PICTURESQUE hills, streams and valleys laden with a variety of towering tree species reveal the outstanding beauty for an otherwise dry outback called Bikita district in Masvingo province.
A snapshot of the slopes of the district’s Hozvi Mountains is memorable.
But the idyllic atmosphere in the district’s natural gem has been poisoned by ructions between villagers and Bikita Minerals, a mine that is devouring the charming panorama into a wasteland as it extracts lithium.
Investigations by the Financial Gazette suggest that the tension in the areas could be worse than imagined and the closure of the mine, if operations are found to be violating environmental laws, could spell doom for one of the country’s biggest hopes for economic recovery.
In 2013, government identified lithium as one of the key resources that, if exploited properly, had the potential to help turn around the country’s ailing economy.
Lithium is a soft, silver-white metal belonging to the alkali light metal group of chemical elements from which a number of commercially-rich minerals such as spodumene are found. Spodumene is found in lithium-rich igneous rocks, in association with other lithium minerals such as lepidolite, eucryptite, petalite and tantalite.
Other lithium extracts have medicinal value and have been mined there for over 60 years, but it is the recent discovery of petalite and tantalite that has triggered unprecedented mining and exploration activities in the area.
It is estimated that over 11 million tonnes of petalite, a fundamental ingredient used to make today’s technologies like batteries, laptops, cellphones and other electrical gadgets, among many other things, exists in Bikita, making it the largest known such deposit in the world.
Production at peak was about 50 000 tonnes per annum.
Australia, Canada, China, Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Portugal, Spain and Argentina are the only other countries in the world blessed with this very rare precious metal.
The discovery of petalite lured a German investor who acquired a significant stake in the mine and immediately went on a massive extraction spree with very little regard to the environment.
While the investment saved the company from imminent collapse, turning its fortunes around, the new mining adventures have angered the local community, which alleges that it is losing fertile agricultural land and has to cope with a severely damaged environment.
The community is accusing management and the mine of failing to comply with the Mines and Minerals Act on environmental issues.
They say they have been without clean water for the last two years because rivers were being polluted by discharge of potentially toxic chemicals.
Several villages that have lived around these hills for generations and have had no significant problems since the mine started operating, over 60 years ago, now suddenly find themselves having to defend their territory.
Rural settlements rarely shift positions, but one particular village, Ndoruma, which is closest to the mine, is relocating to avoid being swallowed up into the earth.
The mine uses all existing mining methods in its search for the minerals, from open shafts, deep and running tunnels, to mountain top removal.
During its visit, the Financial Gazette witnessed the enormous scale of environmental degradation and spoke to villagers and traditional leaders who had no kind words for the mine operators.
A range of artificial hills formed by mine dumps of quarry dust are replacing the original landscape that now has very little vegetation growing. Patches of grass and low bush break the now barren-looking landscape.
Hills are being ravaged mercilessly for what they carry and some of the hills have been completely halved, with the miners still eating into them. And where they once stood huge craters are emerging.
Debris is pushed in huge quantities to the valley below, burying trees and other vegetation while tainting water in streams that feed into Rozva River from which villagers draw water for domestic use, gardening and for their livestock.
Villagers here spoke of their bitter co-existence with the mine which, far from being a blessing, has become a curse.
But the mine seems to have somehow won the support of local politicians and other community leaders who reportedly brand anyone opposing its activities a supporter of the Morgan Tsvangirai-led Movement for Democratic Change party, an abomination for which one can pay dearly.
There is no middle ground or alternative: You either support the mine or you don’t, and you hate those on the other side as wealth and the lust for money corrodes the once closely-knit community.
As toxic chemicals used in mining and the massive land degradation increase, so has the hatred and tensions that have developed between people who support the mining project and those that oppose it.
“It’s a dreadful situation for us here,” said an old man in his late 60s whom the Financial Gazette sat down with as he herded cattle in the bushes adjacent to the mine on Boxing Day a few days ago.
He starkly refused to identify himself, saying his statements could have serious consequences.
“Either the mine must stop digging, creating mass unemployment, or else the land faces certain destruction.
“There is a serious problem here,” said the man who claimed to be a former school teacher who retired to his village in the hope of living a peaceful life after after his teaching career.
But that peace seems to be eluding him as he indicated that for the past few years, relations between community members have become tense.
“Just spend a day or two talking to folks in the villages. People no longer greet each other on the way, an unthinkable thing in an African rural community. People have taken side in this dispute. The stress is evident in people’s lives,” he said, as he kept casting an eagle eye on the cattle, which could stray into the prohibited areas.
Last year, the villagers, tired of being marginalised and benefitting little from the mine, descended on the mines’ claims and started digging around for the tantalite, which is the easiest of all lithium minerals being extracted in the area.
In equal measure, riot police stormed the area, arresting at least 70 of the impoverished villagers who thought they could now escape from the poverty and hunger that characterises this drought prone region. The rest were all driven out.
The fear was that the villagers would cause damage on, ironically, the same environment that the mine is currently degrading, on an even larger scale.
The villagers are losing livestock that are falling into the deep gullies dug by the mine, which has not fenced off its claims as required by the law.
They say mine workers have also been cruel to the villagers by axing cattle that stray into the mine compound to feed on their vegetables.
Munyaradzi Rutunga (44) said: “I lost two of my cattle recently when they fell into the gullies. The mine owners said they were not responsible for the loss and will not entertain any complaints.
Some people in our village have had their cattle axed when they stray into the mine compound.
“We hope someone does something about this situation before it’s too late.”
The mine has also reportedly employed militant security officers who harass every villager that finds himself or herself within its unmarked boundaries.
For years, villagers have relied on gathering fine dust commonly referred to as vim or scouring powder from the dumpsites for sale to motorists along the Masvingo-Nyika highway.
The fine dust, a residue thrown away after the extraction of the precious minerals, is used to clean kitchen utensils and is popular in almost all homesteads around the country.
But now, since the new management took over the mine, villagers say, they have been limited to just one 50kg bag per week, far below their usual collection.
The dumpsites, too, have been declared a no go area and have been sealed off and manned by uncompromising security personnel under instruction to mete out instant justice.
Gathering and selling the scouring dust is what carried orphaned 15-year-old Mathias Bhasera through his late primary schooling up to Form Three, his current level.
He now faces a bleak future because the mine won’t allow him to sell as much as he requires to keep him in school.
He attracted the Financial Gazette’s attention by outpacing other traders who include old women and small children racing towards the car hoping for a quick sale.
“I have relied on this for some time now. I sell during holidays, in-between schooling days and on weekends to raise school fees. I am doing quite well in school, but I am afraid I might fail to proceed as far as I desire if the mine does not relax its rules because business is very bad these days,” he said, gazing at his school just across the road.
One woman who overheard the conversation shouted: “Zvinhu zvaoma muno mukwasha. Hatichazvivi kuti school fees dzevana todziwanepi. Haichisiri Bikita Minerals yedu yekare iyi, (Things are now hard here my son. Now we don’t know where we will get school fees for our children. This is not the same old Bikita Minerals).”
Her colleagues burst into a chorus of grumbles.
The Financial Gazette crew came face to face with the intolerance of the mine’s security guards when it attempted on an investigative sojourn into the rugged and defaced landscape. The guards leapt in front of the car and threatened to arrest the crew for trespassing.
They were not prepared to listen to any explanations and gave stern orders for us to quickly leave the area.
The only option was to abort the adventure.
Other villagers in Ndoruma village also alleged that sometime in 2014, they had running battles with the mine officials who set their huts alight claiming that they had settled on their claims until they sent complaints to the Ministry of Lands and Resettlement, which then ruled in their favour.
The mine never assisted in rebuilding the huts they had razed down.
Unsurprisingly, mine executives, including its general manager, Grant Hudson who operates from his South African base, were not available for comment.
A man who entertained this reporter on conditions that he was not named said: “In any mine setting, there are bound to be complaints and allegations of this and that. This is not new. We are doing our best to revive the mine. In fact we have successfully revived the mine and it is booming. This is good for the economy.”
He then declined to discuss any further.
Hudson is said to be the only person authorised to officially speak to the press on behalf of the mine.
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