Illegal gold mining has surged in Zimbabwe during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report by Reuters on Monday.
Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani National Park, normally a major tourist attraction, has seen a significant decline in visitors during the coronavirus pandemic, largely due to travel restrictions. Locals have taken advantage of the lack of tourists to mine for gold in the park’s mountains in recent months.
“For the past couple of years, we have been seeing illegal gold miners in the mountains, but suddenly during lockdown we started to see hundreds of them,” Collen Sibanda, vice chairman of the Chimanimani Tourist Association (CTA), told Reuters.
According to the news agency, “Activists, industry experts, and some of the miners themselves say rangers employed by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (Zimparks) to protect Chimanimani National Park are involved in the illicit activity.”
“Zimparks is recruiting people. They are organizing these syndicates,” Sibanda said.
Zimbabwe is currently suffering from its worst economic crisis in over a decade, battling crippling hyperinflation and record-high unemployment. The dire economic circumstances have forced an increasing number of young Zimbabweans to turn to illegal activities, such as gold mining in protected parks, to earn a living.
A man named Lenny Kwaramba told Reuters that he had been mining for gold in the Chimanimani mountains without a license since March.
“I thought it was legal because we were working with the rangers,” he explained.
“We were given a target, we would sell about 40 grams of gold per day,” he said. Kwaramba described how “as the miners came back down the mountain, the rangers would take the gold and pay them in U.S. dollars.”
Zimbabwe deployed members of its military and police to the national park in August to “help the rangers evict the miners,” according to the report.
“I had to run for my life,” Kwaramba claimed. “They were firing at us. Some [miners] were injured and others are missing,” he added.
Zimparks spokesman Tinashe Farawo told Reuters that park authorities were aware of claims that Chimanimani’s rangers were directly involved in the illegal gold mining.
“We have heard such reports. We are currently investigating the allegations,” he told the news agency.
While no official data exists on the number of illegal gold miners in the Chimanimani Mountains, Zimbabwe government authorities admit that reports of the illicit activity have significantly increased over the past few years.
Recent reports indicate that gold panning in the mountains remains mostly small-scale and informal.
The estimated “output from artisanal gold panning in the area [of Chimanimani] from 2007 to 2011 was between 600-to-900 kg per year, with less than half of that amount being officially recorded,” the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London reported in 2016.