Mazvihwa community bears the brunt of poor mining methods.


By Nyasha Dube

South-east of Zimbabwe, about 20 kilometers from a small mining town called Zvishavane in the Midlands province, lies Chief Mazvihwa’s area. Located amidst the rolling hills, which give the area a flattering, beautiful landscape view, is the hidden gem, rich in minerals like gold, chrome, and diamonds.

Mazvihwa harbors prominent mining giants such as Murowa Diamond and Sabi Gold Mine, making it easier for one to assume that the area is well developed, but deep inside the community, humans and the environment are crying for help.

The fast-growing unregulated small-scale mining activities and the rise of gold rushes threaten human and livestock existence, as more cases of chemical spills and air pollution have been recorded.

The main challenge facing Mazvihwa villagers is contamination of water sources, leading to the instant death of fish and livestock, as well as an increase in diseases like tuberculosis and skin cancer amongst humans.

The Women’s Weekly Journal, with support from the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), embarked on an investigation to find out how the spilling of slime dams has exposed the Mazvihwa community to water contaminated with slime and other chemicals such as mercury and cyanide, which are used in gold purification. Villagers say their health is at risk, and they have lost so much livestock, making their survival difficult, as, next to mining, their other source of livelihood is farming.

Slime dams, as defined by a Science Direct journal titled “Impact of base metal slime dams on water systems, Madziwa mine, Zimbabwe,” are dumps where waste from mining activities is disposed of and can have a pollutive impact on surface and ground water, thereby compromising the quality of water.

For Mazvihwa village, the spillage and seepage of slime dams have had severe consequences for the environment, livestock, and human health in many ways. For months now, villagers have lost a lot of cattle because of a contaminated dam, which is a water source for livestock and humans.

“Our health is at risk because miners in our areas establish their slime dams near water sources. That’s where we get water for domestic use. Our livestock has been dying for months; we don’t even know what to do. That contaminated water is also killing fish,” says one villager, Tendai Sibanda, from the South Devon area of Mazvihwa.

Sibanda’s family has suffered the loss of cattle and goats in the past few months since a slime dam spillage, which was suspected to be from some small-scale mines in the area.

Decomposing carcasses can be seen as one moves from one place to another.

Chief Mazvihwa, who presides over the affected area, also confirms having received complaints about the deaths of livestock and fish some months ago.

“We received reports from the Sabi gold mine area about a slime dam that had burst and the water spilled into a stream, which led to a dam that was a source of water for domestic sources. Fish and cattle died for a while until precautionary measures were taken,” Chief Mazvihwa said.

Water pollution is not the only challenge facing this community. Villagers are at high risk of airborne diseases emanating from dust particles that arise from mining activities taking place just a few meters from residential areas.

Sometimes villagers are asked to move from their homes for hours until the blasting is done, and when they return, their homes are covered in dust.

“We are also facing challenges with air pollution when miners blast in the mountains just a few meters from our homes, which are resettlement areas. The dust that rises is too much, and sometimes we can actually feel that our health is rapidly deteriorating. At the same time, there is no clinic in the area. We rely on Gudo Clinic, which is very far,” said Sibanda.

While the blame game continues between large-scale and small-scale miners over who is responsible for irresponsible mining, villagers find themselves caught in between.

One of the mines in the area, Canada 64 Mine, was once accused of environmental pollution, but they insist they are not responsible.

“We did receive complaints from villagers concerning contaminated water that was flowing in the river, leading to the deaths of many cattle in the area. We went to investigate the issue and found where the chemicals were coming from, which is another mine,” said one senior mine worker from Canada 64, Tawedzerwa Chirikure.

As a mining expert, Chirikure gave an account of what really happens when a slime dam spills into a water source:

“When water is contaminated with slime and other chemicals used in gold purification, it puts humans and livestock at risk because the chemicals are dangerous. Humans may not die instantly because they fetch water downstream, where the chemical concentration is much lower, unlike cattle, which drink water anywhere; however, they may suffer from the long-term effects of the chemicals. When the mud has dried up, it doesn’t mean that the chemical is gone. When it rains and the water starts flowing, it will still be contaminated, and as it flows downstream to the dams, it still affects fish, livestock, and humans. For humans, the chemicals can cause skin diseases. Cattle die instantly because they drink water from highly contaminated sources,” he explained.

Chirikure also says they have put in place mechanisms to prevent such incidences from happening.

“At Canada Mine, we have set up safety mechanisms that stop slime and chemicals from flowing to water sources. We were also trained by the Environmental Management Agency on how to set up slime dams,” he said.

Section 73 of the Zimbabwean Constitution provides that every person has the right to a clean environment that is not harmful to health or wellbeing and to have the environment protected for the benefit of present and future generations.

There are also nearly 20 Acts and 40 statutory instruments that speak to environmental legislation in Zimbabwe.

The most important include the Natural Resources Act (1941), the Forest Act (1949), the Hazardous Substances and Articles Act (1977), the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act (1971), the Water Act (1976), and the Communal Land Act (1982).

There is also the Environmental Management Act (2002), which provides for the sustainable management of natural resources, protection of the environment, and prevention of pollution and environmental degradation, among others.

Regulatory bodies like the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) are mandated to ensure compliance with such environmental laws.

EMA Midlands Provincial spokesperson Oswald Ndlovu says that while some miners are complying, some are not, stating that a number of illegal miners in the province are operating outside the provisions of the law.

“As EMA, we do inspections on a regular basis to monitor compliance with environmental regulations. Those who are found to be violating statutory provisions are penalized. We also attend to complaints that will be brought to our offices. Concerning the Mazvihwa issue, we received a report in August, and an inspection was done, but the discharge could not be linked to any of the mines because it was already dry at the bridge. However, one of the miners was issued an environmental protection order to construct an emergency trench as a precautionary measure,” Ndlovu said in an interview.

He also urged community members to report environmental violations in their areas on time so that corrective action can be taken as soon as possible.

Community environmental monitors are also on record calling for miners to give back to the communities they operate in and ensure the provision of social services, especially health care, and access to economic opportunities.

“We have a lot of mines here, big mines like Sabi, small-scale miners, and well-known gold rushers. There are a lot of challenges that come with such an environment because whenever there is a chemical spill from a mine, it affects everything and everyone, from humans to livestock and aquatic life. A lot of cattle and fish died because of chemicals like cyanide. It was not pleasant to see dead fish floating in the water. Cases of tuberculosis and skin diseases have also increased in the area, and this is caused by dust and chemicals used in mining,” said Tsitsi Matumba, an environmental monitor.

She added that the health implications of reckless mining can have dire consequences.

“When the water is contaminated, we know that when there are 50 people at a mine, after 10 years they will all have succumbed to health complications such as cancer and TB caused by the chemicals, and it doesn’t help that the health system is not effective. The nearest clinic in Vugwi, which is about 40 to 50 kilometers away, is Gudo Clinic, which is 68 kilometers away, as well as Zvishavane District Hospital in town, so if one doesn’t have transport money, it’s a huge challenge,” Matumba said.

She added:

“As locals, we need to collaborate with miners and civil society organizations to establish safe water sources and health facilities. All water sources are contaminated because mining is happening everywhere. There is also a lot of air pollution happening, and all these health challenges could lower life expectancy. We also challenge EMA and local authorities to timely address our challenges when we approach them. We also expect organizations like the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA) to be on the ground and help locals advocate for a safer environment with properly equipped health facilities.”

The devastating impacts of destructive mining activities are not only felt in Mazvihwa but cut across all mining communities in Zimbabwe.

In Hwange recently, there were reports of fish and other aquatic life dying following the pollution of the Deka River due to mining activities. The dam used to be a water source for drinking and fishing, but is now reported to be a death trap.

Whange Environmental Warriors (WEW), an environmental activism organization, says there is a need for all affected and responsible stakeholders to come together and deliberate on issues of sustainable mining.

“The challenge is that chiefs are captured, and there is a lack of political will by those in positions of power to stand with the people when local and foreign miners conduct unsustainable and destructive mining. It’s all about profits without ploughing back to the community,” said WEW director and environmentalist Calvin Manika.

Manika added that without deliberate intervention, mining communities will further deteriorate.

“In Hwange, for instance, a lot of pollution takes place during the coal mining process and at the Hwange thermal power station. In the long run, people will die of various diseases caused by air and water pollution. We need proper advocacy mechanisms to educate communities on the importance of environmental conservation and the short- and long-term effects of mining activities. We need to create synergies between communities and policymakers, as well as miners, so that they have progressive dialogue and engagement on the way forward. There is also a need for accountability on how much is being taken from communities and how much is being given back in the form of infrastructure development,” Manika said.

According to a 2022 ZELA report on the  Mining and Extractives Industry, lack of public access to relevant and accurate extractive information is a big issue, considering that there has been a decline in the agricultural sector as mining has emerged as the leading sector for economic revival.

The report further states that violations of environmental, social, cultural, and economic freedoms have been increasing, with more cases of loss of land, displacements without compensation, pollution, and loss of livelihood sources being recorded, probing the government to fulfill its duty of protecting people through progressive laws and regulations that ensure compliance by miners.

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