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Zimbabwean Artisanal Miners Fear Resurgence of Violence

Artisanal gold miners work at an open mine in Mazowe, Zimbabwe, April 5, 2018.

Deadly violence in Zimbabwe’s gold mining sector was a problem for years until COVID-19 restrictions brought it to a sudden, surprising halt. Now, with lockdown measures gradually lifting, some in the sector fear the violence will return.

Violence associated with Zimbabwe’s gold mining sector killed hundreds of people in 2019 and early 2020, according to a new report from the International Crisis Group.

The violence stemmed from miners fighting over gold or gangs robbing miners at gunpoint.

Anouk Rigterink is a former fellow at the International Crisis Group who contributed to the report. She said the fighting is crippling investment in the sector.

“It is also important to consider how this violence affects Zimbabwe’s long term prospects of attracting investors," Rigterink said. "This violence makes investing in Zimbabwe’s gold more risky. This means attracting investors with shorter time horizon; those who want to make quicky money by perhaps engaging in patronage economy. Whereas what Zimbabwe really wants is a speck of, spread of investors including those with patient capital who want to develop mines etc and this violence is not good to such investment.”

Gold is Zimbabwe’s largest foreign exchange earner. The country hopes gold mining will help its ailing economy recover after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Felix Muchemwa is one of the panners in this gold-rich area of Mazowe, about 40 kilometers north of Harare. He said gangs with machetes sometimes attack artisanal miners.

“At times when they come we flee," Muchemwa said. "But if it’s a night raid, we are in trouble. But if we feel it’s too much, we gang up and fight back. They may run away or overpower us. Gold panning is all about trying to look for money for our families’ survival.”

Kazembe Kazembe, Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs Minister — who is in charge of police — said the government will not tolerate unrest in the mining sector.

“If anything along those lines happen, we are very much prepared to deal with it the way we dealt with it last time. But we do not anticipate such illegal activities," Kazember said. "We are kindly asking those artisanal miners to obey the law and do things legally.”

And violence has declined steeply this year since COVID-19 restrictions went into place. The violence has not returned, even with the gradual lifting of the lockdown since August.

The International Crisis Group report said if Zimbabwe wants to keep things this way — and reduce rampant gold smuggling that costs the country valuable revenue — the government must give mining cooperatives legal standing and pay gold producers the prevailing global rate.

That way, it said, Zimbabwe gold can add some glitter to the country’s dim economy.

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