Editorial Comment: Rein in re-emerging gold panner menace
The current focus on enforcing lockdown rules appears to have allowed illegal gold panners to resurface.
The success of most campaigns or operations depends on sustained efforts and the gradual easing of lockdown measures should enable police to refocus attention on activities of illegal gold panners.
After witnessing a sustained surge in violence and deaths in areas where gold panning was being carried out, law enforcement agents decided in January this year to act.
They took the gloves off and went after illegal gold panners, swelling police cells with “machete-wielding makorokozas”.
Police have arrested a considerable number of people belonging to the machete-wielding gangs in Chegutu, Gweru, Kadoma, Kwekwe, Mazowe, Mt Darwin and Penhalonga.
The advent of Covid-19 appears to have disrupted focus on the offensive against illegal gold panners, hence their resurfacing.
Illegal gold panning has left a trail of destruction to the environment, infrastructure and socially.
The scale of devastation, lawlessness and savagery is such that it can only be ignored at great risk to society.
In the last fortnight, reports show that illegal gold panners have resurfaced and this time they have no qualms about targeting infrastructure such as highways, which are strategic in transporting cargo throughout the country and beyond its borders.
Railway lines such as have been the case in Bindura, Kadoma and Kwekwe have not been spared.
Illegal gold panners have never cared about the economic sabotage they are inflicting on the country.
The latest of their brazen acts has been to destroy a section of the famous Boterekwa Road in Shurugwi.
Sections of the highway gave in last week after panners dug a series of tunnels.
Last week’s destruction by illegal gold panners was followed by a section of the road collapsing after illegal gold panners in the area dug a 15-metre-deep and seven-metre-wide cross-cutting tunnel under the road.
The damage threatens motorists travelling between Zvishavane and Gweru and haulage trucks carrying domestic cargo or transiting from South Africa to Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania through Gweru.
While the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructural Development has moved in to repair the resulting huge crater and avert a potential road traffic accident, this is merely addressing the after-effects. The root causes remain largely unattended.
Since 2014, environmentalists have warned of the illegal gold panning activities in the gorges along the route between Gweru and Shurugwi and the potential risk of sections of the road collapsing.
In 2014, the Ministry of Transport engineers patched what was suspected to be an entrance to a tunnel in the middle of the highway. Last week, that is what they were doing again.
Activities of gold panners over the years have contributed to the collapse of sections of the road. Illegal panners have dug tunnels running across the road. These were being filled with concrete as part of measures to stabilise it.
Wherever these are carried out, the activities of illegal miners threaten livelihoods of communities in surrounding areas.
They threaten farmland and fields, cause rivers to choke as a result of siltation, pollute water bodies, destroying aquatic life and render the water unfit for human, livestock and wildlife consumption as well as unusable for agriculture.
The abandoned pits that characterise the plunder of the landscape, are a danger to humans, livestock and wildlife.
The illegal gold panners around Boterekwa deserted the area following an increase in traffic from Government officials from different ministries who are monitoring the devastation.
Sites of illegal gold panning have become arenas of high rates of crimes, and record increases in numbers of school drop outs, lured by the “instant riches” of illegal gold panning. So are commercial sex workers.
Poison residues such mercury and cyanide in rivers has led to deaths of principally animals and aquatic life, but human beings too.
The Government has encouraged the activities of artisanal miners, basing on their contribution to the country’s gold production, compared to output by established mining companies.
However, in return the umbrella bodies representing illegal miners, need to rein in their members. Their contribution to the national output of gold should not become a licence for them to behave as if this is the “Wild West”.
There are a lot of concerns surrounding the sites and operations of illegal gold panners. Their activities are not conducted professionally. Their settlements lack basic sanitary facilities and are therefore potential areas of outbreaks of diseases.
In the case of Boterekwa in Shurugwi, an immediate response could be regular joint patrols along the 8km stretch of the highway, conducted by Environmental Management Agency and the police.
There is also a case for establishing rural neighbourhood committees, roping in traditional leaders as well as campaigns creating community awareness so that they can raise alarm when they see environmental problems or illegal gold panning activities.
These efforts can be more effective if they are accompanied by technology, such a drones and infrared cameras for night surveillance with capability to trigger off an alarm, which alerts law enforcement agencies.
Illegal gold panning activities have been proved theatres of lawlessness.
It is time the players understand that the gloves are off and the game is over.