Penhalonga the Sinking Gold Town: Environmental Degradation, Loss of lives worrisome

Sharon Chigeza

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PENHALONGA-The gold mining space in Zimbawe is subjugated by large scale
mining (LSM) and small-scale or artisanal small-scale mining (SSM/ASM).
Rapidly surging and widely practiced, artisanal and small-scale gold mining is a
substantial source of employment and income for many locals in the areas where
they operate.
The endless yet cumbersome processes required to obtain a mining permit is rather
slow and unyielding forcing many locals into illegal artisanal small-scale gold
mining operations.
Illegal mining has exploded around the world. The Penhalonga gold belt in Mutasa
district, Manicaland for one, has now been consumed by the miner’s ‘sinkholes’
Penhalonga is loaded with bullion-rich rock, some of the best in the world, and for
over 100 years, long before the colonisation of Africa, humans have been digging
up the Earth to extract it.
There are many tunnels and branches and offshoots that no one, not even the
country’s top engineer knows where they all lead.
But what environmentalists and everyone else know is that since the price of gold
started to skyrocket early this century, illegal mining has grown. In so doing the
underground tunnels have increasingly become death traps.
The miners pay little attention to structural integrity and a lot more attention to
tapping into the richest veins around. Even if it means digging right under roads
and buildings.
The road section linking Mutare and Penhalonga is a nightmarish drive as one is
welcomed by hordes of middle aged topless, mud plastered men busy digging for
the yellow mineral.
These men work in pits and shafts full of muddy water oblivious of the health and
environmental hazards they will be generating.

Of striking note is how these mine shafts are fast approaching the shoulders of the
tarred road, torching anxious moments amongst motorists and residents who fear
for the worst during the rainy seasons.
At a press conference organised by Centre for Research Development (CRD),
Penhalonga Residents and Ratepayers Trust, Weston Makoni expressed great
concern over the environmental degradation and safety of the residents as well as
the miners who work in the precarious mine shafts day and night
“I am worried by their total disregard for human safety and the environment. The
environment is suffering because of their recklessness. They make no effort to fill
the huge pits or even cordon the shafts some of which are filled with water and
pose a danger to human life,” said Makoni.
As illegal miners run rampant underground, the mining area is collapsing into their
tunnels and lives of such miners are being lost in the process.
‘Kugweja’, has become a local verbiage when referring to illegal small-scale gold
mining activities in the country.
Just like any other occupation, there is division of labour. One of the crucial
workers in the gold mining value chain are the ‘gwejas, the men who actually go
underground for extraction.
They are involved in scaling down 15 to 20 metre deep mine shaft and digging
their way through till they hit their gold belt.
As these miners try their luck in finding enough gold ore to send to the millers, not
all are fortunate to make it back up to the surface alive.
The Redwing Gold Mine leased to Better Brands Mining Company in 2020, has
been invaded by several illegal gold panners whom work the night through to earn
a living.
The dangers of these late night expeditions are however endless, as reports of
collapsed mines shafts due unstable ground have been rising of late.
The rainy season makes the situation much direr as the saturated structures become
heavier and are unable to withstand the weight above them. In addition to this, the

open mine shafts are flooded with rain water making it difficult to judge the depths
of the shafts at night.
Illegal the practice of gold panning may be in the gold rich Penhalonga area, the
sanctity of life is of paramount importance in any society.
Penhalonga Youth Development Trust director, Clinton Masanga expressed
concern and bemoaned the lack of accountability for the loss of lives in mine
shafts.
“We have observed increased number of deaths of people extracting gold ore in
over 2000 pits strewn all over the 1254 hectares of Redwing mine leased to Better
Brands Mining Company in December 2020. We have observed that the artisanal
mine workers are dying from shaft and roof collapse as a result of weak and
unsupported ground. Others are also dying from falling into unprotected pits
ranging from 30 to 50 metres deep,” he said.
Last week, two artisanal miners drowned in a flooded mine shaft they intended to
work on.
Gift Little (25) and Moses Banda (55) were with their colleague Takunda
Madhodha when they entered into a flooded mine shaft at Redwing Mine panning
for gold.
“The duo had gone down to extract gold ore from a 15 metre deep shaft whilst
Madhodha was manning it when Madhodha noted with concern the duo had taken
longer than expected to come up. The Redwing Mine rescue team was immediately
alerted resulting in the retrieval of the two bodies from the flooded shaft,”
confirmed Manicaland police spokesperson Inspector Nobert Muzondo.
Only halfway through the month of January this year, four miners have died, two
from mine shaft collapse and two from drowning.
“Sources working in the mining pits indicated that over 100 people have lost their
lives in the pits since 2020 but some were not officially recorded. Others
highlighted that fatal incidences are occurring on a weekly basis in the mine
shafts,” added Masanga

Despite efforts by Government to formalise and regulate unregistered mining
operations, illegal gold mining activities have remained a major problem in Mutasa
district leading to the destruction of the ecosystem and now of late, leading to the
loss of lives.
Illegal mining activities have taken precedence over any other economic activity in
gold rich areas thereby undermining the importance of the environment in which
they are being carried out.
The activities have continued to spread in the province in areas such as Odzi and
Chimanimani.
This problem is however not only confined to Manicaland but has also caused
sleepless nights to authorities in the Midlands province where Kwekwe and
Shurugwi top the list as hotspots.

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