences are dire, as the health of children is compromised and their young bodies succumb to the insidious effects of toxic exposure. The vibrant laughter of childhood mingles with the harsh reality of developmental issues, respiratory diseases, and a future fraught with uncertainty.
A ZELA paralegal in Shurugwi, Eunica Pabwaungana, said a lot of work still needs to be done to free mining communities from the effects of mining activities. She singled out air and water pollution as the biggest threats but highlighted that, through engagements with mining companies, there were notable efforts to reduce pollution.
What needs to be done to protect our children?
As we peel back the layers of this narrative, there are those who refuse to let the voices of these children be silenced. Organizations like the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association rise to the challenge, demanding change and advocating for environmental child rights. ZELA rallies for comprehensive measures to address the problem of uncovered pits, combat coal fires, and mitigate health risks. Through projects such as the Multi-Actor Partnerships (MAPS) Project to promote environmental child rights in the mining sector, which is being implemented in Manicaland, ZELA seeks to capacitate and empower communities when it comes to environmental child rights.