By Andrew Mambondiyani
TARKA FOREST, Zimbabwe, April 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of unemployed Zimbabweans have turned to illegal gold panning in a bid to survive the country's deteriorating economy, leaving a trail of destruction that has alarmed farmers, timber plantation owners and the country's environmental authorities.
Peasant miners have set up makeshift mines on farmland and timber plantations in the country's eastern provinces, which border Mozambique where gold fetches a higher price.
Deep tunnels have been dug beneath roads, railways and buildings in the Kwekwe area of the Midlands province. In some parts of Manicaland province, waterways have been diverted and roads destroyed.
With more illegal miners likely to exploit the area as the economy continues to slump, and the state placing responsibility to act on landowners, farmers are fearful of irreversible damage to their land, and the risk of losing their livelihoods.
"Kwekwe is under siege from illegal miners and some of these miners are very violent. We don't know what to do," resident Jonas Dube told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Simon Simango, an illegal gold miner in Chimanimani, Manicaland province, acknowledged that the excavations were having a negative impact on the environment.
But many workers had run out of options, he said.
"This (illegal mining) is our only source of livelihood. Look, there are no jobs in the country," Simango told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We sell most of our gold to illegal buyers from Mozambique who are offering us very good prices."
Miners report that buyers in Zimbabwe paid around $30 per gram of gold while buyers in Mozambique were paying, double at around $60 per gram.
Zimbabwe has never fully recovered from an economic slump that began in 2000 with the violent seizure of thousands of white-owned farms. Unemployment runs at 80 percent, and even those with jobs face unpaid wages and an acute shortage of cash.
There is no official data on the number of illegal miners in Zimbabwe.
However, a report by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization estimated that between 2007 and 2012, some 500,000 illegal, artisanal gold miners were operating in the country.
Experts believe these numbers could grow as the economy continues to falter.
In Tarka Forest, a timber estate owned by Allied Timbers in Chimanimani district, more than 600 hectares of prime timber have been damaged to make way for the illegal digs, according to company executives.
Manicaland's minister of provincial affairs, Mandi Chimene, said in February that illegal gold mining in Tarka Forest had reached "alarming levels", and resulted in the pollution of streams and rivers, and destruction of standing timber.
"What is happening in Tarka (Forest) is shocking," Chimene said. "We wonder who is benefiting from the illegal gold because as a country, we are not. Such gold is not going to the legal market."
The government says it is the responsibility of landowners or affected businesses to evict the illegal miners.
"If it's a forest plantation, it is the responsibility of the timber companies to remove the illegal miners," Minister for Mines and Mining Development Walter Chidhakwa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"If an area belongs to the timber plantations, the government cannot legalise gold mining in the area. The companies must put measures in to stop illegal mining in their plantations."
The same rule applies to illegal miners on privately-owned farmland, he said.
Darlington Duwa, CEO of the Timber Producers Federation, warned of lasting damage as a result of the disappearing forests and water pollution caused by illegal mining.
"It (illegal mining) reduces the timber resource, thus affecting direct and indirect employment, economic development, foreign currency earnings and leads to environmental degradation and reduced resilience to climate change effects," Duwa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"In some areas illegal miners (settlers) uproot young trees that have been planted," Duwa said. "At this rate, the industry is bound to suffer irreversible damage."