Taking turns with a blunt-edged shovel, the young work crew excavated a shaft as wide as a coffin and about five metres deep. After a week of labour, the trio had collected gold flakes worth about US$2. They need to come up with about US$8 each to buy school uniforms, said Josefa Joao, 13, oldest of the three.
"We asked our parents' permission," she said. "They said go."
An estimated 20,000 garimpeiros - as the gold panners are known in Portuguese - are spread through the province, living in rough encampments, often without ready access to food, potable water or medical assistance. Perhaps as many as half of them are young Zimbabwean men escaping the economic hardships in their homeland, where inflation has reached 2,800 percent and unemployment levels are above 80 percent.
Accidents are relatively common. In March, 16 garimpeiros were found dead in the Chimanimani Mountains. According to police, they had frozen to death, victims of exposure following Cyclone Favio, which hit the region in February. Among the gold panners one camp is known as "Burundi" because of its history of violent fights.
Gold panning used to be a way for families to supplement their income from farming, said Celestino Sousa, the state's mineral resources manager for Manica Province. "Now, many people are using gold for survival."
The gold panners have built dams, panning pools and encampments along a 50km stretch of the Revue River, which flows eastward through Manica Province. In Machamba Samanhika, a typical camp just outside Manica city, about 250 workers are on site at any one time.
Because of its proximity to the town, many informal miners live in local houses or shacks, but some live in shanties by the river. Workers tend to be men in their twenties, and pay the owner of the land a little less than $2 per hole.
Some shafts are as deep as 20 metres, and may run horizontally for another nine or so metres. Underground it is stifling hot and pitch dark, and the miners say there is not enough air to sustain candles. Bunches of leaves are repeatedly dropped down the hole and quickly retrieved in the belief that this helps oxygenate the shaft.
Hundreds of open shafts pock Machamba Samanhika, each one a potential death trap: over the last year, four miners have been killed in cave-ins. "We are accustomed to it," shrugged one garimpeiro. "When there's a cave-in, the person you are working with screams for help, and everyone in the camp comes running as fast as possible and starts digging the worker out."
When the gold potential of a hole is exhausted, it is often left open, while the excavated, nutrient-poor clay blankets the rich riverside soil and renders the land unusable for cultivation.
Rivers become as unproductive as the land. Sousa said that many, if not most, streams in the area were cloudy with sediment churned up by mining activity. The water is undrinkable: the last test for mercury, which the garimpeiros use to leach out gold, showed water toxicity well above the threshold considered dangerous.
Sousa was also worried about the hydroelectric operations of the nearby Chicamba dam. If panning continues at its present rate, sediment could collect in the reservoir, reducing its capacity to generate electricity.
The Zimbabwean influx
The history of gold production in Mozambique has been erratic. Locals have been extracting the precious metal from Manica's mountains and rivers since precolonial times. During Portuguese colonial rule, international mining companies set up formal operations, but abandoned Manica when Portugal began to lose control of Mozambique.
Gold activity did not resume again in earnest until the mid-1990s, after the country's 16-year civil war, but by decade's end the gold price had dropped, shutting down the few small enterprises that had sprouted around Manica town.
A buoyant gold price of just under US$700 has again made gold mining an alluring option. Miners left unemployed by the exiting mining concerns knew where to find the gold and how to extract it. Beginning in 2001 and 2002, Zimbabweans crossed the border in droves as their country's economic meltdown began, joining those already at work along rivers that flow through the province.
Earning just a dollar or two a day digging for gold is still worth the trouble when the alternative is earning nothing at all.
Clayton Mugumi, 27, sold bananas on the streets of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, before joining his brother in Manica last year to pan for gold. He averages about $2 to $3 a day, roughly what he spends. "I have no future," he said, "so I work for money just to get me through the day." Mugumi once found a five-gram nugget worth about $75. "But that was last year."
The Zimbabweans in Manica lack family networks to care for them when something goes wrong. "They get sick, but they don't have assistance," Francisco Manuel, the community police officer at Machamba Samanhika told IRIN. "We have to take them to the hospital. They come back, but they can't work because they're still sick."
Technically, all garimpeiro activity is illegal. But unlike in Zimbabwe, where the government has cracked down on gold panners, the Manica authorities have opted for a more practical, laissez faire approach. "We can't use force to stop it because it's a way of sustaining families," said the governor of Manica province, Raimundo Diomba.
The government's law-enforcement capabilities are also limited: there are only four monitors attached to the mining resources department, and funds are in short supply. "The problem isn't trucks, we have those," Sousa said. "The problem is gasoline."
Instead of locking up the garimpeiros, the government is attempting to formalise their activities. One way is by encouraging mining companies to set up operations again. Another approach is to promote the creation of workers' associations, which could regulate the behaviour of members, collect subscriptions, and provide for members when they suffer injuries or sickness.
As an enticement to join, the government offers panning equipment. People stay in the association, said Diomba, because they see immediate benefits as production improves and drinking water clears up. Not only does the province benefit from having better environmental conditions at the mining sites, but the government can collect taxes as well.
According to government officials, about 4,000 garimpeiros are split among six associations, with several others in formation. But connecting with the gold panners is becoming more difficult; chasing after new gold strikes, they are settling further away, beyond the reach of the authorities, in more remote places.
The Chimanimani Mountains lie on the border between Mozambique and Zimbabwe, adjoining the Chimanimani National Park in Zimbabwe, with most of the range situated in Mozambique. The mountains, which straddle the Zimbabwe border, are a national park, where government officials say gold panning cannot be tolerated under any circumstances, yet thousands of garimpeiros are said to be camped there.
Enhancements are modest even at the encampments with organised associations. At Tsetsserra, a two-hour drive from Chimoio, the provincial capital of Manica, the remoteness and the terrain make the need for some kind of formalised framework even greater than along the Revue River.
At a mountain mine with a workers' association of about 250 members, instead of digging shafts, the miners remove large shoulders of mountainside, creating giant craters. "We have gold, but it's very deep," explains Tomas Joao Machigeya, the association's elected chief, demonstrating with a sharp downward thrust of his hand.
By providing the workers with shovels and other equipment, Sousa was able to convince the garimpeiros to repack some of the earth near the road. This has helped ensure that the road did not collapse, cutting off the encampment from the rest of the province. He also persuaded them to build pools to collect the mercury used in the gold mining process and prevent it from reaching sources of drinking water.
One of the encampment's principal entertainments is the weekly truckload of prostitutes from Chimoio. They arrive on a Thursday because the following day, Friday, is a mandated day of rest, when miners are prohibited from carving away the mountain.