Double Tragedy: The Zimbabwe Farmers Affected By Illegal Mining And Climate Change

Author: Vuyisile Moyo

(MENAFN- The Conversation) Smallholder farmers in rural Gwanda, a region in Zimbabwe that borders South Africa, have been affected by a double shock – a combination of heat, droughts and floods caused by climate change, and water contamination and damaged land caused by illegal, small-scale mining.

Droughts in Gwanda have significantly affected rural farmers and increased over the past 40 years . This has left many families impoverished after harvests failed . Illegal, small-scale mining for Gold in Zimbabwe has resulted in deforestation, land degradation, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity in the area, making the problem worse.

Not all small-scale mining in Zimbabwe is illegal. Some artisanal miners have a valid mining claim, a licence to engage in mining activities on an allocated piece of land, and pay taxes to the local authorities and government . Illegal small-scale mining, on the other hand, is mining without permits in any area where the miners suspect that there is gold. There are an estimated 400,000 illegal, small-scale miners in Zimbabwe.

The combined impacts of increased droughts and illegal mining create a complex web of challenges for rural farmers. I am a researcher and development practitioner focusing on communities' adaptation and transformation to climate change. My PhD thesis investigated how 40 years of these problems had affected the farmers, and what practices they came up with to adapt to both stressors at the same time.

I held group discussions in Gwanda, surveyed 80 farmers, and interviewed a group of elders who had lived and farmed in the area for more than 40 years. My research found that rural farmers in Gwanda had limited capacity to adapt to climate-related and illegal small-scale mining shocks. Poor governance of the natural environment in Gwanda is leading to food scarcity, and damage to water and land . It threatens to reverse development gains in these areas.

The problem

Families in Gwanda mainly survive on smallholder farming in the rainy season when crops grow. In the dry season, households survive by migrating to find work elsewhere, receiving remittances from relatives working outside Zimbabwe, by receiving food aid, and by vending.

They also rely on their own small businesses, harvesting mopane worms, homestead gardening, and dry planting of drought-resistant crops. Some farmers have bought smaller livestock like goats that can survive high temperatures and droughts.

This Gwanda cow died after falling into a mine pit. Courtesy Vuyisile Moyo

However, illegal small-scale mining has negatively affected these earning opportunities. The farmers I interviewed said they woke up in the morning to find their farmland and foraging areas had been dug up by miners, who worked at night to evade police. Livestock fell into mine pits and died, and local people were sometimes injured.

As one farmer said:

Previous research in Ghana has also found that artisanal miners dug thousands of pits, leading to the deaths of livestock from drinking the polluted water in the pits and from getting trapped in unrehabilitated and abandoned pits.

Read more: Artisanal gold mining in South Africa is out of control. Mistakes that got it here

The miners also dug up roads between 2017 to 2021, which local authorities failed to repair. One busy road was so damaged by illegal small-scale mining that public transport vehicles could no longer use it. The struggling farmers who had previously paid R100 (US$5.43) for a journey now had to pay R300 (US$16.40) to travel a longer, alternative route. This caused additional stress to the rural farmers, who needed to travel to Gwanda town or Bulawayo to collect their remittances and buy groceries.

Besides destroying the environment and damaging social capital, artisanal small-scale mining is only benefiting a few rural farmers (those politically connected to the ruling Zanu PF party .

Women are most affected
Gwanda's women farmers can no longer sell nutritious mopane worms. Thao Lan/Shutterstock

Women in Gwanda told me that illegal small-scale miners had cut down mopane trees in the area. In times of previous drought, when their harvest was poor, local women had been able to harvest more than 30 buckets each of mopane worms in a season and sell these in the closest city of Bulawayo, 126 kilometres away, and neighbouring Botswana. They earned enough to survive the year and pay for food, clothing and school fees – an option that no longer existed, they said.

My research also found that women were double victims. Local men tended to migrate to South Africa and Botswana to seek an income, leaving the women behind. After having their land damaged and rendered unsuitable for agricultural activities, the women did not have the option of digging for gold themselves. They were not accepted by the miners from outside Gwanda and could only find work on the periphery of the illegal mining industry. This included washing miners' clothes, sex work, and selling food. Those who did become miners faced sexual harassment and were looked down upon.


Artisanal mining can be a good alternative to failing agriculture, but only if it is legal and managed properly . In Gwanda it is not policed well.

Communal farmland in Gwanda destroyed by illegal mine pits. Courtesy Vuyisile Moyo

Governance systems in Gwanda need to be strengthened. The Zimbabwean government must revisit the Mines and Minerals Act, which regulates how people and corporations go about getting mining rights , and make sure that the police monitor and restrict artisanal mining. Illegal miners must be apprehended and prevented from damaging communal land.

A climate change mitigation programme for agriculture must be put in place. Rural farmers and traditional leaders from Gwanda must be involved in developing this. It should not be developed in a top down manner by experts from government and international institutions.

The Conversation


The Conversation

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