Monday, 27 January 2014

Zimbabwe’s gold rush: livelihoods for the poor or a patronage economy, or both?

One of the features of the post 2000 economy in Zimbabwe has been the growth in small-scale artisanal gold mining. This is sometimes registered with the ministry, but very often not, and remains informal and illegal. The small-scale panners, makorokoza, can be found in very large numbers in the dry season along the main rivers of Zimbabwe. They are mostly men under 35, and so represent a particular, often disenfranchised, demographic. Many were too young to benefit from the land reform in 2000, and although some are resident on the new resettlements, combining farming with off-season panning has become an important livelihood mix.

While much international attention has been focused on diamond mining, and the human rights abuses that have taken place in the Marange fields in the east of the country (see papers by Nyamunda and and Mukwambo and Bond and Sharife), there has been less commentary on gold mining. While the diamond fields have been taken over by a strong-arm alliance of government, the military and foreign investors, removing all small-scale diamond miners, the mining of gold is different.

Small-scale mining peaked in 2008 with the collapse of the formal economy. As formal mining receipts declined, the small-scale operations boomed, with much of the product being traded illegally and smuggled out of the country. The official statistics, like for agriculture, show massive declines, but in fact around 2 million people were involved in small-scale mining in this period. Clifford Mabhena has shown how artisanal mining has complemented land reform, as new farmers seek off-farm opportunities, particularly in times of drought

Another recent paper by Showers Mawowa explores the gold rush phenomenon based on research near KweKwe. He argues that the gold rush in his area should not be seen just as a form of local 'survivalist' strategies of the poor, but as a site of political control and accumulation by elites, part of a 'patronage economy'. In Mawowa's study area in KweKwe, former farm and mine workers rather than resettlement farmers were the new miners. Many gold panners collect tiny quantities, but are reliant on mills owned by registered small-scale mines for processing. There is a mix of alluvial panning in the open near rivers or the exploitation of disused shafts where mining takes place underground. Both types of operation may involve hundreds of individuals often working in highly dangerous conditions. The environmental damage of such intense gold rushes can be immense.

This new form of production creates new social and political relationships. Mawowa characterises this as a process of primitive accumulation by elites who control the processing and marketing operations. They are also able to subvert the regulations, and are often involved in shady, illegal activities. While there are a plethora of laws governing mining, with recent stringent regulations from the Environmental Management Authority for example, they are implemented only sporadically, and often arbitrarily. Raids by the police may happen around election times, when local big-wigs want to assert control, while at other times operations go untouched, with accusations of kick-backs and bribes.

In his fascinating account, Mawowa shows how alliances between miners are formed to control particular areas. They may form 'syndicates' that may be controlled by locally-powerful individuals, including chiefs or party officials. Access to gold resources may result in sometimes violent struggles between such groups, with clashes between 'locals' and 'outsiders' and between different political factions within ZANU-PF.

The story Mawowa and others tell for Zimbabwe is familiar in other areas where artisanal mining has taken off in a big way, whether in Latin America (as in the work of Tony Bebbington and others) or elsewhere in Africa (as in the work of Deborah Bryceson and colleagues). Mawowa interprets this in terms of elite accumulation characterised by corruption, but as he notes new livelihoods have been created too. He does not make the contrast though with what went before. Once controlled by a few companies – in the Kwekwe case a Canadian mining company that owned Empress and Venice mines, closed in the 1980s and 90s – mining activity – and so livelihood opportunities and employment – is now spread among a far wider group.

This reconfiguration of the economy attracts patronage from those in power – and this most certainly includes ZANU-PF officials – but in this case these include village headmen, councillors, bureaucrats in district offices and local politicians. These characters may be connected to others higher up for sure, but the new economy oils many wheels on the way. As Mawowa concedes there are many 'rags to riches' stories in the villages.

Certainly in the period before the Marange diamond field clampdown this is what we found in Masvingo, as youth returned to their villages with fancy consumer goods, but also with cash to invest in farming. He also notes that many of the local beneficiaries of patronage are often 'low ranking' officials and people like headmasters and councillors. Even if there are shadowy figures behind them, further up the chain, it may be difficult to define such people as elites, even if their outward political affiliation is towards ZANU-PF; whether out of belief or very often out of strategic pragmatism (what Grasian Mkodzongi calls 'performing ZANU-PF').

There are perhaps two ways then of thinking about these mining-based 'patronage economies'. One is to condemn the rent-seeking, accumulation and elite control, and seek rational bureaucratic order and the implementation of controls, presumably allowing larger-scale formal operations to take the place of the informal sector. This would presage a return to the past, and a form or regulated and probably even more elite (probably foreign-controlled) capitalism. Alternatively, following the arguments of David Booth, Tim Kelsall and others, an argument could be made that there are developmental advantages of 'working with the grain', accepting that elite capture is somehow inevitable in the operation of capitalism, but that gains may well be shared through such patron-client networks, and there are actually not only survivalist but also developmental benefits of broad-based, distributed, informal economic activity.

These alternatives are of course not either/or, and there are many shades of grey between. However, the focus of so much writing on the corrupt practices of the ZANU-PF connected elite, including many of the contributions to the JSAS special issue that includes Mawowa's paper, often fails to delve further into the practical, distributional consequences of new forms of economic organisation. While I would be the first to condemn much of the practice that Mawowa documents, I think there is probably another side to the story that is also worthy of telling.

Some interviews with some of the successful miners, traders and associated business people would be definitely interesting. It would be fascinating to learn for example how artisanal mining has changed their livelihoods and future prospects, and how such investment has been channelled into the local economy. This could in turn be contrasted with the experience of former mine workers in large-scale mines (perhaps even the same people), and how such enterprises had an impact on local livelihoods and economies. Rather like the contrast between the assumed successful, ordered and regulated commercial farming sector of the past and the assumed disorderly, chaotic and informal land reform farming areas, there may be some surprising, and challenging, findings.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland