A day before the Valentine’s Day on February 13, tragedy struck Zimbabwe’s artisanal gold mining sector. How ironic. Gold is used to produce jewellery, a symbol of love and wealth.
However, the Battlefields disaster, where eight miners were rescued alive and 24 bodies were recovered at Cricket Mine, is self-evident — there is no valentine for key gold producers; artisanal and small-scale miners.
Another irony is that artisanal miners were battling for their lives in a place called Battlefields. The battle of trapped miners was an episode reminiscent of the tough socio-economic struggles being fought by many Zimbabweans.
These are not just gold diggers. “Gramme by gramme” panners are digging the country out of its foreign currency woes. Gold production from panners has been phenomenal, from 3,9 tonnes in 2014 to 21,7 tonnes last year. Buoyant gold production from panners eclipsed large-scale mining output for the past two years.
Further, artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM) has emerged as a shock absorber to the country’s high unemployment rate, youths are the most affected. More than 500 000 people directly work as panners in Zimbabwe. And more than a million are indirectly benefiting from their activities.
Clearly, ASM is indispensable to Zimbabwe’s socio-economic growth trajectory and this is recognised and acknowledged in key economic documents.
The following are Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (Zela)’s observations on the Battlefields disaster.
Zela is an organisation that is working to influence government to formalise and regulate artisanal mining and to put in place mechanism to ensure communities benefit from resources in their areas as required by the Constitution, Section 13 (4).
Zela believes that ASM is a front door way of empowering resource-rich, but poor communities. This resonates well with the Africa Mining Vision (AMV), which regards ASM as vital to socio-economic development. The ongoing legal reforms through the Mines and Minerals Amendment Bill offers a timely opportunity for ASM to be recognised as a key economic driver and provided with support to ensure that it is done in a way that promotes safety, health and environmental protection to avoid future disasters like the one that has happened at Battlefields.
The Battlefields disaster: facts and numbers
- Eight people were rescued alive on Saturday, February 16 2019.
- One person among the eight rescued later died at hospital according to an unconfirmed report.
- Three days, the number it took to rescue eight people alive and recover 24 dead bodies.
- One powerful pump from Zimplats was singled out by relatives of the deceased miners as an exemplary response to the emergency. With more pumps like that, dewatering was not going to take three days or more.
- More than a thousand people were on site, mainly relatives and friends who were eager to find out the fate of their loved ones.
- One day, powerful rains received in a generally hot and dry period, is all it took to bring hope to farmers and trauma to miners.
- One doctor was available to help during the entire rescuing mission.
The forgotten side of artisanal miners
Artisanal miners are commonly viewed as violent and a misfit in communities they work in. When it comes to rescue efforts, huge branded machines provided by large-scale mining (LSM) companies were easy to notice. One could not struggle to conclude that this was a job for the big guns, artisanal miners being peripheral actors to the rescue mission. To the contrary, the miners were the main actors.
For days, a sizeable group of the miners hardly slept, doing all the dirty work required to rescue their colleagues. “Even though miners trapped may not be our relatives, they are our colleagues, we will not rest until their bodies are buried in their homesteads” said one miner.
The fatigue was telling. Some were occasionally dosing. But, the determination was unshakable.
Relying on their expertise, bravery, experience and love for their colleagues, they were the ones running the underground operations.
Co-ordinating pumping activities, rescuing their colleagues and retrieving dead colleagues. There were given food, but no refreshments. There was no one to regularly perform medical check-ups, to offer counselling on how to cope with this trauma, and to help them to take co-ordinated rests.
Big mining and showing good corporate citizenship
In an environment where LSM is increasingly under pressure to fairly share mining benefits with local communities, positive response by large-scale miners to come to the rescue of panners was remarkable.
Primarily, LSM operations are legally obligated to pay a fair share of taxes to government and corporate social investments (CSIs) are voluntary, although necessary for social licence to operate. Where government, the recipient of mining tax revenue was hardly noticed, large-scale miners volunteered to help.
The Zimbabwe Platinum Mines (Zimplats), RioZim and Afrochine smelting company contributed equipment, machinery and personnel to the rescue mission. The equipment and machinery included heavy duty water pumps, electricity generators and ambulances.
A Mr Chirandu, a relative of one of the miners who was rescued alive commented that “had there been more powerful water pumps similar to the one provided by Zimplats, the dewatering process would not have taken longer”.
The mining pits were flooded on Tuesday midnight and it took until Saturday morning to start rescuing the trapped miners.
Disappointing govt response
The Battlefields mine disaster was declared a national disaster by government. A move that meant families will be given assistance by government to bury their loved ones – coffins, blankets and cash, $1 000 per family. Some relatives of trapped miners, however, felt that government lacked empathy.
“It is energy sapping to note that on Friday, government rushed to promise to assist with funeral costs at a time when we expected government to provide resources to rescue the trapped miners.
It was insensitive for government to act as if all trapped people had died,” one relative of the trapped miners said.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) is quick to appreciate gold contribution from ASM as a major foreign currency generator. Fittingly, funds from RBZ are driving ASM gold production.
Knowing that safety issues are a major risk in mining business, high vulnerability of ASM to safety disasters must have compelled government, RBZ especially, to come up with an emergency rescue package. Poignantly, when there are gold rushes at prolific reefs there are mobile units that are deployed by RBZ, through Fidelity Printers and Refiners, a subsidiary unit. When tragedy strikes, RBZ hibernates.
When eight people were rescued on Saturday morning, there was no doctor on site to immediately offer medical check-ups. Only one ambulance from Zimplats was on standby.
On a positive note, the only doctor seconded to the site was resting and responded hours later. As time went by, the number of ambulances increased to five. Zimplats provided an additional ambulance and interestingly, Sanyati Rural District Council (RDC) provided another one.
The response by Sanyati RDC provides gripping evidence why mining tax revenue should be shared fairly between central government and RDCs, which are better suited to respond on local service delivery issues. Therefore, RDCs must not be treated as “rule takers and revenue takers” by central government. After all, Section 276 (2) (b) of the Constitution gives local governments powers “…to levy rates and taxes and generally to raise sufficient revenue for them to carry out their objectives and responsibilities”.
‘Economy first before politics’ this mantra finds its strongest test in ASM
To rebrand and to reposition Zimbabwe better after former President Robert Mugabe’s era, repeatedly, President Emmerson Mnangagwa states that “economy first before politics” and that “Zimbabwe is opening for business”.
This rebranding thrust faces a stern test in the ASM sector. The dirty hands of powerful politicians have their fingerprints all over the chaos in the ASM sector, including this latest one – the Battlefields disaster. Falsely hiding under the banner of empowerment, politicians are allegedly frustrating efforts made by Mines ministry and police to bring sanity in the sector.
It is alleged that the Mines ministry had ordered the shutdown of the mines on safety concerns and claim ownership disputes.
However, business continued as usual. There are fears that the numbers of people trapped underground was deliberately understated to protect politicians behind this disaster from greater public scrutiny.
It appears Zanu PF, the ruling party, is more powerful when it comes to regulating the ASM sector than the likes of Mines ministry and the police. ASM is, therefore, a key indicator to the “new dispensation” thrust to rebrand and position the economy first before politics.
It is easier for CSOs to point fingers, but they can do better
There was no emergency meeting called by civil society organisations (CSOs) to strategise on how to effectively respond to the Battlefields mine disaster.
CSOs working with artisanal miners must seriously consider up-skilling their expertise on disaster and risk management in the ASM sector to ensure that there is more comprehensive and co-ordinated response should there be future disasters.
Such an understanding can guide CSOs to assess the preparedness and effectiveness of rescue operations to help plug the holes. Advance preparations are always critical, for instance, having doctors on standby in all districts where artisanal mining is taking place as well as volunteers who can give first aid and counselling services among other services.
While not enough, Zela donated first aid medical equipment for 10 people, drinking water and fruits. However, a stitch in time saves nine.
The Battlefield disaster must never be used as an excuse for heavy handed response by government in the name of bringing sanity to the ASM sector.
Rather, this disaster is an opportunity for a multi-stakeholder approach to safe, responsible and sustainable growth of the ASM in Zimbabwe and the ongoing reforms in the mining sector through the Mines and Minerals Amendment Bill which offers a very good opportunity for this.
The ASM sector is essential to the realisation of Zimbabwe’s development agenda because of its compelling economic and social contribution.
Government must prioritise the formulation and implementation of an artisanal mining policy. The intervention by large-scale miners should be used as a springboard to promote greater linkages between ASM and LSM.
To control the chaos associated with ASM, government must deal with powerful politicians and walk the talk – “economy first before politics”.