Sun, Nov 11, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Soil hunters are ruining habitable Zimbabwe land

By Jeffrey Moyo  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, HARARE

At a makeshift Pentecostal church in one of Harare’s poorer western suburbs, dozens of congregants danced during a Sunday service, their hymns echoing off the corrugated iron roof.

However, close by — so close, in fact, that some of the roof’s support posts are teetering — was a 4m-deep pit.

Its existence in the suburb of Warren Park is a testament to unceasing digging in and around Zimbabwe’s capital by soil hunters, the fly-by-nighters who whisk away earth for sale to the construction industry.

As the pits and gullies creep closer, local resident Hector Chiwonde, 59, was worried.

“My land here, where my home stands, will soon be swallowed up by these people digging. Already land that was good enough for building more homes or other community facilities has been destroyed,” he said.

Denford Ngadziore, a local councilor with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which controls most of Zimbabwe’s urban councils, blamed the problem on high unemployment.

The International Labour Organization said Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate was 11.3 percent as of 2014.

However, experts have said the real figure is significantly higher.

“People have no jobs, and there is money in soil digging,” Ngadziore said, adding that 16 million tonnes of soil was dug up in Harare Province alone from 2016 to the middle of this year.

The irony is not lost on Ngadziore that many of the homes built over the years in his ward, which is adjacent to Warren Park, used soil taken from there.

“With the huge pits now forming in several places across towns and cities ... I should guess millions of tonnes of soil have been taken off from habitable land countrywide,” he said.

A stone’s throw from Chiwonde’s home, a security guard manning the local authority’s 4 million liter water tank premises smiled as he pocketed cash from people in trucks and pickups taking soil.

“If I don’t befriend these people, how will I survive from my small wage?” said the guard, who refused to give his name for fear of losing his job.

Nearby, policeman Admire Manenji was waving down trucks carrying soil to check their permission papers.

“There is corruption in the council offices, and that’s why you see this land being sliced away,” he said, adding that some operators paid off council officials to ensure safe passage.

“They will be armed with signed documents purporting to be coming from my bosses to permit them in to dig the soils,” he said, but added: “They carry no receipts of the said payments.”

It is not just residents of Warren Park who are concerned.

Ibrahim Omar, a developer, said the stealing of land was a serious problem.

“If government doesn’t take action to end [it] ... we will soon run out of land to develop homes to accommodate growing urban populations,” he said.

Omar said more than 200 hectares of land he was set to develop had been excavated, leaving him unable to build homes.

For his part, soil trader Dickson Mhope pointed out that the trade was legal and brought important benefits.

“We do what we do with the blessing of local authorities,” he said, adding that his workers do not simply dig anywhere, and that his business generates revenue for the local government.

It is by all accounts a lucrative trade: 53-year-old Eric Murambwi, who is based in Gweru, a city 225km southwest of Harare, said he earned US$350 per day by selling 3 tonnes of soil.

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