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Hazardous holes

March 3, 2011

With unemployment rife, many in Zimbabwe illegally mine sand to make enough money to feed their families. But the practice leaves behind land pockmarked with safety and environmental pitfalls.

An illegal sand mining site
Sand miners can expect to earn $10 a day from the illegal tradeImage: Hillary Maradzikwa, NewsDay Newspaper, Zimbabwe

Workers afflicted by Zimbabwe's economic turmoil have discovered a new way to make money: illegally mining sand from local rivers, fields and even from the middle of open roads.

The mined sand is sold to the construction industry, but the process leaves behind deep holes that create environmental problems.

Roads become pockmarked and inaccessible, while some holes the size of swimming pools gather rainwater and turn into huge breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The practice also presents a hazard for farmers who can lose livestock to the unauthorized mines.

"We know what we're doing is illegal and that it damages the environment, but we're determined to continue so we can earn money to feed our families," said Charles, a 19-year-old miner from the city of Chitungwiza just outside of Zimbabwe's capital.

Mining sand illegally is a holdout against the overwhelming unemployment rate in Zimbabwe, which some estimates put at 90 percent.

Undeterred by arrest

A young girl searches through trash in Zimbabwe
Poverty and unemployment are major contributors to the sand mining problemImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The police and environmental authorities say they are aware of the problem, but add that they have been unsuccessful in deterring the miners.

Authorities can arrest miners in order to fine them a fee equal to $20 (14.50 euros), but Charles said he and the miners he knows have no choice but to resume their illegal work.

"If the government cannot provide jobs, then there is no way we can stop digging," he said.

On a good day, Charles says he can earn about $10, which is enough to feed his family. He adds that a truckload of pit sand is usually sold for about $30, which must be split among the sand diggers, loader and truck driver as well as expenses like fuel.

While the sand miners try to stay financially afloat, a cottage industry has sprung up around them.

Tendayi Savanhu, a 12-year-old girl from the village of Nechiva, spent most of her day following the sand poachers to sell them corn on the cob.

"I should go to school, but my father can't afford to pay school fees for me - even after working at the illegal sand mines," Savanhu said. "One cob of corn is worth 10 cents. I can make at least $3 per day to supplement the family's income."

Illegal sand miners load a truck for building contractors rural Zimbabwe
A destructive industry is flourishing amid desperation for foodImage: Hillary Maradzikwa, NewsDay Newspaper, Zimbabwe

Lacking regulation

Civic leaders and community residents worry about the growing problems associated with sand mining.

Astas Mabwe of the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) said the main problem was that local authorities in rural areas had not drawn up plans for legal sand extraction. Such plans would require city councils to explain what steps would be taken to rehabilitate the environment.

"The city councils are not forthcoming with those documents," Mabwe said. "As a result, sand poachers go everywhere and dig for pit sand or river sand."

Those interested in the sand business should approach local authorities for approval of their project, Mabwe added.

A new course of action is needed after years of efforts by the community to stop the poachers, according to Isaac Tshuma, a Nevicha resident.

"It's difficult for people to move in the dark because one can fall into a deep pit," Tshuma said.

"The mining is even more dangerous during the rainy season because if someone falls into a hole, he can actually drown. Children have no places to can play because the pits are deep and very dangerous."

But the miners insist that the illegal work remains the only way for them to feed their families, despite the hazards it entails.

Author: Veneranda Lange

Editor: Sean Sinico