CEMETERIES are generally regarded as sacred — sites that people only visit to bury the deceased, lay wreaths in memory of the dead and in some cases visit the graves of their long departed relatives.
Some, particularly the superstitious, see them as ghostly sites that should be avoided at all costs.
As per the local traditional custom, many Zimbabweans, like many other human beings, revere the dead and this is shown by the general respect shown for burial grounds.
But a visit to Granville Cemetery, popularly known as Kumbudzi in Harare, paints a heart-rending picture. The sight of sand poachers digging up trenches a few metres from the cemetery is disturbing.
The area in the vicinity of the cemetery, which is adjacent to Amsterdam high-density suburb along Masvingo road, has been besieged by sand poachers.
The diggers have actually encroached into areas reserved for burial purposes at Granville Cemetery. Now a deep crater is eating into the graveyard, raising fears that the sand poachers will end up exhuming bodies at the cemetery — a horrifying prospect.
It is apparent that the sand poachers only care about maximising profits and not the effect of their activities on the environment and the dead.
Besides threats to the graveyard, the unorthodox means of extraction of sand has resulted in thousands of acres of land being destroyed in the Harare metropolitan province.
“Tichazviona zvaitika, (We will see when it happens), as of now it is about survival,” said Brian Soko, a sand poacher near Granville Cemetery, referring to the possibility of exhuming bodies. “I have a family to look after and it is only through this that I can sustain a living.”
He has been in the business for five years.
As hope of a quick economic turnaround under the Zanu PF government appears to be fading with more companies retrenching and closing downand poverty continuing to escalate, environmental problems are also worsening.
Some hard-pressed retrenched and redundant workers, who join the estimated 80% unemployed Zimbabweans every month, are turning to sand poaching as a source of livelihood, hence degrading the environment.
Despite the imposition of hefty fines by the Environmental Management Authority (Ema), sand poachers are tearing up Zimbabwe’s countryside leaving behind a trail of degradation and destruction.
Ema imposes between US$20 and US$5 000 in fines for sand poaching and other forms of environmental degradation.
Sand is being extracted in the country’s rivers as well as in other sandy areas for construction purposes. In some areas like Amsterdam, deep pits are dug to clear the top clay soil resulting in the formation of deep, dangerous craters and gullies.
The sand poachers are slowly turning fields and forests into unsightly craters and gullies and choking rivers with siltation.
Said Soko: “Zimbabwe does not have a warehouse which sells sand.
Every construction company has to look for its own sand from us so it is a brisk business which is growing in leaps and bounds due to the increased demand for housing in urban areas.”
Ramshackle trucks without valid number plates can be seen carrying the loot to construction sites in surrounding areas.
In Chitungwiza, forests and fields have been turned into deep gullies and gorges.
In an interview with the Zimbabwe Independent, Ema spokesperson Steady Kangata said his association is taking serious measures to apprehend culprits including imposing hefty fines to deter perpetrators.
“In as much as we appreciate the need for infrastructural development, Ema is taking stern measures for those found guilty of sand extraction,” Kangata said.
“Anyone who wants to engage in commercial sand extraction should obtain an operation licence from Ema. We assess their capacity to rehabilitate the land after operation before we can issue a licence.”
Ema also said local authorities were supposed to make use of environmental management plans to manage land where sand is extracted.
“Sand poaching is posing a serious threat to the environment as the poachers leave pits uncovered leading to the formation of gullies,” Kangata said.
Environmentalist Simon Bere, who is the national director of the technical issues at the Institute of Waste Management, said Ema should enforce its regulations to stop environmental degradation.
“Ema is a regulatory authority so it has to enforce all the rules so that perpetrators are brought to book,” Bere said. “We also need to investigate whether the fines are deterrent enough to scare the would-be perpetrators.”
Sand poaching has spread to Chitungwiza, Epworth, Kuwadzana and Caledonia. Rural areas have also not been spared as brick moulding has become lucrative business which attracts urban dwellers opting for the cheap and well-moulded farm bricks instead of the concrete ones.
“New challenges require new tactics and we had to team up so that we mould bricks for sale in the surrounding areas such as Bindura, Glendale and Chiweshe,” said Brian Chimututu who is leading a team of eight in a brick moulding venture in Mashonaland Central.
“I was a truck driver at one of the big companies, which closed shop in Harare last year and this new job is sustaining my livelihood,” he said.
Chimututu said clients from as far as Bindura, Mvurwi and Mazowe come to buy bricks on weekly basis because construction in the surrounding farms is at its peak during this period ahead of the rainy season.
“A thousand bricks cost US$40 and people buy truckloads every week,” he said. “We do not incur any costs because we use water from the wells, firewood to burn the bricks and obviously we get the clay from the veld.”
A random survey by the Independent showed that solid common bricks cost an average US$170 per 1 000, while hardburn bricks cost US$200 per 1 000.
While Chimututu and his colleagues are trying to eke out a living at whatever cost, they are leaving gullies and craters as deep as swimming pools, severely damaging the environment.
Harare Residents Trust director Precious Shumba blamed local authorities for allowing sand poaching to get out of hand.
“This is a manifestation of a system that has been allowed to get out of control by the local authorities,” Shumba said.
“This is the evidence of a collapsed system at local authority level due to a weak regulatory framework. Basic monitoring and environmental regulations are not followed.”
He also said the myriad economic and social problems in Zimbabwe mean people are becoming increasingly desperate.
“There is a serious challenge to sort this out because of the multiplicity of problems facing the communities.”
With more than 4 600 workers having been retrenched in the first half of the year with a possible 1 000 more to be laid off by the end of August, local economist Godfrey Kanyenze, director of Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, said all the affected people are bound to join the ever-growing bandwagon of the informalised institution which operates without a proper regulatory framework, which makes it impossible for the government to hold them accountable for taxes and levies.