A new threat to an African mountain system

Chimanimani Mountains. Photo credit: Dr Ralph Clark

Chimanimani Mountains. Photo credit: Dr Ralph Clark

The southern African mountain research and NGO fraternity have just learned of a potential new threat to the Chimanimani National Park in Zimbabwe. A very small notice appeared in the Zimbabwe Financial Gazette on the 17 July 2017 saying that the Zimbabwean government is planning to ‘release one million hectares’ of protected land to small-scale gold miners across the country to boost production, issued by the Mines and Development Deputy Minister, Mr Fred Moyo.  The land is apparently to be ‘released soon’.  The statement states that once protected areas are de-proclaimed, miners can ‘rush in and peg out their claims in the normal way that people do’.  This means that where will be no environmental impact assessments, no planning for sustainable mining and that hundreds of destitute people will rush in and begin digging everywhere, hoping to strike it rich. What is very alarming is that miners who register with the government will apparently then be able to access finance for further mining activities. Of course, the trees will go for firewood and wildlife will be poached out shortly afterwards. Any endangered species, like the newly rediscovered rare Cave Squeaker (see below), will vanish.

If this action to de-proclaim is true, the severe negative implications around sustainable mountain catchments, trans-boundary relationships with Mozambique, viable eco-tourism, general border security, conservation of endemic species and increased risks from alien species invasion cannot be over-emphasised. The Zimbabwean government’s decision in this regard could also affect other protected areas in the Manica Highlands, inter alia various botanical and nature reserves, Nyanga National Park, Vumba Botanical Gardens and others, with implications for both biodiversity conservation and tourism. This is also about cultural values, and local chiefs from the area are keen to come to Harare to express their anger at the desecration of this cultural heritage site.

Chimanimani gold rush

The Chimanimani area between Zimbabwe and Mozambique is a unique area for its mountain biodiversity. Photo credit: Dr Ralph Clark

The Chimanimani area between Zimbabwe and Mozambique is a unique area for its mountain biodiversity. Photo credit: Dr Ralph Clark

The Chimanimani area between Zimbabwe and Mozambique is a unique area for its mountain biodiversity and also forms part of a transfrontier park between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Already a site for uncontrolled, informal ‘artisanal’ gold mining, it is extremely concerning that de-proclamation is being contemplated the purposes of formalising and opening up this and other protected areas to government-supported mining. The move should also be of concern to Mozambican villagers and the Mozambican government that illegal mining and destruction of wetlands, peat beds and rivers in Chimanimani could seriously impact on the river flows through the central part of Mozambique.

It is now well-known that artisanal gold mining has become a huge ecological threat to many areas in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, with a deadly cost to both miners (no mining health and safety protection for them) and the natural environment. We are talking about very desperate, ragged people seeking any way they can to make a living – and artisanal mining is one such last-ditch method. This is an extreme example of where the state has failure to provide a legitimate economy where people can find decent work. The types of hazards and exploitation that artisanal miners in African experience in general means that this type of work only attracts the very destitute and desperate. Poaching also increases in an area where artisanal miners at work – well, how else would they feed themselves if not helping themselves to what they can find. The statement below is indicative of the dire situation:

Displaced from farm work and spurred by Zimbabwe’s economy and an astronomical annual inflation rate of 231 million per cent, hundreds of thousands of desperately poor people have ventured into illegal mining, leaving a trail of environmental destruction that is alarming farmers, environmentalists, and traditional leaders (Mambondiyani 2008).

 

Illegal mining leaves a trail of environmental destruction. Photo source: The Zimbabwe Daily

Illegal mining leaves a trail of environmental destruction. Photo source: The Zimbabwe Daily

In the mid-2000s, gold was discovered in the alluvial river sands in the upland grasslands of the Chimanimani mountain area, especially along the large broad Mufomodzi valley in Mozambique. Soon there was a mini-gold rush with around 10 000 small-scale miners coming from both countries, living in caves and makeshift tents up on the exposed plateau. As the National Parks authorities in Zimbabwe continually harassed the miners on the Zimbabwe side of the border, most illegal miners operated on the Mozambique side. Large stretches of stream banks and river beds were dug up to the point where the damage became visible on Google Earth. Many of the scarce trees were cut for firewood and a network of paths ran across the whole area (Timberlake, n.d.). The yield of gold is supposedly worth around 32 million USD per annum, accruing to the artisanal (illegal) miners.  Initially, the Zimbabwean Provincial Government was concerned about environmental and socio-economic effects, such as pollutions of rivers, destruction of vegetation and soil – so developments by national government to de-proclaim the national park comes as a shock. Potential options to the authorities are to either increase efforts for withdrawing the miners from the protected area or regulating their activities so that the environmental damage as well as the negative socio-economic consequences are minimized.

The greater Manica Highlands region

The greater Manica Highlands region, the location of the Chimanimani Mountains, has over 250 endemic plant species, of which some 70 are endemic to Chimanimani alone. There are also a large number of endemic fauna along with the typical ecosystems goods and services provided by montane areas, specifically water. The Chimanimani Mountains are a small and rugged mountain range forming part of the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique in south-central Africa and cover an area of around 1000 km2. The Chimanimani mountains comprise peaks of ancient sandstone and quartzite interspersed with broad smooth grassy valleys containing small crystal-clear rivers. Mount Binga is the highest point of the region. The Chimanimani National Park is a flagship montane protected area in Zimbabwe.

The Chimanimani Trans-Frontier Conservation Area (TFCA) includes the Chimanimani National Reserve in Mozambique and the Chimanimani National Park in Zimbabwe and is almost 2500 km2 in extent. The Chimanimani National Reserve (RNC) is located in the district of Sussundenga in Central Mozambique along the border with Zimbabwe. It is an area of 1756 km2 and includes the Chimanimani mountain range. The Chimanimani National Reserve is internationally renowned for its high biodiversity and for its endemic species of fauna and flora. The highlands are also an important water catchment area for the Lucite River. With support from the World Bank, the Mozambican Government is implementing the Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCA) and Sustainable Tourism Development project (TFCA), with a total value of 34 million USD and of which 2.8 million USD  are earmarked for the Chimanimani TFCA project (Ndunguru et al, 2006) .

Unique mountain biodiversity

The cave squeaker is listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

The cave squeaker is listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Dr Rob Hopkins, a frog biologist working at the Natural History Museum in Bulawayo in the herpetology department, led a recent mission to re-discover a long missing frog, Arthroleptis troglodytes (Cave squeaker) found by Dr Don Broadley in 1962 and not recorded since. Dr Hopkins and Dr Broadley had attempted re-location on some four occasions without success, indicating how rare and localised this frog species is. It goes without saying that these animals are highly endangered and have been listed as such in the red data book. The cave squeaker is unique as a frog and undergoes direct development, forgoing existence as a tadpole and hatching directly as miniature adults. The embryo develops into a tadpole and subsequently into an adult frog before hatching. The eggs must still be laid in a damp location, however. This ability frees the cave squeaker from dependence on bodies of water for reproduction. The cave squeaker is listed as critically endangered in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because its extent of occurrence is less than 100 km2 and its area of occupancy is less than 10 km2, all individuals are in a single location, and a continuing decline in the number of mature individuals may occur, due to climate change (and other unidentified threats). The intended de-proclamation action will cause this species to go extinct.

Dr Hopkins has noted with concern the drastic increase in mining on the Bundi river over the last five years (source).

References

Ndunguru E., Dondeyne S. and Mulaboa J. 2006. Illegal gold mining in the Chimanimani National Reserve: environmental and socio-economic assessment.

Mambondiyani A 2008. Zimbabwe’s Desperate Miners Ravage the Land

Timberlake J (n.d.). Mountain Gold ‒ Conservation in the Chimanimani Mountains, Mozambique. Birdlife International.