EDITORIAL COMMENT : Miners need to clean up more of their mess

ZIMBABWE’s economy is expanding fast and needs to expand even faster to give everyone a decent standard of living and quality of life, but it also needs to expand without wrecking the standard of living of others and reducing the quality of life of many.

This is particularly the case with mining. The huge growth in the mining sector under the present investment drive has produced many benefits besides just expanding the economy.

Many new good skilled jobs have been created, and with the bulk of mineral production being exported, Zimbabwe is earning the foreign currency it needs for its many imports. Mining provides the bulk of exports.

Done properly and responsibly, mining is a straight forward contributor to national wellbeing, while responsible miners do clean up after themselves, there is a lot of mining where a degraded and dangerous landscape is left after the minerals are extracted. And this is where we need to enforce laws and best practice.

Midlands Minister of State for Provincial Affairs and Devolution Owen Ncube last week highlighted the degradation seen along parts of the Great Dyke, that major rich mineral seam that runs right through his province, with the degradation especially bad down in the Shurugwi area where heavy mining has been done for many decades and for a number of minerals.

This has seen dumps, chewed up land with little or no attempt of restoration, severe erosion, contamination of water sources and even pits, shafts and holes in the ground just left.

The damage goes far beyond the actual mining operations and includes a lot of further environmental degradation and contamination.

Zimbabwe has good laws that allow mining, under strong safety rules, but the onus lies on miners to minimise the environmental damage and to allow the regeneration of mining areas after the minerals are extracted.

This involves a range of safety and clean-up operations. Perfection at high cost is not required, but what is required is safety and stability and a reasonable degree of restoration of the original contours.

A lot of mining these days is in opencast pits, and here the easiest way of restoring the surface is to dump the overburden back in the pit after the mineral is extracted.

In some mining operations, where the miner is following a mineral seam, the overburden of the next section is used to fill the section just mined out.

In many mining operations dumps of processed ores are created. These, legally, have to be made safe so they do not contaminate the countryside and are not eroded into long lines of toxic or potentially toxic slime covering the surface.

This sort of restoration, filling the open pits and stabilising the mine dumps, is fairly basic and the resulting surface is hardly prime farmland. But the two operations do ensure that nearby farmland is not destroyed as clay, sand and rock is washed over it from erosion of mine waste and that fairly quickly restored surface and the mine dump can at least support livestock.

A lot of work was done in the 1980s at the University of Zimbabwe by an interdisciplinary team of mining engineers, geologists and botanists to figure out the best way of converting mine dumps into safe small hills eventually covered with vegetation, including trees.

The vegetation would not just stabilise the surface and prevent erosion, it would also provide the ecology that would gradually rebuild soils.

Botanists looked at very old mine dumps where vegetation had returned, as well as at other suitable plants, to work out simple planting systems that a responsible miner at low cost could use to establish the pioneer species on the restored surfaces and correctly sloped mine dumps.

The idea was that as quickly as possible at least the pioneering species would cover the disturbed land.

Minister Ncube was very concerned that along the southern Great Dyke in particular, a lot of miners have just left the land wrecked with no attempt to restore the surface, prevent erosion of mining waste onto productive farmland, and prevent contamination of water. Yet this is the sort of thing that should be standard practice.

Financially miners are far better off spending modest amounts of money now restoring the basic surface and planting the hardy pioneer species that can, perhaps with a bit of fertiliser, grow on the subsoil and crushed rock that forms the new surface.

The alternative could be, in some future time, a court case seeking compensation.

At the same time it appears from what Minister Ncube was saying that our environmental practices and standards, and enforcement of environmental procedures, all need to be upgraded.

We would agree with miners that there are no huge sums available for converting mine dumps into top-class horticultural soils, but we would also agree with those that think the modest sums required to fill in holes and pits and plant a few hardy shrubs, grasses and trees are just a tiny percentage of the mineral wealth extracted and should be routinely costed into mining operations.

This would allow Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans to progress and make money from our mineral wealth, but doing so in a way that did not destroy farming and leave large areas of our country looking like the surface of the moon.

You Might Also Like