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Picture taken by Mukasiri Sibanda, over a thousand people gathered to find out the fate of their loved ones

A day before the Valentine’s Day on 13 February, 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 8 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 (ASMers).  Another irony is that ASMers were battling for their lives in a place called Battlefields. The battle of trapped miners was an episode of tough socio-economic struggles being fought by many Zimbabweans.

These are not just gold diggers.  “Gram by gram” ASMers are digging the country out of its foreign currency woes. Gold production from ASMers has been phenomenal, from 3.9 tonnes in 2014 to 21.7 tonnes last year – 2018.  Buoyant gold production from ASMers eclipsed large scale mining output for the past 2 years.

Further, 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 ASMers in Zimbabwe.  And more than a million are indirectly benefiting from (Artisanal and Small-Scale Mining) ASM activities. Clearly, ASM is indispensable to Zimbabwe’s socio-economic growth trajectory and this is recognised and acknowledged in key economic documents.

Here are grounded observations on Battlefields disaster from the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA). ZELA is an organisation that is working to influence government to formalise and regulate ASM 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 is vital to socio-economic developemt. 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

8 people were rescued alive on Saturday, 16 February 2019.

1 person among the 8 rescued died at the hospital according to an unconfirmed report.

3 days, the number it took to rescue 8 people alive and recover 24 dead bodies.

1 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 3 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.

1-day, powerful rains received in a general hot and dry period, is all it took to bring both hope to farmers and trauma to miners.

1 doctor was available to help during the entire rescuing mission.

The forgotten side of ASMers, collegial, courageous and proud

ASMers are commonly viewed as violent and a misfit in communities where 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 men, ASMers being peripheral actors to the rescue mission. To the contrary, ASMers were the main actors. For days, a sizeable group of AMSers 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 ASMer. 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. Coordinating pumping activities, rescuing their colleagues and retrieving the dead bodies of their 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 coordinated rests.

Large scale mining (LSM) 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 ASMers is remarkable.  Primarily, LSM operations are legally obligated to pay fair share of taxes to government and corporate social investments (CSIs) are voluntary, although necessary for social license 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. Mr Chirandu, a relative of one of the miners who was rescued alive commented that “had there be more powerful water pumps similar to the one provided by Zimplats, the dewatering process was not supposed to take longer.”  The mining pits were flooded on Tuesday midnight and it took until Saturday morning to start rescuing the trapped miners.

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Picture taken by Mukasiri Sibanda

Government response was disappointing

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, one thousand dollars per family.  Some relatives of trapped miners 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” said one relative of the trapped miners.

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 gold rushes with prolific reefs are involved, there are mobile units that are deployed from by RBZ, through Fidelity Printers and Refiners (FPR), a subsidiary unit. When tragedy strikes, RBZ hibernates.

When 6 people were rescued on Saturday morning, 16 February, 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 5. Zimplats provided an additional ambulance and interestingly, Sanyati Rural District Council (RDC) provided another one.

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Picture taken by Mukasiri Sibanda

The response by Sanyati RDC provides gripping evidence why mining tax revenue should be shared fairly between central 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 objects and responsibilities.”

“Economy first before politics” this mantra finds its strongest test in ASM

To rebrand and to reposition Zimbabwe better after Mugabe’s era, repeatedly, President 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 Ministry of Mines and police to bring sanity in the sector. It is alleged that the Ministry of Mines had ordered the shutdown of the mines which led to the disaster on safety concerns and claim ownership disputes. However, business continued as usual. There are fears that the numbers of people trapped under the ground 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 Ministry of Mines 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 strategize on how to effectively respond to the Battlefields mine disaster.  CSOs working with ASMers must seriously consider upskilling their expertise on disaster and risk management in ASM sector to ensure that there is more comprehensive and coordinated response should there be future disasters. Such an understanding can guide CSOs to assess the preparedness and effectiveness of rescue operations to help plugging the holes. Advance preparations are always critical, for instance, having doctors on standby in all districts where artisanal mining is taking place and 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.

Conclusion

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 minng sector through the Mines and Minerals Amendment Bill 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 as required AMV. The intervention by large scale miners should be used as a springboard to promote greater linkages between ASM and LSM as envisaged by the AMV. To control the chaos associated with ASM, government must deal with powerful politicians and walk the talk – “economy first before politics.

 

Acknowledgements

ZELA is grateful to its partners who are supporting its work on ASM in the gold mining sector and made this grounded response possible. These are the European Union , Christian Aid , the Netherlands Embassy , Norwegian Church Aid and TRACE