Mercury, a slow poison eating away Penhalonga

By Fitzgerald Munyoro

“I can no longer afford my medical bills and medication. This environment has poisoned me, if I had the money I would go back to Malawi where I was born and die there,” laments 58-year-old Penhalonga resident John Phiri (not real name).

Phiri is a casualty of the environmental wear and tear that has ransacked the mining town of Penhalonga in Manicaland due to unregulated artisanal mining activities.

While in conversation with this reporter, his huffing and puffing manner of speech is easily noticeable.

However, this is by neither design nor choice.

For the past 15 years, a number of respiratory illnesses have plagued the Malawian-born Phiri.

Numerous diagnoses by medical professionals have detected high amounts of mercury in his body.

Mercury is a staple ingredient in gold extraction processes by artisanal miners but for Phiri and other Penhalonga residents, it is proving to be an environmental and biological bane.

Various inquisitions made by this reporter have shown that the discovery of gold deposits in Penhalonga followed by the collapse of Redwing Mine has led to artisanal miners popularly known as ‘makorokoza’ besieging the gold-rich town.

The Penhalonga ‘gold rush’ has brought with it a plethora of problems; chief among them is the use of mercury, a substance that is vital in the extraction of gold from ore. 

Though its use is still rampant in small-scale and artisanal mining, mercury is a legally banned substance in gold mining processes.

This is due to the lethal hazards it poses to, not only the green environment but human life as well.

Its use in gold mining in Penhalonga was brought to light recently by a conglomerate of community-based organizations (CBOs) that were seeking government policy and legal interventions on the situation in Penhalonga.

The conglomerate comprised of Center for Research and Development (CRD), Penhalonga Youth Development Trust (PYDT), Zivai Community Empowerment Trust (ZICET) and Penhalonga Ratepayers and Residents Trust (PRRT) among others.

CRD Director James Mupfumi implored the government to show good faith in governing the mining sector by flagging harmful mining practices.

“We demand the government to adhere to the principles of good governance such as the rule of law by enforcing the suspension of hazardous mining activities and recommend best practices and due diligence that are sustainable,” said Mupfumi.

PRRT chairperson Weston Makoni said it is urgent that relevant authorities should take decisive measures in safeguarding the environment from further plunder caused by artisanal mining.

“Everywhere you go they are pits and one wonders how they can be rehabilitated. Natural vegetation has been devastated, rivers are heavily silted and mercury is being used everywhere, this will pose a big problem in the future,” said Makoni.

Makoni’s concerns were also echoed by Kundai Ngwena, an award-winning independent researcher in the fields of mining and agriculture focusing on promoting green economies in Africa.

Ngwena expressed his distress over the continued use of mercury.

“Mercury is the cheaper way of separating gold from the ore on a small scale hence most small miners go for that reagent. However, the country signed and ratified the Minamata Convention on Mecury which bans the use of mercury in gold mining,” she said.

She further called upon small-scale miners to do away with old and dangerous methods such as the use of mercury and instead, embrace new technologies.

“The use of mercury has proved to be a tradition that is being passed from generation to generation. However, it is high time that we are led by science more rather than tradition.”

Efforts to ascertain what measures were being put in place to enforce compliance on the non-use of mercury were in vain as Environmental Management Agency (EMA) manager Kingston Chitotombe gave no response to the reporters’ questions.

However, by the time of publication, EMA had halted all mining operations by Better brands Co, the company currently mining in Penhalonga.

This follows reports of a number of mining-related deaths, with the latest casualty being a 16-year-old boy who reportedly died through asphyxiation.

Though the move is welcome, some fear that this might exacerbate unregulated small-scale mining activities.

Various medical studies have shown that continuous exposure of mercury to human beings damages major body systems such as the nervous system, respiratory system, liver and kidneys.

Furthermore, mercury vapours, which become airborne aerosols, are inhaled in the process and direct exposure will cause damage to the skin.

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