By Jeffrey Moyo
HARARE, Zimbabwe - At a makeshift Pentecostal church in one of Harare's poorer western suburbs, dozens of congregants dance during the Sunday service, their hymns echoing off the corrugated iron roof.
But close by - so close, in fact, that some of the roof's support posts are teetering - lies a four-metre-deep pit.
Its existence in the suburb of Warren Park is testament to unceasing digging in and around Zimbabwe's capital by soil hunters, the fly-by-nighters who whisk away earth for sale to the construction industry.
As the pits and gullies creep closer, local resident Hector Chiwonde, 59, is worried.
"My land here where my home stands will soon be swallowed up by these people digging. Already land that was good enough for building more homes or other community facilities has been destroyed," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Denford Ngadziore, a local councillor with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - which controls most of Zimbabwe's urban councils - blamed the problem on high unemployment.
The International Labour Organization said Zimbabwe's unemployment rate was 11.3 percent as of 2014. However, experts say the real figure is significantly higher.
"People have no jobs, and there is money in soil digging," Ngadziore said, adding that 16 million tonnes of soil was dug up in Harare province alone between 2016 and mid-2018.
The irony is not lost on Ngadziore that many of the homes built over the years in his ward, which is adjacent to Warren Park, used soil taken from there.
"With the huge pits now forming in several places across towns and cities ... I should guess millions of tonnes of soil have been taken off from habitable land countrywide," he said.
A stone's throw from Chiwonde's home, a security guard manning the local authority's 4-million-litre water-tank premises smiled as he pocketed cash from people in trucks and pickups taking soil.
"If I don't befriend these people, how will I survive from my small wage?" said the guard, who refused to give his name for fear of losing his job.
Nearby, local authority policeman Admire Manenji was waving down trucks carrying soil to check their permission papers.
"There is corruption in the council offices, and that's why you see this land being sliced away," he said, adding that some operators paid off council officials to ensure safe passage.
"They will be armed with signed documents purporting to be coming from my bosses to permit them in to dig the soils," he said.
"(But) they carry no receipts of the said payments."
LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
It is not just residents of Warren Park who are concerned. Ibrahim Omar, a developer, said the stealing of land was a serious problem.
"If government doesn't take action to end (it) ... we will soon run out of land to develop homes to accommodate growing urban populations," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Omar said more than 200 hectares of land he was set to develop had been excavated, leaving him unable to build homes.
For his part, soil trader Dickson Mhope pointed out that the trade was legal and brought important benefits.
"We do what we do with the blessing of local authorities," he said, adding that his workers do not simply dig anywhere, and his business generates revenue for local government.
It is by all accounts a lucrative trade: 53-year-old Eric Murambwi, who is based in Gweru, a city 225 kilometres (140 miles) southwest of Harare, said he earned US$350 a day by selling three tonnes of soil.
Some operators extract soil legally, said Michael Chideme, Harare's corporate communications manager.
"There are companies that have been given mining rights for sand and gravel soil extraction for sale, on the condition that they reclaim the land after extraction so that it can be used for other purposes," he said.
The authorities' dilemma, he said, was balancing the needs of the environment with countrywide requirements for more infrastructure - and that often requires earth and gravel.
"People are crying (out) for good roads, and at the same time crying (out) for the protection of the land," he said.
"So how do we achieve both? There has to be controlled and licensed centres of gravel soil extraction in the city, which is why you see from time to time there are arrests of (people) that are illegally mining," he said.
Operators were meant to cover the pits in the areas that they excavated, he said, with local authorities responsible for ensuring pits were closed. Transgressors were tracked and fined, he said.
Joseph Tasosa, who heads the Zimbabwe National Environment Trust, a non-profit, said soil digging causes siltation that affects dams and lakes, "which will certainly disappear under the siltation in the not-so-distant future".
"When rains come, the areas dug by gravel soil hunters get soaked up, washing away soils downstream and subsequently causing siltation in water bodies," he said.
Environmental activist Kudakwashe Makanda said there was a link to politics.
"Soil poachers are youths aligned to the ruling ZANU-PF party, protected by their political leadership, and thus it's difficult to remove or stop them," he said.
Land expert Marshall Mutambu said "there is a direct link between urban expansion and land degradation", and blamed local authorities and the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) - whose job it is to protect the environment and ensure resources are used sustainably - for not acting.
Both were "folding their hands as the situation continues to deteriorate". And, he said, it was not just habitable land that was being lost.
"The environmental impacts ... leave much to be desired as the activity leaves pits that are dangerous to both humans and animals," he said.
Liberty Mhara, an environmental officer at the Ministry of Environment, said officials on the ground were watching extractors "and fining those that don't restore the environment after digging up soils".
Back in Warren Park, as the pits and gullies expand, residents like Chiwonde despair that anything will be done.
"Our municipal authorities and environmental government officials working for EMA are equally useless, because they have not resolutely showed their muscles in controlling soil diggers," he said.