Illegal gold mining ruins Makanjira
…Environmental degradation takes toll
…Community experiencing high rate of pregnancies
By Marcel Chimwala
A study commissioned by the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) has revealed that a number of environmental and social problems have emerged in the area of Group Village Headman Saiti in Makanjira area in Mangochi as a result of illegal gold mining activities taking place in the area.
The study report says one of the worries of the community is that since gold mining started in 2015 in Unga River and surrounding area, there are tunnels and big holes that have been created posing a threat to lives of people.
As the holes or tunnels are left without any proper environmental protective measures, there is a danger of water percolating during heavy rains which may end in landslides which may endanger lives of innocent members of the community,
the report reads.
It says the other environmental problem identified in the study is that of river siltation saying people openly explained that the Unga River which was previously depended on for irrigation farming is drying up and the small quantity of water remaining is contaminated.
This, therefore, is disturbing the farming system for those who relied on irrigation farming, and the value of the river in general is decreasing,
The study which was executed by a local civil society group, Institute for Community Mobilisation, using the Theatre for Development (TFD) methodology says the other community concern is that of early pregnancies and breaking of marriages as illegal miners who are earning a fortune from the trade take advantage of the poverty of girls in the area to sleep with them.
The report says married women are also being coaxed to have extra-marital affairs with the miners who use money as a tool to fulfill their malicious sexual intentions.
One of the chiefs reportedly revealed that the miners dangle amounts of money ranging from K10,000 to K15000 to buy sex from the women or girls.
It also says security threats are one of the concerns in the area citing the case of Group Village Headman Saiti who confirmed to have been receiving death threats through anonymous phone calls.
The callers have been threatening to kill him should he continue seeking for proper mechanisms and procedures regarding gold mining in the area.
Another version of threat has been presented in the perspective that those who are involved in illegal mining are mostly strangers and local people are living in persistent fear of the strangers in their midst,
says the report.
The other problem noted in the study is that school going children abscond classes to indulge in illegal gold panning.
The gold buyers who are mainly from neighbouring countries such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Rwanda procure the precious resource at MK25, 000 per gram.
NCA Malawi Coordinator for Economic Governance Programme, Thokozani Mapemba, says in view of these problems, the study established that members of the community want the government to use force to flush out all illegal gold miners and buyers.
People also proposed to the government to put in place a proper arrangement or mechanism such as bringing an investor that will employ locals so that they should substantially benefit from the gold found in their own land,
Commitments by stakeholders
Meanwhile, Chiefs, led by Group Village Headman Saiti have committed to use different mechanisms to trace the illegal miners so that they are kicked out of the area while members of the community have committed to stop providing accommodation to the illegal miners.
Mapemba says on its part, the Natural Resource Justice Network (NRJN) has committed to follow up on the issue to ensure that the police use force to kick out the illegal miners.
NRJN will ensure that after the illegal miners are chased, a mining cooperative (company) is established to conduct mining activities in the area in a sustainable way that allows that gold mining benefits both the community and the country.
The Makanjira stampede
A group of over 300 illegal artisanal miners (both men and women including children) have reportedly flocked the Makanjira area to conduct gold panning.
Deputy Director for the Department of Mines in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Mining Atileni Wona reportedly told Mining & Trade Review that the government is startled by the expertise that the illegal miners have employed to extract the gold from the ore.
Based on the technical adroitness used by the illegal miners in the extraction of the alluvial gold (free gold), there could be some big smuggler with expertise in artisanal gold mining behind the scenes privately imparting knowledge and skills on the illegal miners.
They have artistically crafted sluice troughs; they mix the ore with water from Unga River to make slurry and pass the latter through the sluice troughs – they, thus, separate the liberated gold grains from the slurry using gravity separation technology.
He said the team of Inspectors from Mines Department and Police Officers failed to stop this illegal operation reportedly because they saw elements of hostility from a greater number of the artisanal miners.
Wona, therefore, said his department wants
the issue to be handled professionally with caution explaining that a multi-sectoral and more tactical approach would be ideal.
He said the department is working out arrangements with the Environmental Affairs Department and Malawi police service to flush out the illegal buyers flocking the concerned area, organize the artisanal miners into legitimate small-scale mining cooperatives and license them.
The Department also wants to train the artisanal miners on how to sustainably conduct gold panning as the current practice is heavily causing environmental dangers.
We also want to organize a small-scale legitimate gold market within the area with the help of the Chambers of Mines.
I am not sure whether as government we can quickly solicite resources to be procuring the gold for resale.
He said the government will also intensify monitoring and inspections in the area to address environmental and social concerns.
The Department of Mines fact finding mission identified several cross-cutting issues associated with the illegal mining works which include problems of HIV/Aids and sexually transmitted infections, environmental issues that could arise as the tailings are being dumped into Unga River, bad sanitation related diseases as there are no toilets in the mining area, and other social issues such as alcoholism and theft.
This piece was initially published in Malawi’s Mining & Trade Review Issue Number 65 (September 2018).