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Pillage and Patronage: Human rights abuses in Zimbabwe's informal gold-mining sector

The international press is currently swamped with reports of the arrests of over 25 000 gold panners in Zimbabwe. Operation Chikorokoza Chapera ("No Illegal Panning") was launched in November last year, ostensibly to bring gold panning activities under control. With the implosion of the economy, this sector had been burgeoning, albeit illegally in most cases, as poverty-stricken Zimbabweans endlessly struggle to provide for themselves and their families. Make no mistake, this loss of livelihood is not an incidental side-effect of the operation, but it is its very raison d'etre. Just as they did with Operation Murambatsvina (Clean Out Filth) in 2005, the regime has purposely set out to destroy this activity, and with it, the lives of those involved.

This brutal operation is tantamount to genocide with constructive intent - the authors knew in advance that their actions would lead to death by starvation, depriving the poorest of the poor of their only - and last - means of feeding themselves and their families.

Not only have livelihoods been eliminated, but lives too. Since the beginning of January, the press - muzzled as it is - has still been able to report deaths as disused mines collapse on miners who are tear-gassed as they hide, seeking to evade arrest and others who have been shot by a police force bent on serving its despotic leader. By far the most appalling case is of three miners in Inyathi district who died from hunger and exhaustion after the police forced them to work for six days, filling up trenches left open by other gold panners, beating them and denying them food at the same time. They had been complaining of dizziness and hunger before they collapsed and died on December 24th.

Once again it is the poorest of Zimbabweans who are being victimized and used as pawns to hide the culpability of the big players, government ministers and zanupf apologists, who are allowed to continue the rape of the country's precious resources with impunity.

The facts are there, but the intention behind these widespread arrests stand veiled by layers of conspiracy and malice.

A not so glittering history

One has to look back a decade to understand the regime's haphazard stance on gold panning, which has left the desperate panners confused and now threatened with violence and starvation.

The early 90's saw Zimbabwe reeling under its disastrous Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP). With the devaluation of the Zimbabwe dollar and the subsequent high gold price in Zimbabwe dollar terms, more people began to join the informal gold panning trade as retrenchment caused by the structural adjustment programme began to bite.

In 1992 gold panning along the country's streams was legalised and actively encouraged, provided the panners obtained the necessary permits and deposited their gold with the Reserve Bank or its agents. The panners were also required to rehabilitate their operations by backfilling. In those days environmental policing took place regularly.

The then Mines Minister, Chris Anderson, said it was high time the panners were recognised as part of the informal sector. Instead of hunting them down, he said they should be encouraged to sell their gold to the reserve bank. He even suggested that small-scale miners should be paid a higher price than the market rate to prevent them from selling to the black market. Prospective panners were able to apply for permits to exploit the gold deposits from their respective councils.

There is a common belief that small scale gold mining and panning, which mainly took place on commercial farms, was encouraged by government then not only to control this informal sector, but also as a means of harassing white farmers and precipitating conflict with the farmers who later suffered under the most severe form of intimidation.

From 1999 to 2000, following the violent seizure of land from commercial farmers, Zimbabwe's mineral production declined between 17%-60% in nine major commodities with the gold sector hardest hit - three major mines and several small operations closed and gold production declined for the first time in 20 years. Output was 22,070 kg, down from 27,666 in 1999. The "land reform programme" did not only affect agriculture, the mining industry was severely impacted by government's madness on the farms.

Gold mining previously accounted for the highest income of the precious foreign currency earned by Zimbabwe; that was before the ruinous policies of the Mugabe regime started to decimate our economy. Since 2000 the Zimbabwean government policy towards formal and large scale mining has been executed with the customary myopic ineptitude expected from mugabe's cabinet. This sector has been hamstrung by foreign exchange shortages which have prevented it from buying new equipment and the supplies essential to this industry. With threatened take overs and the severe recession in the country Zanupf has successfully inhibited foreign investment in this vital sector and brought many previously productive mines to a grinding halt.

The gap in production left by the near collapse of formal mining was replaced by the precious metal being brought in from the informal sector, with the Reserve Bank buying much of its gold from illegal panners. However, the panners today sell their gold on the black market as the Reserve Bank pay well under the true market value.

The Victims of Human Rights Abuses …

The attack on panners has been merciless and indiscriminate. Some of the victims are the estimated 100 000 gold panners operating legally since the 1990's, still holding licenses issued then. They have not escaped the wrath of state agents.

Following the illegal, violent and chaotic land seizures, the country was thrown into turmoil and an estimated 500 000 commercial farm workers were forced from their homes. Employment in agriculture was for most of them vindictively ended by the so called "new farmers" and war vets, and the vast majority were unable to find any formal employment, so many were forced to turn to gold panning. They required little expertise or capital investment to get going.

Gold panning was their last and sole means of livelihood, and even that has now been brutally eliminated.

Ironically, by 2003 the "new famers" came to loggerheads with small scale miners who were viciously competing for the land which had been redistributed and in many cases divided into small plots. Environmental surveillance became increasingly difficult and virtually non-existent with manpower and funding shortages. Clashes between small scale miners and new farmers grew alarmingly. There was no clear legal instrument on which activity held sway, with mining permits sometimes going directly against land resettlement patterns.

In recent years, with the almost total collapse of the agricultural sector, those same new farmers who were allowed to stay on seized land have had to resort to panning as a means of survival for they have been unable to effectively produce food with hyperinflation directly hampering access to seed, fertilizer and fuel.

Many of these panners were informal traders, whose livelihoods were hit by Operation Murambatsvina ("Drive out the trash") in 2005, when the regime sought to punish the urban poor for voting against them in the recent elections by razing their houses and trading stands, and banishing them forcibly back to the rural areas where they could do less political 'damage' .

There are an estimated 1 million small scale gold miners currently operating in Zimbabwe. In its sixth year of recession, where mining rather than farming is now the biggest sector, businesses are running below 30% of capacity and president Mugabe claims the country is a victim of a Western sabotage campaign. He tries to hoodwink the world and his grandstanding makes a mockery of the country's beleaguered victims of zanupf inflicted sabotage - the school children, grandmothers, educated and uneducated citizens, now all bound by the common malaise of poverty, inspired and inflicted by the illegal mugabe regime.

This regime has made it quite clear that they place little value on the lives of Zimbabweans. In 2002 Didymus Mutasa exposed the government's shocking intention to fulfill their vision of a final solution for Zimbabwe to effectively halve the population of 12 million. He stated, "We would be better off with only six million people, with our own (Shona) people who support the liberation struggle. We don't want all these extra people". By "extra people" Zimbabwe's leading civil servant means the people who live in non-Shona-speaking areas, who in their majority supported the opposition party ready to stymie the ruling party's obsession with power.

What are their intentions?

We know the regime actioned Operation Murambatsvina back in 2005 to punish those voting for the opposition, and to remove them to the rural areas where they could be better controlled.

Why, though, has the regime engaged in this persecution of the informal gold-producing sector? The answer is not at all obvious, and we can but speculate on how their evil minds work, but a few possibilities do come to mind:

1. Who stood to lose when the sale of gold no longer all passed through the Reserve Bank? Zimbabwean legislation requires that all gold is sold to Fidelity Printers - an arm of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ); the price paid for the gold is controlled by the government. The RBZ then sells the metal on the world market, generating much needed foreign exchange for itself.

Now in former days, when all the gold used to pass through the official channels, there was more foreign currency (forex) being generated. It is common knowledge that the chefs had access to forex, buying it at the controlled rate, and then selling it in the market at the much higher parallel rate; alternatively, they would buy fuel with it, and make a killing by selling their fuel at market rates.

Official records state that gold production has decreased from 1999 (27,666kg) to the end of 2006 (estimated 12,000kg) by 57%, but gold producers will tell you that the same amount of the precious metal is coming out of the ground as before. This means that the difference has been passing through the informal system in the last few years. That means less forex for the chefs (top dog zanupf leaders and their cronies)! If I were a chef, I wouldn't be too happy, would you? I'd try and put a stop to this informal sector 'leakage'. And maybe that's what they've done!

2. Stopping the fuel profiteers? These small-scale gold panners were selling their gold to middle-men either inside or outside the country. The middle-men then traded the gold for Rand, and with the Rand bought fuel, which was then sold inside the country at great profit. This fuel is what has been keeping the Zimbabwean economy afloat; now that whole sector of the economy - fuel procurement - has been drastically reduced. Was this part of their plan?

3. Gideon Gono's involvement? Gono, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe - and now often dubbed CEO of Zimbabwe Inc., for his close relationship with Mugabe and his single-handed control of the economy - must surely have been involved in this operation. It is inconceivable that he did not sanction it, and he may even have been the architect of the scheme. What was his intention, though?

Aside from himself benefiting from access to cheap forex (and who believes the full page supplements in the newspapers, denying his purchase of a top-of-the-range Mercedes Benz?), is there anyone he might have a personal vendetta against? We know that Mnangagwa closely controlled all the gold panners in the Kwekwe area; and Joyce Mujuru has certainly been profiting from fuel deals; did Gono want to get back at them, both of whom were threatening his own presidential ambitions?

And why, by the way, is Gono's name not on the list of the European Union's travel ban?

4. Pillage of the gold milling industry? Maybe this wasn't the original intention, but the chefs are now trying to grab all the resources they can get their hands on. Do they sense that the days of this evil regime are numbered? Gold millers are central to the gold industry, as all gold passes through them for milling; they are now being harassed beyond belief, arrested on trumped up charges designed to elicit bribes, or even the forced sale of the companies, we presume.

5. Punishment of the electorate? Look at the timing: this operation kicked in just after the Rural District Council (RDC) elections. Like Murambatsvina, was this again punishment of the electorate for not voting for the Zanu PF candidates? Zanu certainly wasn't happy with the results of the elections - they might have won more wards in total than the opposition, but they lost in some of their strongholds, and they certainly didn't win the number of wards that they expected! Was it considered convenient, once more, to dispatch these "trouble-makers" to the depths of the rural areas, and to punish them by removing their last means of livelihood?

We don't know where these people are now: part of the starving urban poor, or part of the rural poor - also starving. But we can say truthfully that the regime's actions are tantamount to death sentences - no other means of livelihood remains to them - these people and their dependents are going to starve to death.

6. Control, control, control? As briefly mentioned in the introduction, the Mugabe regime had previously encouraged small-scale mining, as a prelude to getting people off the farms and into the rural areas. Operation Chikorokoza Chapera seems to be Part 2 of their plan.

Whilst they were mining, these people - many former farm-workers - were outside the regime's control. Forcing them back into the rural areas, under the watchful eye of the compliant village chiefs, control is re-established. It ties in with punishment of the electorate; it ties in with Mutasa's aim of reducing the population and so removing the non-compliant sector.

7. Local intentions? The local police are certainly benefiting from this Operation Chikorokoza Chapera; many of them have been stealing the gold confiscated from the panners! Are these the same policemen or militia who broke down houses and stands in Operation Murambatsvina? The police benefited there too, confiscating goods for their own use, or selling them and pocketing the proceeds.

As said previously, one can only speculate on the intention of the regime in this latest act of elimination. However, one thing is for sure, and that is that it was not done from pure motives.

Shooting, beating, starving - this is the Zanu PF way. It is tantamount to genocide.

They will plead the excuses of trying to prevent a cholera outbreak, or protecting the environment - fine! - but this isn't how it should be done, and they know it.

The world is not turning a blind eye to human rights abuses: look at Pinochet, Sadam Hussein, and now our own 'guest' Mengistu!

Operation Chikorokoza Chapera is the latest in a succession of human rights abuses by this regime: misery is piled upon misery. When will it end?