Killing Zimbabwe's golden goose

Trucks, socks and even soft drink cans are being pressed into service by Zimbabwean gold smugglers desperate to avoid trading their treasure for worthless currency at rock-bottom rates.

One man’s favourite method involves putting his gold dust into an opened Coke can. When he arrives at Beit Bridge, he puts the can to one side and allows customs officers to search his car and pockets. A pair of brothers hides paper-wrapped packets in their shoes.
In the mountains of Chimanimani, locals claim that the convoys of pickup trucks speeding down an otherwise deserted road carry sacks of sand and gold in their trailers.

‘See those?” gestures a man towards the vehicles, some of which bear government registrations. ‘They are going down to the diggings by the river. They will be back this way in a couple of hours and heading for the border with Mozambique.”

Local people are surprisingly open about the illegal activities taking place in their midst. The small-scale smugglers may escape official notice but, for any serious operators, Zimbabwean officials insist on a cut.

On the plush lawns of the polo club bar in Bulawayo, government involvement in gold smuggling is an open secret. ‘I reckon about 80% of gold that is being mined here is being smuggled out of the country,” said one mine owner who did not want to be named. ‘And everyone knows [Zanu-PF] is at the bottom of most of it.”

Other miners dispute the percentage of gold smuggled out of the country but figures from London-based metals and minerals consultants GFMS show wide fluctuations in the amount of gold mined. From a high of nearly 30 tons in 1999, official production fell to about 12,6 tons in 2003. The next year it was up to 21,3 tons.

‘The swing occurs when the official buying price doesn’t match what the gold is actually worth,” explained Bruce Alway, a senior metals analyst at GFMS.

‘A lot of gold is undeclared by producing mines and ends up leaving the country through the back door.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of small and medium-scale mines is booming as other sources of employment shrink. Terry Alberry, who owns a business in Bulawayo that supplies mining equipment, says that his customers have increased tenfold in the past seven years.

However, many mine owners fear that the newly re-elected Zanu-PF government is planning a blitz on the mining industry similar to the land redistribution programme that destroyed the agricultural sector five years ago. The ensuing violence also drove away the lucrative tourist trade. Five years later, a quarter of the population has fled the country and there are riots in the streets when hungry citizens spot a rare bag of sugar on supermarket shelves.

One white farmer turned miner complained, ‘Today the ruling party commandeered my tractor, driver and fuel. We do not dare object to it. They want to process ore for free. Now they’re coming to us and saying we must sign over 51% of our mine to previously disadvantaged citizens.”

The former cattle farmer, his face still scarred from the beatings he received, went into mining in 2003, after he was shot and threatened with decapitation. Now, like many other former farmers who have invested in the mining sector, he is watching his business, which employs 100 men, crumbling before his eyes.

‘The government forces us to sell all the gold to the Reserve Bank. The parallel [black market rates] are about 15 000 to 1, but we are being forced to sell at 5  000 to 1,” he said.

Despite losing one business, and the threat of losing a second, this miner is one of the lucky ones.

‘Before the economy crashed I worked in a shop,” said 42-year-old John Salburi. ‘We dig on the road because it is already clear of bush. I am just trying to pay some school fees.” Some weeks he does not even make enough to feed his wife and two children. Now he sleeps outside near his diggings under a plastic sheet spread between some trees and returns to the city with money for his wife when he can.

Scattered among the tiny artisinal mines are large illegal mining camps with powerful backers, usually rumoured to be high in the echelons of Zanu-PF. One such site in Chimanimani, in the east of the country, has piles of neatly stacked shovels and wheelbarrows, prefabricated buildings and heavy earthmoving equipment. Gouges several metres deep have been dug into the road in both directions to discourage any unauthorised vehicle traffic.

The uncontrolled excavations are devastating the environment. Less than a mile from a broken-down digger left to rust on the road, giant trees lie scattered over muddy pits. The miners believe that gold collects around the roots of the trees, and dig around the base until the tree collapses. The deforestation and digging increase the flow of silt into streams and rivers, blocking them, and unregulated businesses washing ore to remove the gold are dumping cheap cyanide into the same water sources.

With inflation in the triple digits, and four out of five people without jobs, the devastation and corruption dogging the mining sector look set to kill the golden goose.

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