Small scale gold mining in Zimbabwe. Photo: Martin Addison

Gold barons exploit miners

Artisanal gold mining in Zimbabwe can be very lucrative, although it is not completely legal. Miners who don’t want to risk losing their gold to the authorities, choose instead to sell for less profit to the gold barons that operate across artisanal gold mining sites.

The fast-track land reforms in Zimbabwe implemented in 2000 released over 10 million hectares of land from big commercial farms. Many beneficiaries of land reform, especially smallholder farmers, are now engaged in both farming and artisanal gold mining.

“It was like removing the fences ‒ suddenly everybody started digging for gold. Some people combine farming with mining activities, while others who gained land after the reforms rent it out to artisanal miners,” anthropologist Grasian Mkodzongi says.

Not completely legal
Gold from informal mining lacks the necessary paper work, and is thus illegal. In practice, however, even the national reserve bank buys gold from artisanal miners. According to Mkodzongi, the authorities realised that attempts to counteract informal mining would be futile. Besides, the Zimbabwean government needs all the revenues it can get.

Grasian Mkodzongi

“Although the gold is viewed as almost legal, miners can still be arrested by police on their way to the banks to sell it. That’s why many prefer to sell on the spot to the so-called gold barons,” Mkodzongi notes.

Gold barons are often politicians or businessmen with political connections. They have all the necessary channels and contacts to deal in gold. They move around informal mining sites and buy gold directly from the miners, or hire artisanal miners to work for them.

“For artisanal miners, it is less risky to sell to barons than to travel to town with the gold. Of course, the downside is that the barons pay less,” Mkondzongi observes.

Cheaper than employees
In the past, conflicts over territory occurred between large-scale mining companies and artisanal miners. Nowadays, however, the mining companies also buy gold from informal miners and occasionally even hire artisanal miners as wage labourers.

“It’s much easier for the firms. Artisanal miners are cheaper than their own employees and don’t require much equipment or machinery. And if an accident occurs, the company washes its hands of any responsibility,” Mkondzongi says.

Ever since President Mugabe’s government initiated fast-track land reform in 2000, many Western cooperation partners have turned their backs on Zimbabwe, since this initiative was perceived as undermining the property rights of white landowners. However, China stepped in and has become an important trade and investment partner.

Chinese mills
In the gold sector, several Chinese firms have opened mills where artisanal miners come to grind rocks. They also hire local miners as wage labourers to dig on their behalf. This is done in competition with those gold barons who operate their own rudimentary stump mills.

Moreover, the tailings or dump that remain after grinding belong to the mill owner and can realise a substantial price after further processing. Since the Chinese mills are more efficient and leave little waste on the ground, their mills are undercutting the traditional stump mills owned by local gold barons.

“Consequently, artisanal miners prefer to grind their gold rocks at the Chinese mill. This in turn has caused conflicts between Chinese mill owners and local gold barons,” Mkodzongi concludes.

Grasian Mkodzongi is a Research Associate at the Sam Moyo African Institute for Agrarian Studies in Zimbabwe. On 10-11 November, he participated in a workshop hosted by NAI researcher Cristiano Lanzano on artisanal and small-scale mining in Africa along with 12 other researchers.

Suggested further reading in the NAI library

Saunders, Richard and Nyamunda Tinashe eds. 2016.  Facets of power. Johannesburg: Wits university press.

Johan Sävström
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