FINANCE and Economic Development Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, has said foreign nationals who had joined artisanal gold mining should leave before a planned government crackdown on the sector.
Gold panning has become a source of employment for about 300 000 people, most of whom are either school leavers failing to get formal jobs or hundreds of workers left jobless by widespread retrenchments caused by a failing economy.
Chinamasa said government had knowledge that foreign panners had camped in gold fields.
The Zimbabwe Miners Federation (ZMF) said most foreign gold panners were from neighbouring countries.
But Chinamasa, apparently referring to Chinese nationals, said people from other continents had been spotted in gold panning belts.
He said government had reserved gold panning to locals and foreigners must concentrate on formal mining.
Government says about 47 percent of gold produced in the country comes from informal traders, with the remainder coming from formal mining firms.
There are fears that even though a significant part of gold produced by panners was being sold to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe’s gold buying firm, Fidelity Printers and Refiners, significant amounts of the bullion were being smuggled.
Some estimates have indicated that up to US$500 million worth of the metal was being smuggled per annum.
“There is a presence of foreigners in gold panning,” Chinamasa said.
“That sector is for indigenous people. For foreigners, the sooner they leave the sector the better. Someone cannot come from another continent and pan gold here,” he said.
Zimbabwe, whose struggling economy is failing to create jobs, with unemployment running above 90 percent, has moved to legalise artisanal mining to help boost the country’s gold output and foreign currency earnings.
But that move is yet to be supported by any legal regulations.
The southern African country is home to over 1 000 gold mining companies, many of which are under suspicion of selling the metal on the black market.
The small scale miners recently indicated that police continue to arrest them despite government assurances.
Fidelity said it was crucial for the artisanal miners to continue working with the gold buyers to ensure that an estimated 700 to 1 500 kg of gold smuggled out of the country every month benefits Zimbabwe rather than the underground, foreign-linked economies.
The gold is said to fetch higher prices outside the country than in Zimbabwe.
It is alleged that most of the smuggling takes place via South Africa.