“Of course I have to dig on a Sunday. Life is not easy,” says Caspar Samuel (20) as he leans against a dark brown wall of soil, catching his breath. He rubs dirt off his hands and grabs the rusty shovel to continue his labours.
There are five mining sites near Munhinga village, where the landscape is pockmarked with holes and open pits. The garimpeiros (gold diggers) toil away seven days a week in the quest for the precious metal in Mozambique’s Manica province, which borders Zimbabwe.
The government, concerned by the digging, established artisanal miners’ associations to license prospecting and to encourage more sustainable mining practices.
Samuel is a member of one such association.
The government has recognised the social and economic importance of artisanal mining and tries to professionalise it through the associations. It has also realised the benefit of it to formal gold sales. The associations help government in its quest to mitigate the negative aspects of mining, one of which is a threat to food security.
But convincing miners to join the associations is easier said than done.
“It took seven years to build trust, seven years to persuade the miners to believe in the government and make a commitment,” says Eduardo Ndunguro, a geologist with the provincial mining directorate. “I started working here in 1998; finally in 2006, the association was formed.”
The association he is referring to is the Associação Mineira de Bandire (Artisanal Miners’ Association of the District of Bandire) in Manica.
In a tedious process, Ndunguro has convinced more than 300 formerly illegal gold miners to trust the government and formalise their activities. “It took a while to get the licences from government,” he says. To create a legal organisation, the miners had to agree on tasks and responsibilities as well as the sharing of profits. In turn, they get mining licences and land titles for their designated mining area.
About 1 500 gold miners in the province are organised in associations and operate legally. Various researchers estimate another 25 000 illegal gold diggers operate there.
Six artisanal mines in Manica have mining certificates: Munhena and Mimosa in Manica district, Bandire and Tsetsera in Sussundenga district, Kumboedza in Báruè district and Amacod in Macossa district. Another new association is registered in Sofala province, at Tsiquiri, in Gorongosa district.
But the associations are not a total hit. They are not favoured because prospecting licences are allocated in areas that are not rich in gold deposits. The garimpeiros believe that belonging to an association means they would be given exhausted land that has already been mined.
Another problem is that membership is officially reserved for Mozambicans. As many of the illegal miners are Zimbabweans, they do not qualify. In addition, miners do not trust the intentions of the government and so they would rather continue to mine illegally outside of the associations.
Artisanal mining has existed near Chimanimani on the Zimbabwean side of the border for more than 1 000 years and is carried out today with the same rudimentary tools. Big mining introduced by the Portuguese was halted by the liberation struggle and the ensuing civil war that ended in the 1990s.
With the gold price rising on the global markets in recent years, small-scale mining has developed into Manica province’s largest economic activity after agriculture. It is the largest opportunity for employment; for many rural people in central Mozambique it is the only direct source of a cash income. Mining pays better and more quickly than farming, the locals say.
Artisanal mining is dangerous and the garimpeiros are always at risk. Every year tunnels collapse and miners are buried alive.
Illegal gold mining is now the biggest cause of water pollution, loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation in central Mozambique. Many rivers are turbid with a deep-red colour from the gold washings.
The rivers not only carry muddy sediment but are also contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. This water is harmful to humans and livestock and unsuitable for crop irrigation. The water becomes as infertile as the land, with its open pits and abandoned shafts, and is unsuitable for cultivation.
“If you destroy your environment, you destroy yourself,” says Mario Diono, chairman of the Associação Mineira de Bandire. “We need to recognise our mistakes and get into balance with nature.”
Twice a week, the association organises technical training and capacity-building seminars for its members. The associates are trained to increase their efficiency in mining and gold processing and taught environmentally sustainable mining practices to reduce the negative impact on their environment.
“We don’t lose; we win from environmental awareness,” Diono says, adding that the association has quadrupled its output over the past eight years to about 2kg a month.
For Ndunguro, a key success factor for reducing the negative effects of gold exploration on the environment is the involvement of women. Previously women were prohibited by tradition from mining, but now things are changing: 30 of the 318 Bandire association miners are women.
“Women have higher environmental awareness; they take care of food and agriculture,” he says. “And they are responsible with family finances and don’t drink away the money.”
Women such as Biatriz Oliveira (39) and Felicidadi Noel (29) do the same backbreaking work as the men, digging as deep as 10m to excavate the auriferous soil. They have also helped the association to think beyond gold. After a sustainability seminar, they identified bee-keeping and fishponds to enhance their nutrition. The first beehives are a work in progress.
Women are also the driving force behind the rehabilitation of land for agricultural use. The association’s members avoid contaminating their river, the Nyamakwio. Instead of taking the gold-bearing earth to the river to wash out the gold, they now process it outside the riverbed. The dirty water is sent hundreds of metres through tubes to the pits.
“The pumps break down a lot,” says Amos Maquande (62), who has mined all his life. He is fixing one of the 15 pumps brought to him by the association.
His partner, Soza (19), quickly adds soil to the water gushing into a sluice, washing gold particles into a fleece. Operating the water pumps is costly at 300 meticais (R100) for a run of gold filtering.
After a plot is exhausted, it is flooded with excavated material, trapping sediments and slowly renaturing the area. The association has also started planting indigenous trees in the rehabilitated ditches around Munhinga village.
But even with the attempts to rehabilitate the land, one toxic problem remains. To extract the gold, the ore is mixed with mercury to amalgamate the precious metal, because mercury is most effective in binding very fine and powdery gold particles. Mercury, or quicksilver, is toxic.
Jezahel Tiranzi (35) has covered her hands with plastic bags to protect herself from contact with the toxic substance when she pans the gold. Touching the quicksilver, however, is not nearly as hazardous as its vapour. Its harmful effects include damage to the brain, kidneys and lungs, especially in children.
When Suseni Cupenha (38) leans over the smoky pot in which the amalgam is burned to obtain the gold, her baby is strapped on her back. Both inhale the mercury vapour, oblivious to its dangers.
That day Tiranzi and Cupenha produced a gram of gold, which will realise 1 000 meticais (about R360) for them on the black market.
When they are ready to sell, they call Emmanuel, the region’s gold collector, who will sell the gold in the provincial capital, Manica. The associations do not act as brokers; their members sell their gold individually. The associations receive a monthly fee from their members, and with that money can pay expenses.
The associations are nowhere near solving the ills of the garimpeiros‘ activities but they are a starting point for a government struggling with illegal mining.