Zimbabwe villagers abandon land to dig for gold

CHINHOYI -- Deep in the bowels of the earth, Rambai Mabayo, ferociously throws the pickaxe into the ground.
There is a dogged persistence and determination in the manner he goes about his business, heavy drops of sweat trickling on his cheeks.

As he continues deeper into the gaping hole, Mabayo seems oblivious of the danger that the mine could simply cave in and bury him alive. Gradually, Mabayo presses on.

Two of his colleagues are however keeping an eye on the road, fully aware that the police could pounce and seize their hard day's work.

Here in Chikuti, 80km north-west of the provincial capital of Chinhoyi, hundreds of villagers who benefited from President Robert Mugabe's land allocation programme five years ago have abandoned their fertile pieces of land to concentrate on gold panning.

They say not only are the rewards immediate, but are also immense.

Mabayo, however says ever since he embarked on gold panning, he has never had peace from the police's Gold Squad who normally pounce and seize their gold accusing them of selling the gold to unlicensed dealers.

"I spent some days in the mountains after the police threatened to arrest us. The police confiscated our shovels and wheelbarrow. It's tough because we have to deal with this threat of arrest from the police," he says.

Under Zimbabwe's laws, gold panners must sell the commodity to licensed dealers at Z$700 000 per gram. But most of the panners sell to unlicensed dealers, who pay a staggering Z$1 200 000 for the same quantity of gold.

The Zimbabwe government, which is battling a severe five year economic crisis which has seen inflation shooting beyond 400 percent, blames the illegal trade in precious minerals, among other things, for triggering the country's economic collapse.

Food, fuel, essential medicines are also in critical short supply because there is no hard cash to pay suppliers.

The police also accuse the gold panners of damaging the environment through uncontrolled river bank panning.

But apart from these legitimate "concerns", the villagers accuse the corrupt police officers of seizing their gold and selling it on the parallel market, fuelling rampant inflation.

President Robert Mugabe's ministers and several police officers have been accused in the past of unlawfully dealing in gold and other precious minerals.

Last month, a senior government official was accused in court of unlawfully dressing 20 private security guards in police uniform and sending them to evict illegal gold panners from their panning site which he then took over.

Another villager, Fibion Maramba, says he also spent two nights in the bush as the police camped at their panning site and combed the area of gold panners.

"What crime have we committed since Gono (Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor) has allowed us to operate?" asks Maramba.

But Mashonaland West police spokesperson Inspector Paul Nyathi says there is nothing sinister about the police operation. He said the police will continue to carry out such raids to monitor the sales of gold.

"We have to see to it that gold is sold to the authorised dealers because some buyers do not forward it to Fidelity," says Nyathi.