MUTARE, Zimbabwe, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Cynthia Dzimbati was exhausted. Her three-month-old baby strapped to her back and panning dish in hand, she had spent the whole day working the Mutare River for not one single ounce of gold.
“This is now my life. I lost my job,” said the 31-year old single mother, looking so worn out she could easily have passed for 50. “I have three children to feed.”
Dzimbati poured a few drops of mercury into a bowl of dirty water and stirred it with her bare hands.
The gold in the river is growing more scarce these days, she said, so the illegal artisanal miners are relying on mercury, a highly toxic substance supplied by the smugglers who buy their product, to trap the precious metal from the muddy river waters in the eastern borders of Zimbabwe.
Public health and environmental experts say the consequences are disastrous. Mercury is contaminating drinking water for miles around and causing neurological damage, especially to children.
But Dzimbati and the roughly half a million illegal small-scale miners that a mining council estimates operate in Zimbabwe are desperate. Many agricultural jobs disappeared under President Robert Mugabe’s land reform program launched in 2000 and the job market is shrinking.
Pushed to the brink, women and children have joined the ranks of what once was a male domain, Wellington Takavarasha, president of the Zimbabwe Artisanal and Small-Scale for Sustainable Mining Council, told parliament in April. There are about 153,000 women and children now in the trade, he said.
But gold prices have declined worldwide in recent years, and at the same time extracting the precious metal from the Mutare River has become harder.
The mercury that miners use slowly attacks the nervous system. Ingested in small quantities each day it will accumulate in the body and eventually produce symptoms such as hair loss, memory impairment and loss of muscle coordination, according to health experts.
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