COVID-19 pandemic spurs illegal gold rush in Zimbabwe mountains
Known for their rugged ranges, grassy plains and forest waterfalls, the Chimanimani mountains in eastern Zimbabwe have long been a popular destination for tourists — and gold miners hoping to strike it rich.
Travel restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 have kept the tourists away, although some attractions reopened last month.
But illegal mining has surged as miners take advantage of the lack of visitors, leaving a trail of environmental destruction in their wake, say researchers and activists.
“The waters are being polluted; the biodiversity poisoned; endemic plants dug up (and) trampled; animals and birds poached; (and) litter strewn all over the mountains,” said Julia Pierini, head of BirdLife Zimbabwe, a non-profit.
Activists, industry experts and some of the miners themselves say rangers employed by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) to protect Chimanimani National Park are involved in the illicit activity.
“For the past couple of years, we have been seeing illegal gold miners in the mountains, but suddenly during lockdown we started to see hundreds of them,” said Collen Sibanda, vice chairman of the Chimanimani Tourist Association (CTA).
“Zimparks is recruiting people. They are organising these syndicates.”
Lenny Kwaramba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that he had been mining in the mountains without a license since March.
“I thought it was legal because we were working with the rangers,” said Kwaramba, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.
“We were given a target, we would sell about 40 grams of gold per day,” he continued, explaining that as the miners came back down the mountain, the rangers would take the gold and pay them in U.S. dollars.
That was until August, when the military and police were deployed to help the rangers evict the miners.
“I had to run for my life,” Kwaramba said. “They were firing at us. Some (miners) were injured and others are missing.” Zimparks spokesman Tinashe Farawo said the authority was looking into claims that the park’s rangers had a hand in the illegal gold mining.
“We have heard such reports. We are currently investigating the allegations,” he said in a phone interview.
“We are calling upon (everyone) to forward any evidence that our officers are involved. We want to ensure we protect these forests for the benefit of the future generations.” There is no official data on the number of illegal gold miners in the Chimanimani Mountains, but authorities note that around the country their ranks have risen in recent years.
As Zimbabwe experiences its worst economic crisis in a decade, with crippling hyperinflation and unemployment, young people are venturing into illegal gold mining in a bid to earn a living.
Gold panning in Chimanimani is mostly small-scale and informal, according to a 2016 research paper by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London.