HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Two years ago, Innocent Mavhuto traded one illegal activity for another.
“I used to drive commuter omnibuses without a driver’s license but it was difficult because I always got arrested,” he says.
Mavhuto, 37, now poaches sand, eroding the land and leaving a trail of gullies and holes behind houses in the high-density suburb of Southlea Park, about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) from Harare’s city center.
His customers are close by. Most use the sand they buy from him at low prices to construct their homes in Southlea Park. Sand is a key ingredient in cement.
Small sand miners like Mavhuto are a common sight in Harare’s developing suburbs, according to Steady Kangata, education and publicity manager at the Environmental Management Agency, or EMA. He says over the past five years an upsurge of people are mining sand without an environmental management plan or the certification required under Statutory Instrument 7 of 2007. Without such documents, mining sand is illegal – a level eight offense that carries a fine of up to $500.
The EMA, which reported in 2014 that at least 10 percent of the nation’s soil is under high risk of erosion from land degradation, desertification and drought, has begun enforcement. It issued 13 tickets for illegal sand mining and 120 tickets for illegal sand transportation in the first quarter of 2017, Kangata says.
Kangata adds that the EMA has increased inspections and patrols in hotspots like Southlea Park, Chitungwiza, Ruwa and Zimre Park, where illegal sand mining is rampant.
Despite efforts to curb land degradation, Kangata says some sand miners have devised ways to evade the law by operating during the night and weekends.
“We are equal to the task and we have upped our weekend and night patrols to curb the illegal activity,” he says.
There are specific areas where sand mining can be carried out, but residential areas are “a no-go area for such activities,” he says.
To protect the environment, Kangata asks citizens to report instances of illegal sand mining and to buy only from licensed dealers. He urges sand miners to become licensed.
“What we want is to get to a point where their activities are economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally friendly,” he says.
Andrew Ndoora, a Southlea Park resident, says he buys sand from miners like Mavhuto because it is cheaper. Illegally mined pit sand sells for $40 a truck, which carries about 5 cubic meters (6.5 cubic yards), whereas companies charge about $100 for a similar amount, he says.
Local builders connect buyers to the illegal miners, he says. “Before many people built their homes, sand was extracted on people’s housing stands. Now they just dig up on empty spaces they see,” he says.
It’s not well known how much the digging disturbs the land, Ndoora says.
“We have never seen EMA’s presence here,” he says. “If they come and teach people on the importance of the environment, I am sure we will see an improvement in our environment.”
Miriam Maviro, who lives in Southlea Park, says it’s clear the gullies left behind by the sand miners are dangerous.
“What they are leaving behind are mosquito breeding areas and waste dumping areas,” she says, adding that sometimes children endanger themselves by dipping in them to swim when it rains.
Mavhuto isn’t too worried about the illegality of his business. He says he’s been arrested once for sand mining, but was not prosecuted. He left that area and began sand mining at Southlea Park instead. Now, he says, “We normally run away from Environmental Management Authority representatives to avoid being arrested.”
His profits from selling sand range from $15 to $30 a week, which he says he uses to provide for his family and pay school fees for his children. Even though he finished high school, passing his ordinary level exams, he hasn’t found work in the formal economy. Like others, his informal work, though illegal, he says, “is the only way we can survive.”
Ever the canny entrepreneur, Mavhuto rejoices when it rains.
“We take advantage of the rain and sell washed sand,” he says, noting that this now can be “popularly known as river sand,” and thus brings a higher price.
Linda Mujuru and Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.