The Political Economy of Small-Scale Mining in Zimbabwe

Photograph: Swathi Sridharan
Photograph: Swathi Sridharan

There was much discussion about small-scale and artisanal mining at the STEPS Centre’s Resource Politics conference last month. This is where resources and politics come together; perhaps especially so in Zimbabwe.

Ever since the enactment of  Zimbabwe’s Mines and Minerals Act, which gives the state rights over mineral resources wherever they are found, mining has been controversial. In the colonial period, the Act gave precedence to miners over other colonists making use of the land, including for farming, forestry and ranching. The colonists of Rhodesia failed to find a second Rand, but the mineral resources of Zimbabwe are nevertheless rich. And with recent discoveries – notably diamonds in Marange and platinum in various parts of the country – mining has been the source of hot politics and big bucks.

But beyond the international debates about ‘blood diamonds’, certification and scandals and speculation about corrupt deals between politicians, Chinese corporations and other mining firms, there is another set of contests over access to and control over resources going on. This is focused on small-scale or artisanal mining – sometimes through concessions (or at least leases within concessions), sometimes completely informal, as in much of the alluvial gold panning. Since the early 1990s, in large part as a response to drought and impending hunger, many people, especially in the drier parts of the country, have taken to mining/mineral extraction as a source of livelihoods.

Estimates vary, but several million people are regularly making at least part of their livelihood from mining. This is often a precarious, dangerous and risky endeavour, as Clifford Mabhena and others describe. Dealers in gold (this is the dominant mineral extracted in this way) often operate monopolies or cartels and panners and miners may not get the best deal. International gold prices have been on the decline recently, so returns are low. The police and corrupt officials are always on the look-out for making a cut, so mining is embroiled in a mesh of patronage relations. It is incredibly hard work, and dangerous, especially whenmercury is used in the process. Although the data is limited, recent work shows that over 70% of small-scale miners have some level of mercury poisoning.

In the 1990s, Zimbabwe was at the forefront of supporting small-scale mining as a livelihood option. This was a response to the growth of illegal alluvial panning, with the idea that upgrading and formalising would create more viable and long-term sources of employment and livelihood. Various projects, including from the likes of ITDG/Practical Action and SNV, supported the development of small-scale operations. The investment in appropriate technology and business skills resulted in some significant successes. At the same time the government decentralised control over mining regulation and revenue collection to Rural District Councils. Although there were problems, it meant that councils were able to target local entrepreneurs, and support them.

All this changed in the mid-2000s. At the height of the economic crisis, the Reserve Bank, under Gideon Gono, decided to recentralise control over mining. The rationale was the ‘rampant’ environmental destruction caused as many more took to gold panning and illegal, informal small-scale mining to make ends meet. The Bank was also in desperate need of revenues, and tax collection and other fees were not being collected due to the collapse of the state machinery, and there was a massive leakage of potential government revenue, justifying, they argued, a more centralised approach. At face value, the response followed in the footsteps of many other global initiatives trying to ‘formalise’ a sector, and reduce its environmental damage.

The result was Operation Chikorokoza Chapera (no more illegal mining) starting at the end of 2006. This had many echoes of Operation Murambatsvina, applied to informal housing and markets, with a technocratic, modernist legitimation being applied to an essentially political act. For Operation Murambatsvina, it was related in part to regaining control over urban areas by ZANU-PF, while for Operation Chikorokoza Chapera it was more about capturing revenue streams at the centre, and redirecting patronage around mining. The result was disastrous for small-scale mining and people’s livelihoods, as explained in a series of papers by Sam Spiegel, based on work in Kadoma, Insiza and Umzingwani. The crack-down involved the full might of the state-military-security complex. Thousands were arrested (some 25,000 between 2006 and 2009, with 6000 still in prison in 2013), others were beaten, and people’s property was destroyed and confiscated.

And what came in its place? The formal, regulated mining operations that were allowed under the new regulations were run by a combination of elite business people, always with good political connections, sanctioned groups (such as the well-connected Zimbabwe Women in Mining), and outsider investors with good political links, including a range of Chinese companies. Operating at this scale requires capital and investment, and to get past the environmental regulations which were insisted on is pricey, with most EIAs tagged at over $4000. This excluded most informal sector miners, except as part of groups or mediated by‘sponsors’, well-connected mining barons.

Because of the provisions of the Mining Act, mineral concessions supersede any other land use. While most large concessions are held by large mining conglomerates in established fields, the Ministry of Mines, under Obert Mpofu, has been handing out concessions in a large numbers of areas to new operators. While notionally controlled by environmental and other regulations, the central political backing of new mining operators is such that they often gain precedence – including over (relatively) newly allocated land reform farms. We visited an A2 farm on the outskirts of Gwanda that was completely devastated by surface mining. A concession had been granted to a well-connected group, and the farmer, despite being an A2 land holder and well connected himself at the local level, was at a loss. The cattle herd that he had built up on the farm over the past years since acquisition were grazing on a small portion, and mostly along the road. His farm had become worthless.

The consequence of the crackdown and the shift of focus to a ‘formal’ sector, ‘modern’, ‘regulated’ approach to mining was that informal mining went further underground, became more corrupt (more people to pay off) and became a more vulnerable source of livelihoods given its illegality. But informal mining has certainly not gone away. The bans and crackdowns cannot prevent livelihoods – as in the past under the draconian laws of the Natural Resource Board that implemented environmental legislation as a form of disciplining with ‘scientific’ rationale. The capacity to regulate and control is inevitably limited, so people find a way around. Technology has helped, with metal detecting equipment – notably the ubiquitous ‘Vuvuzela’ that arrived in the country around the time of the South Africa hosted World Cup – having made things cheaper and faster if you can get hold of the equipment (which is now cheap and easy). And the ‘makorokoza’ (informal miners) are increasingly organised and vocal, often reflecting young people’s dismay at the stance of the state, and associated elites, with threats to invade mines and challenge the mining barons and the patronage based economy.

In our study sites, particularly in the drier south of Masvingo and Matebeland South – small-scale mining and illegal panning is widespread and essential for livelihoods. Recourse to modernist and environmental rhetoric to justify elite grabbing of resources is a well-known move in Zimbabwe as elsewhere, but if the state was genuinely interested in inclusive development and environmental protection, it should return to some of the lessons learned in the 1990s, and develop a more integrated, decentralised and broad-based mining policy. And this has to come with a long overdue revision of the Mines and Minerals Act. With its colonial origins, it should no longer have such a purpose and a more balanced and equivalent perspective on land and resource use needs to be enshrined in law. All this will benefit people, the environment – and the exchequer. Unfortunately the current political economy of mining means this is unfortunately rather unlikely.


This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland


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