Community-led research reveals multilayers impacts of mining on women in Zimbabwe

Text by John Mwebe

Photos by Carlo Manalansan, Grace Murindi, and Naume Bhiza

Kundai Chikonzo during the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) meeting in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on January 2023.

Lizodingani? (What do you want here?)” one of the miners asked in local Ndebele to the research team

“Why are you taking pictures? Are you journalists?” asked another.

Disembarking from the car, Kundai Chikonzo and the research team (Agrippah T Mabhande, Memory Mushamba, and Pix N Marume) from Insiza Women in Mining Trust came face to face with a group of inquisitive local miners of Amazon Community in Filabusi, Zimbabwe. There were around fifteen people including women and boys of around fifteen years of age. Their clothes were splashed with creamy soil, their faces caked with mud. A radio hung around the neck of one of the miners standing next to holes that had been dug up along the stream banks.

With an estimated population of 1,908 people, the Amazon community is predominantly a pastoralist community keeping cattle and goats at a subsistence level within their homesteads. In general, people in the community are living below the poverty line and this condition is aggravated by climate change impacts which have affected their agricultural production. Many people were forced to seek alternative income sources. One such alternative is mining which many people have resorted to as a means to get food and basic needs for their families.

Mining challenges in the community

The view of the gold mining site in the Amazon community’s village, in Filabusi, Zimbabwe.

When Zimbabwe got its independence in 1980, the government issued a directive requiring British settlers who had amassed chunks of land to relinquish it to the local people. The local people who acquired land through this process found that the land had minerals in it and that the British settlers had been undertaking mining activities without the knowledge of the government. As such, the local villagers took on the farms, started family mining, and spread throughout the community leading to small-scale mining.

Mining has become one of the economic activities employing a significant population in the Amazon community. The first miner in the community was registered in 2002. Since then, many local villagers have embraced mining activities as a source of livelihood. In the community, both women and children are involved in gold panning supplemented by the sale of food and water to the workers in the mines. This workforce consists of registered and unregistered miners working on the mine shafts, in the minefields, and providing services to the mine workers. Registered miners pertain to small-scale miners who hold mining certificates from the Ministry of Mines and Mines Development while unregistered miners are those who perform mining activity without permission from a mandated government agency. In 2016, the government registered many small-scale mines but unregistered mining still exists in the community.

There is not effective regulation being implemented in the Amazon Community to protect the rights of mine workers, especially women who are working without protective gear. The use of child labor is still running in the community. The risk is greater if they are unregulated miners.

“Children as young as eleven years are working with their mothers within local mines. Working long hours, they crawl through tunnels that are too narrow and low for adults. They also work as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or sell matches, flowers, and other cheap goods,” told Kundai.

Decades of mining activities in the Amazon community have directly and severely impacted the environment. Miners leave open pits after trenching and cutting down trees exposing the ground to erosion, soil contamination caused by spills and leaks of hazardous materials, and the deposition of contaminated windblown dust. Subsequently, these have contaminated the water sources in the community. Meanwhile, gold panning and the use of hammer mills contribute to noise and air pollution. In response to this, the government conducts spot checks, but the miners flee to areas that are not easy to access. “In some cases, the miners dig potholes in the middle of the road to deter access to the mines,” explained Kundai.

Community engagement through the Global Advocacy Team

Kundai with the research team (Insiza Women in Mining Trust) explaining the objective of community-led research to the Amazon community.

“Go away!” said a miner when the Insiza Women Mining Trust research team approached them.

The fear and apprehension of the miners were understandable. Their activities are not regulated. They could be arrested and jailed for illegal mining without warning. It was apparent that there were no safety measures at the site, and that mining was being done in a rudimentary manner with homemade tools.

Painstakingly, the research team of Insiza Women in Mining Trust explained that the objective of the visit is to learn about the life and work of artisanal small-scale miners and their community, “so that we can help each other to come up with solutions to the environmental issues faced by you, your sister and mothers,” one of the research team members explained.

Based on the community-led research, other several critical issues affecting the environment include land and water degradation, breakdown of infrastructure and destruction of heritage sites, illegal mining, and gender and children-related issues that include child labor, child marriages, and substance abuse that lead to gender-based violence and spread of sexually transmitted illnesses. In regards to substance abuse, Kundai explained that the high use of alcohol and drugs among men who are involved in small-scale mining has led to increasing cases of rape among women who have to walk long distances to access water and firewood and to work as miners. “Men involved in artisanal mining are often drug abusers and women have been raped when they are under the influence of either drugs or alcohol. This also leads to high rates of people contracting sexually transmitted diseases, as no protection is used,” explained her.

“The decision to participate in the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) was influenced by the need to learn different advocacy tools, especially the community-led research and understand the power structures that each GAT member has to deal with in advancing their concerns within their communities while dealing with the government,” said Kundai

Insiza Women in Mining Trust and the Amazon community recognize that the GAT is a tool for community organizing that supports the creation of a strong community-led research team that represents the diversity of people in the community including the underrepresented and often excluded from the process. “Being a part of the Global Advocacy Team has opened up a space where the community can discuss common issues that need to be addressed, and develop a strong advocacy team that transcends geographical borders,” added Kundai.

For three years, Kundai and the Insiza Women in Mining Trust, a community organization based in the Amazon community, have continued to advocate for the rights of women, children, and people with disabilities (PWD) in mining. The organization works with village leaders to address voices like drug abuse, early pregnancies, mining concerns, and other social issues that affect people, particularly women and children. Owing to their work, Insiza Women in Mining Trust is a part of the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) — a global collective initiative convened by the International Accountability Project (IAP). The GAT initiative enables 8 activists and community organizers from around the world to learn and implement community-led development plan. Apart from Zimbabwe, other GAT members come from Armenia, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Paraguay, and the Philippines.

Insiza Women in Mining Trust believes that having many voices can be more effective in advancing their issues around the management of their resources and environment vis-a-vis the violation of women’s rights. Community-led research has enabled Insiza Women in Mining Trust to engage with the Amazon community and design a community-led development plan.

“GAT has helped our community to interface with activists who have supported us to understand our rights, the options available to claim our rights and offered guidance to make informed decisions.”

Editor: Anggita Indari & Carlo Manalansan

This article is part of a series that features stories from the 8 community organizers from 8 countries who are part of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team. The Global Advocacy Team initiative brings together incredible community organizers from around the world to conduct community-led research and mobilize their communities to change how development is designed, funded, and implemented. Learn more about the Global Advocacy Team focused on community-led development planning.

John Mwebe is the Program Coordinator at the International Accountability Project and is based in Uganda.

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.