THIRTY-SEVEN-YEAR-OLD Berita Nyoni of Ward 16 Ngamo area in Vungu Rural District Council wakes up on Friday morning with no food to give to her three children.
Worried that her kids might starve, she grabs a shovel and a bucket and heads to Ngamo River, where she joins a group of 40 women already busy at work.
The women are trying to eke a living from sand poaching. The work is not easy.
Nyoni has to scoop sand from the river and deposit it to the (river) bank. From the river bank she uses a 20-litre bucket to load it 10 metres away from the stream where truckers collect it.
“This is heavy work, but I have no choice as I need to feed my three little kids,” an ashen-faced Nyoni said.
A sand heap of about 30x20lt buckets is sold for between $30 and $40.
Sand buyers, who use lorries and other heavy trucks take it to Gweru town, where there is a ready market resulting from mushrooming buildings from residential land developers.
For Nyoni sand poaching has enabled her to buy food as well as send her children to school.
Rains in the Midlands, like other provinces of the country, ended prematurely and most of the crops are a write-off.
Ngamo in Gweru peri-urban area is suffering from the poor rainy season.
“Our crops wilted from this season’s erratic rains and so we don’t expect to harvest anything,” Nyoni said during a recent media tour organised by the Environmental Management Agency (EMA).
“So we should devise ways to survive and sand poaching is our only option.”
Though the women operate illegally, EMA officials said they were helping to prevent siltation in Ngamo River, as the sand could be washed back into the river if left uncollected.
EMA, however, said when villagers go inland to extract river and pit sand as well stones without licences, they leave serious environmental degradation.
EMA provincial information and publicity officer Timothy Nyoka said they had headaches because of illegal sand diggers, particularly in the Gweru peri-urban area.
“There is a proliferation of sand poachers in this area (Ngamo) and they have left land heavily degraded,” he said.
“It is difficult to arrest them, as they come in the dead of the night in heavy trucks and dig for pit sand and stones.”
Ngamo area is now full of dongas as a result of environmental degradation from sand poaching.
“We only have 27 registered sites in Gweru, where sand extraction is carried out, otherwise the rest operate illegally with no environmental plans to reclaim the land they would have dug,” Nyoka said.
He said EMA was investigating a case on the outskirts of Mkoba suburb, where a child drowned in the pits left by sand poachers.
Most farmers resettled in the area have joined in sand excavation – though legally – as they try to survive the harsh economic conditions.
Unlike sand poachers, farmers have environmental plans to rehabilitate the land.
Environmental experts, however, say the reclaimed land could never be restored to its original state.
“I realised that it was better to venture into sand extraction and do business instead of losing out to illegal operators,” Kesari Chidanhika, a farmer at Plot 65 said.
“We don’t expect much from the fields, as the crops have wilted from erratic rains and sand extraction is one way we realised we could make a living from.”
Another farmer at Plot 55, Martha Mugaviri, said she did not get inputs in the last farming season and sand extraction was a better alternative for her to earn a living.
Mugaviri, a widow, said besides the unpredictable rains, the soil in her plot was sandy and not suitable for cultivation.
“It is better that I venture into this business (sand extraction) so that I can improve both my homestead and fields,” she said.
Though Vungu rural council has by-laws that govern and protect the use of land under its jurisdiction, it appears it is incapacitated to ensure these laws are adhered to.