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Gold Rush Exposes Communities To Health And Environmental Hazards

Artisanal miners are causing environmental degradation at the same time exposing communities to health hazards in Gwanda.

BY VUSINDLU MAPHOSA | @The_CBNews | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | MAY 24

Artisanal mining might sound quaint, but most gold panners know little about the environmental impacts of gold mining, especially the use of mercury, and its dangers.

GWANDA (The Citizen Bulletin) — A rush for quick gold riches is posing major environmental and health risks for communities in Gwanda, and posing a danger to livestock and wild animals.

There is an influx of artisanal miners from across the country in the district, digging the earth in search of the yellow metal.

“Once you hit the jackpot, your life quickly changes, hence we take these risks.”
Blessings Moyo, a Gwanda miner but originally from Kwekwe

Moyo is one of the many gold panners scattered in the bushes of Gwanda district.

Environmentalists and communities blame the artisanal miners for leaving open pits, and poisoning their water sources using mercury and cyanide.

The chemicals are used to separate gold from ore.

A report done by Silveria House in partnership with Mthandazo Women Association titled: Mapping of Active Sites of Land, notes the environmental hazards caused by the miners in Gwanda.

The research was funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“The dialogue on the impact of mercury revealed that it is (mercury) the most used chemical because there are no safer alternatives and because the artisanal miners and other affected groups do not know its effects…,” the report says.

Experts say mercury is a high risk mining chemical that evaporates and travels in the air affecting miners and the entire neighborhood without their knowledge.

Areas identified with massive land degradation due to gold panning activities are Vova near Colleen Bawn and Bina at the outskirts of Gwanda town near Spitzkop high density suburbs.

The areas are rated as highly degraded due to the gold rush that happened in the past.

The survey established that artisanal miners in Gwanda were at high risk of mercury exposure due to ignorance.

Mercury flour gradually evaporates causing severe threats to the environment and human health. Image by Spectroscopy

“Due to myths that mercury is harmless, some miners put smelted gold in their mouths first to increase its weight. Some women hide it in bras before selling it for security reasons and there are known cases of both men and women who swallow it in case of arguments or fraud.”

The report says many use their hands to clean smelted gold and interchangeably use kitchen utensils when using mercury without knowing it can stick on metals yet it is invisible.

Experts say mercury breaks the nervous system, causes involuntary muscle movements, numbness in arms and legs and causes difficulties in chewing and swallowing.

It causes memory loss, headaches, impairs hearing, speech, vision and gait; it also causes hallucination, harms the brain heart, kidneys, lungs and birth defects.

“It causes  fatigue, insomnia (sleeplessness), corrodes skin and mucous membranes, child bearing mothers at very high risk and yet there are the ones highly exposed and basin sifting of gold has been the highest exposure route for women as it is a gendered role,” the report adds.

ALSO READ: Filthy And Dilapidated Public Toilets Expose Residents To Poor Health

Thembelani Ndlovu, an artisanal miner, confesses that they use mercury and cyanide in their mining activities.

“What matters for us is to be able to get the gold cleaned and separated from sand or ore. I knew that the chemicals might be dangerous but was not quite sure about the long-time effects.”
Thembelani Ndlovu, artisanal miner

Matabeleland South Acting Provincial Mining Director Khumbulani Mlangeni confirms that artisanal miners were causing environmental degradation.

“Environmental degradation is rampant mainly in illegal mining sites. Ministry notifies police whenever there is illegal mining activity,” Mlangeni says.

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