Half a million people work as artisanal miners in Zimbabwe, where they face violence, theft and environmental harms.
Travelling from Zimbabwe’s capital Harare to the Mazowe mining site in Mashonaland Central Province means driving through forested mountains and roads edged with derelict, grass-burnt farms, taken by force in land invasions in the early 2000s. An agriculture research station near the Mazowe dam lay vandalized and abandoned.
A local source who reconnoitered the area before giving us the green light for a visit had also issued a warning: the mining area could never be entirely safe. As we pulled off the highway onto a dirt road near the water supply of the Mazowe dam, our driver looked at us constantly in the rearview mirror. The two of us, a third journalist, and our fixer all shared the same feeling of eerie trepidation as we continued on with the journey.
Our Toyota Passo van moved erratically along the rugged terrain, and over the uneven, rocky track. The dirt road was wide enough for just for one vehicle to pass through, sandwiched between the hills and the dam. We passed a camp or what used to be a compound of some sort, where dilapidated huts stood like phantoms. It appeared the dam authorities had abandoned them to rot.
As we drew closer to the mine site, we met men walking on the side of the road in threadbare clothes with pinch bars, hammers and metal-chiseled dowels. The van lurched further into the bush, and the landscape began to change. Gum trees, acacia trees and brambles of lantana camara lined the rough track. Our driver slowed down as he approached a ditch, trying to work the wheels around it. Almost immediately, a stream came into view, and on its banks, stood a group of miners. They must have heard the engine whirring, and were waiting expectantly for the vehicle to pass.
We motioned to the driver to stop. Disembarking from the car, we came face to face with a group of inquisitive miners. We silently counted around fifteen people, among them women, and boys of around fifteen years of age. Their clothes were splashed with creamy soil, their faces caked with mud. A radio hung around the neck of one of the miners. We could see holes that had been dug up along the stream banks.
We exchanged pleasantries with the miners in Shona, and were peppered with questions.
“Mauya kuzoitei?” “What do you want here?” one of the miners asked.
“Why are you taking pictures; are you journalists?” asked another.
“Go away!” said a third.
Painstakingly, we explained we had come to report on the life and work of artisanal miners. More miners appeared, asking the same questions. With all this activity and commotion, we began to back off. Turning back to the car, we left.
The fear and apprehension of the miners was understandable. Their activities are not sanctioned. They could be arrested and jailed for illegal mining without warning. It was apparent that there were no safety measures at the site, and that mining was being done in a rudimentary manner with homemade tools.
The group of miners we met in Mazowe is far from an exception: in 2018, Zimbabwe’s Chamber of Mines estimated that half a million people were working as artisanal miners in the country.
Climate change and hyper-inflation are pushing more and more people into the dangerous work of artisanal mining, where they can earn in foreign currency. “It is not only about the US dollars; climate change is disrupting production in the agriculture sector, thereby pushing more and more people into [artisanal mining], now a source of livelihood in rural areas and some urban areas,” said Shamiso Mtisi, the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association’s deputy director.
Zimbabwe has long been known for its rich gold deposits. The national Geological Survey estimates that local gold mining started in the country in the seventh century, and that of more than 4000 present day gold deposits, almost all are “located on ancient workings.” And the sector is far from marginal: the international non-profit PACT found in 2016 that gold mining made up 2.6 per cent of Zimbabwe’s Gross Domestic Product, “18% of exports, 28% of mining output, and 1% of government revenues (royalties only) and employed 7.1% of the labor force.”
Gold mine marauders
The locals we spoke with in Mazowe town said that the gold-rich hills to the east of the dam were once under the control of Grace Mugabe, widow of former Zimbabwean dictator Robert Gabriel Mugabe. In 2014, Ms. Mugabe had harbored ambitions to turn the area into a wildlife park, but then settled for mining after futile efforts to evict inhabitants failed. The hills were later nicknamed Boko Haram, after episodes of violence including the disappearance of people occurred on the site.
Neither the desperate situation of the miners, nor the threat of marauders known as Shurugwis –a group whose name is derived from a nearby bare, oval granite hill that resembles the shape of a pigpen– are unknown in the corridors of power in Harare.
“These guys are mining in the bush, and this is not a metaphor. They are mining in the middle of nowhere. They go there, sometimes for weeks, to mine. When they hit a jackpot, news spreads quickly; it is like Christmas,” said Tendai Biti, who is the chairperson of a parliamentary portfolio on public accounts and a former Minister of Finance, during an interview in his Harare office. “[Shurugwis] are gangsters, thugs, whose job is just to go and raid these miners, the diggers. The young boys who are going and living in the hole to dig for weeks get raided. The raiders wait for people to find a significant amount of gold and then they take it from them.”
But Zimbabwean authorities appear to have taken little notice as chaos and violence tear up the lives of those working in the artisanal mining sector. The violence is the worst in the primary gold producing districts in the Great Dyke area in the central part of the country, creeping up speedily on the heels of closed mines and newfound gold deposits across the country.
By any measure, the machete gang killings in the artisanal mining areas are among the country’s deadliest massacres in the 40 years following the country’s independence from the white minority. There is little reliable information about the killings, which are mostly sporadic, and since the gangs are said to be sponsored by big political players, the killings are hidden or downplayed. Bodies of dismembered miners are turned up with no identification cards on them, and disappearances are not recorded since the miners are afraid they can be arrested if they present themselves to the police and report that the victims went missing whilst mining illegally.
Attacks and brutal killings and disappearances of miners started in 2018 in the Shurugwi, Kwekwe, and Kadoma mining areas, later spreading to Mazowe and Shamva, located to the north and north-east of Harare. According to the Zimbabwe Peace Project’s October 2019 monthly monitoring report, statistics from Kadoma Hospital show that between August and October 2019, 105 murders occurred in the Kadoma area. There were also 221 assaults. Another report, by Mukasiri Sibanda of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, found that the gangs also forcibly recruited miners, sometimes under the watch of police officers meant to guard abandoned mines. Rather than being brought to justice, mine-site marauders seem to enjoy political protection.
Artisanal miners working in Mashava, in Masvingo Province, hang between the fear of losing their livelihoods and being attacked and robbed of the gold they mine.
Chokunda Wodala, 50, is a woman artisanal miner at the abandoned Direct Shipping Ore (DSO) mine in Mashava. “You cannot put up with the hustling that happens in the mining fields,” she said. “For women, all forms of violence, robberies and sexual attacks are rampant.” Surrounding the mine where we spoke to Wodala was a ragged compound, bordered by mounds of mine dumps from yesteryear’s gold rush. A single horse power engine drew water from under a disused mine trough. The same water used to wash the ore is used for household chores.
On the DSO site in Mashava, where workers were slightly less hostile to our arrival than in Mazowe, a young man showed off the glint of mercury coated gold in his bare hands, oblivious to the dangers of directly handling mercury. No extra caution was being observed on the site while working with the poisonous element, used to refine the gold. The water used in the process flows into a nearby stream, affecting both the environment and the people nearby. The river basins are also under threat of silting and erosion.
In Mashava we also met Mike Garwa, a 13-year-old who told us he was studying in the first form when he was called to the principal’s office at a missionary boarding school. The principal told him of the death of his father from silicosis, a disease of the lungs he had acquired while working at Gaths asbestos mine, which was operational until 2011. Garwa had to drop out of school to fend for his family. With a number of mines closed in the area, the only source of employment was gold digging. “Most people my age have stopped going to school out of necessity. We are in mining just for subsistence,” said Garwa. “We get something to eat and to buy clothes.”
Miners –including children like Garwa– are not paid for ferrying the ore to the mill, given equipment like generators, diesel and sacks to load ore, or, most importantly, licences to mine. These would all be requirements if the exploitation of Zimbabwe’s mines and its gold were to become a legal enterprise, one in which artisanal miners could live in dignity.
Former Finance Minister Biti admits that policy flaws at the national level are encouraging unregulated smuggling and illicit artisanal gold mining, which not only threaten the health and safety of the miners on an everyday basis but also harm the economy, wherein Zimbabweans are denied the benefit of the gold mined in their own country.
Hyper-inflation and the lure of US dollars
Another hurdle to the dignity of small scale miners is hyper-inflation, which impacts all Zimbabweans, but has hit gold diggers especially hard. According to a statutory instrument for control of the exchange rate introduced by the government in 2019, all individuals and businesses in Zimbabwe are mandated to transact in Zimbabwean dollars, Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS), and bond notes. Those who trade in other currencies can face a jail term of up to 10 years and/or a penalty up to 30,000 Zimbabwean dollars.
In June of 2020, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) came up with a weekly foreign exchange auction system, which it claimed will “bring transparency and efficiency in the trading of foreign currency.” Fluctuations aside, in the latest auction around the time of this report’s publication it still took about 85 Zimbabwean dollars to make a US dollar.
This has led to widespread hyper-inflation in an economy where most goods are imported and priced in US dollars. People are required to pay huge sums even for the smallest of commodities, like, bread, sugar and maize meal.
The currency controls introduced last year by the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa –who started his term in 2018 after 37 years of rule by Mugabe– ended the previous flexibility around transactions in dollars and made it compulsory for locals to deal in Zimbabwean dollars. This in turn created a bustling black market for US dollars.
But there is a glaring contradiction in the new currency regime. Mnangagwa’s government requires jewellers to purchase gold from the RBZ in US dollars, even though when they sell jewellery to the public, they are legally required to accept only Zimbabwean dollars. In other words, through the sale of gold the RBZ can collect and hoard valuable US dollars, while leaving the population at large with a battered currency (the RBZ did not respond to our request for an interview).
Going the legal route to attain dollars has proved frustrating for many established jewellery businesses. Local jewellery manufacturers end up with the weaker currency, which adversely affects them. Hassam Kassam Jewellers is the largest jewellery business in Zimbabwe. We spoke with the owner, Shiraaz Hassam Kassam, at his showroom in Avondale, Harare.
“Unfortunately, here in Zimbabwe when we want to buy gold we are told to get USD. They say we must go through the banks. We apply for foreign currency to the banks but they do not grant it to us because they are prioritizing their own friends and cabals,” he said. “That’s what is currently going on. If we do buy in foreign currency, we have to sell in local currency. How does that work?”
Kassam, who also chairs the 10-member jewellery council in the country, wistfully recalled how two decades ago, the jewellery industry employed around 10,000 workers in Zimbabwe. “One of my friends who used to have a big jewellery company had about 1,500 workers at one stage,” he said. “Aurex used to have around 3,000 to 3,500 workers in the region. Now they have maybe a couple of hundred.”
Licit and illicit supply chains
In theory, there are legal methods to buy and sell gold in Zimbabwe: buyers or agents licensed by the RBZ buy gold produced by artisanal miners. But while the buyers’ licences are legal, the fact that they are buying the gold mined in an illicit manner makes these purchases a violation of laws, as artisanal mining is illegal according to the Mines and Minerals Act.
On the books, Fidelity Printers and Refinery, a company owned by RBZ, is the sole end-buyer of all gold produced (estimated to be around 23 metric tons per year) in Zimbabwe, making gold one of the country’s largest sources of foreign currency.
All gold bought by licensed agents must go to Fidelity Printers and Refinery for refining. Fidelity Printers and Refinery is also allowed to buy gold from RBZ and sell it outside the country, it also mints and prints all Zimbabwean currency. RBZ also has a subsidiary called Aurex, which manufactures and sells jewellery in Zimbabwe and internationally.
In some cases, instead of going to RBZ with the gold they have bought from artisanal miners, licensed agents bypass the whole process and sell it in the open market. Agents often take the gold directly to other countries. In 2017, RBZ’s financial intelligence unit admitted that each year, about one metric ton of gold is lost to illicit flows.
Henrietta Rushwaya, president of the Zimbabwe Miners Federation, a grouping of artisanal and small scale miners, told us that for every gram of gold sold to the RBZ, it pays 55 percent of the cost in Zimbabwean dollars and 45 percent in US dollars. “However, if an agent buys directly from the miner, they pay 100 percent of the price in USD,” she said. “The artisanal miners then get a better price than they would have got from RBZ, which they can’t approach in any case as they don’t have the licence or permit to mine.” Many of these agents sell the gold they purchased on the international market, completing a circuit of illegality that bypasses state institutions entirely.
Officials in Zimbabwe have pointed to smuggled gold going to India, among other countries. In order to track down the flow of gold leaving Zimbabwe, we continued our investigation in India, which consumes the second highest amount of gold in the world, after China.
Smuggled to India
Rajesh Khosla heads Metals and Minerals Trading Corporation-Produits Artistiques Métaux Précieux (MMTC-PAMP), the biggest gold refinery in India. When asked about grey markets for gold in India, Khosla was candid. “There is no way you can find out how much gold is being smuggled into India. 200 tonnes per year is the current figure,” he said, in an interview in his office in a posh neighbourhood in south Delhi. “It is refined gold that is coming so it is very tough to say where it is coming from; it is more of a guesstimate.”
Piyush Goyal, the Indian minister of commerce and industry, acknowledged the problem of illegally acquired gold, and encouraged the industry to be transparent in their dealings in remarks at the 2019 gold summit in Delhi organized by the Gem and Jewellery Export Promotion Council. “We need to stop smuggling to bring business back,” said Goyal, addressing summit attendees. “If someone is selling you a gold bar without a bill, you should refuse. You should complain to the authority. Let’s give a message that we will not engage.”
As our investigation in Zimbabwe demonstrates, the creation of a grey market for gold begins long before the precious metal enters the international market. Once it’s on the global market, India is far from the only link in the chain. In their 2019 report A Golden Web: How India Became One of the World’s Largest Gold Smuggling Hubs, Ottawa-based IMPACT revealed:
Traders falsify import and customs documentation to import gold doré that may be linked to conflict, human rights abuses, illegality, and criminal networks from Africa and South America into India. Refined bullion is smuggled into India from other trading centers, notably [United Arab Emirates]. Smugglers use various creative means to transport and conceal gold, without proof of origin, allowing it to enter the legal supply chain in India.
As recently as July 2020, the customs department in the south Indian state of Kerala seized 30 kg of gold, worth around $1.7 million from an ex-employee of the UAE consulate. The UAE embassy condemned the smuggling and promised to investigate the incident in cooperation with Indian authorities.
While gold smuggling may have slowed down due to the travel restrictions owing to COVID-19, this is far from a permanent solution. Apart from traditional “stopover” countries in the smuggling chain, there also are intra-continental links that move Zimbabwe’s gold into different parts of Africa before sending it out to different parts of the world, including India. This makes it even more difficult to trace the origins of gold.
To prevent this, gold receiving countries need to put more stringent measures in place to ensure that the source has legitimate procurement documents from the country of origin. The World Gold Council, which has already been stressing the need for responsible sourcing, could step up pressure on nations that are suspected hotspots of illicit gold production or reception.
For his part, former Zimbabwean Finance Minister Biti believes that whether artisanal miners get to reap the fruit of their work will depend on the Zimbabwean government’s ability to stop corruption, end the arbitrary mining and title administration system, stop the mine site marauders, and legalize artisanal miners’ activities by granting them special permits. Until such changes are implemented, hundreds of thousands of artisanal miners in Zimbabwe will continue to have to risk their lives in order to make a living.
This investigation was done with the support of the Money Trail Project (www.money-trail.org).
Stephen Tsoroti is a journalist in Harare, Zimbabwe, reporting on health, human rights, environment and other social justice concerns.
Based in Delhi, India, Ankita Anand specializes in long-form reporting, and regularly collaborates with partners in other countries.
Both the journalists travelled to each other’s countries for the purpose of this investigation.