RAINHAM, ZIMBABWE — King Sikamala’s 8-year-old son died on January 10, after he fell into a giant pit left unattended by the sand excavators who had dug it.
Sikamala’s eyes fill with tears as he remembers what happened. The boy’s death was made all the more painful because Sikamala works for the Chinese-owned company that dug the pit.
Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Agency (EMA) prohibits companies from digging the pits – some of which measure 15 meters (49.2 feet) wide and 5 meters (16.4 feet) deep – but it happens anyway.
“They are digging these pits in the night, so that [the] EMA does not see these activities,” he says.
Eight Chinese-owned companies, including mining and brick-making outfits, operate in the Zvimba Rural District, according to the district’s council. Quarries exist all over the region, but local people say it’s the Chinese-owned businesses in particular that damage property and the environment – and in the worst cases, lead to death.
It’s not clear how many children have died, but people in the town count Sikamala’s son and at least one more.
The town “lost a child in February 2018, because they dig pits and do nothing about them when they finish mining, and this is painful for us,” says Elton Hakata, who lives in the Rainham.
Hakata says that child was about 11 years old.
The mines bring other problems, too, including regular, teeth-rattling explosions that send showers of pebbles into peoples’ homes and produce a constant film of throat-choking dust that coats the area.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
GPJ’s repeated calls to officials at Atlanta Quarries, one of the companies, were not returned. Repeated attempts to contact officials at Tiger Quarries did not get a response.
Hakata blames Zimbabwe’s Look East policy, a term that refers to Zimbabwe’s preference for economic relationships with Asian countries and with China in particular. Former President Robert Mugabe, who led Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2017, announced the policy in 2003, in the years after international sanctions began to further cripple an already gasping economy. Since the policy was announced, Chinese products and companies have swept through Zimbabwe, bringing stiff competition for local businesses as well as a measure of financial stability while the rest of the economy suffers periodic free falls.
And yet, even in the Rainham area, residents acknowledge that the Chinese quarry companies provide jobs for Zimbabweans, even as those same residents express frustration with the safety crises caused by the companies’ practices.
Wilfred Chauya, 22, says he’s worked in a stone quarry owned by Atlanta Quarries for more than four years.
“Despite the negative effects of quarry mining, we have no option except to mine quarry, because this is how we can survive,” he says.
Martin Mazivisa, who leads the Spitscop residents’ association, which represents families who live near one of the quarry mines, says his organization has written more than one letter to the companies to express concerns about environmental and safety hazards, but there has been no response.
The companies don’t bother to warn local people that blasting is about to occur, he says.
“The tremor from the blasting process can be felt 1.5 kilometers [.93 miles] away from the mine,” he says.
Despite the evident problems that the quarries create for local people, an official at Zimbabwe’s EMA says the companies that work in the Rainham area comply with the law.
“We do inspections monthly and bi-annual audits to check if they are in tandem with the standards,” says Steady Kangata, an EMA spokesman.
Kangata added that he was not aware of any complaints about the quarries in the Rainham area.
Mukasiri Sibanda, an economic-governance officer for the Zimbabwe Environmental Lawyers Association, says many of the Chinese-owned mining companies that operate in Zimbabwe are “not reputable.”
“[The] mining sector has been identified as a quick-win sector to mobilize foreign currency,” Sibanda says. “That alone makes people a bit hesitant to restrict with regulations the sector that appears to earn the country a lot of foreign currency.”
It’s not clear how much money foreign governments or companies have invested in Zimbabwe’s mining sector in recent decades, but the new government, led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, is pushing for more.
“Zimbabwe offers a truly once in a lifetime opportunity,” trumpeted a press release announcing a mining investment conference that was scheduled for February.
The release noted that the country’s mining sector had the potential to earn $18 billion per year.
Sibanda says mining in general is important for Zimbabwe, but the government must enforce its safety and environmental standards.
“We have to say yes to mining, but it has to be done in a sustainable manner,” he says.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.