Community Monitoring to Improve Mining Practices in High Biodiversity Areas

In  biodiversity-rich areas of Zimbabwe, women, men, and even children venture into national parks and other protected areas to dig and sluice for gold, platinum, and diamonds. They are artisanal small-scale miners, a livelihood that supports an estimated 300,000 Zimbabweans. Small-scale mining has the capacity to generate revenue for governments and communities, reduce rural poverty, and produce metals for technological advancements such as electric cars and communications infrastructure. But the industry needs to be regulated and monitored.

The “artisanal” label added to small-scale miners refers to their labor-intensive methods for extracting minerals. The work is associated with unsafe working conditions; the illegal use of mercury and cyanide, unrehabilitated pits, and environmental damage.  Miners can fall sick, communities can lose drinking water, and the precious metals they unearth can contribute to and fund conflicts and corruption.

A miner using harmful chemicals without adequate personal protective equipment. Photo credit: USDA Forest Service.

Large-scale miners also exert pressure on national parks and forested areas, and they fail to take steps toward environmental rehabilitation. This has resulted in polluted rivers because of acid mine drainage and mine dumps.

In the Eastern High, an organization called the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association, or ZELA, is tracking areas of degradation and using the evidence to spur the government and industry participants toward action. They want the adoption and application of strengthened due diligence practices for the environment and for community health.

A small-scale mine near Lake Chivero, outside Harare. Photo credit: USDA Forest Service.

To meet their mission, ZELA needed a way to track where mining was occurring, and they needed details about the miners. Did they wear personal protective equipment? How old were they and what gender? What were they using to extract metals? And what were the environmental effects of their extraction methods?

The International Programs Office of the United States Forest Service has partnered with ZELA for many years in an effort to curtail illegal and harmful natural resource crime. For this mining transparency project, the Forest Service created a survey using the Survey123 application to track and detail mining activities. The survey app employs GIS (geographical information system) software made by ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute). The software helps ZELA community monitors pinpoint exactly where illegal and irresponsible mining is occurring. Monitors can upload photos of sites and detail the practices miners are using.

“I am working on this project because I have personally witnessed the detrimental effects of irresponsible mining activities in my community,” said a community monitor for ZELA (name withheld for safety).

The Forest Service provided tablets to the monitors and training in safety and information gathering. Mining is a lucrative business in Zimbabwe and community monitors can put themselves in danger by recording details about illegal mining sites. The Forest Service added a feature to the app that allows information to be entered away from where GPS (global positioning system) coordinates are captured.

“Despite a few minor hiccups and lessons learned, we were pleased with how seamlessly the software and tablets worked in Zimbabwe, and we were so impressed with how engaged the community monitors were at the training and how quickly they learned to use the survey,” said Jennifer Ross, Forest Service GIS Specialist.      

For another ZELA community monitor, love for nature was the reason he cited for being engaged in the project. The monitor is also a tour guide who relies on Zimbabwe’s stunning biodiversity for his livelihood.

“Upon submitting the surveys, my hope is that the organization will thoroughly inspect and address the issues and consequences arising from mining activities. It is essential to put a stop to any illegal practices and hold accountable those responsible for them,” said the community monitor/tour guide.

ZELA would also like to see accountability – fines for illegal mining and government action for environmental protection, especially in biodiversity rich areas. ZELA’s efforts have an educational component. If they know where harmful mining is taking place, they can conduct educational campaigns and environmental assessments for remedial action. They work directly with communities to do so.

“By pinpointing these areas, targeted conservation efforts can be made to protect biodiversity and preserve sensitive regions. Additionally, mapping the impacts contributes to valuable research, helping us understand the environmental consequences of different mining practices and their long-term effects on ecosystems,” said a ZELA staff member.

ZELA will use the data it gains to advocate for the adoption of best practices and collective efforts toward sustainable resource management. They hope it will inform policy development and the implementation of regulations that stop irresponsible mining practices and support conservation efforts.

To learn more about ZELA visit:

Read the U.S. Department of State issue an Africa Gold Advisory

ZELA, USDA Forest Service, and community monitors collaborating on the mining survey protocol, Harare, 2023. Photo credit by USDA Forest Service.