A NATURAL resource governance watchdog, the Centre for Research and Development (CRD), says while the government has suspended Betterbrands (Pvt) Ltd’s operations at Redwing Mine in Penhalonga for the third time in four years, it has been insincere in correcting health and safety concerns at the mine which have been recurring over the past years.
On 5 January, the ministry of Mines and Mineral Development wrote to Betterbrands suspending operations at Redwing to pave way for investigations, after 15 miners were trapped underground in one of the shafts.
While the miners were all rescued alive, calls for sustainable mining methods at Redwing have been growing louder over the past years, amid indications of horrendous working conditions.
With over 132 claims in Penhalonga alone, Betterbrands, owned by controversial Zanu PF gold baron Pedzai “Scott” Sakupwanya, has been deeply involved in mining and milling operations at Redwing Mine.
Betterbrands also contracts artisanal and small-scale miners to extract and surrender ore to them, which has become a new mining model, as the company seeks to reduce operational costs.
Redwing has also been a cash cow for politically-connected elites in Mutare and Mutasa in Manicaland province, who have been partly responsible for granting access to mining pits, endangering the lives of artisanal miners who are subjected to horrific working conditions.
The Mines ministry has however said it is opening investigations into the recurring disaster, in a letter to Betterbrands dated 5 January by mining inspector Nomsa Mukudzvavu and mining engineer Vimbai Dzvikiti copied to Mines minister Zhemu Soda, Manicaland Provincial Affairs and Devolution minister Misheck Mugadza, chief government mining engineer Micheal Munodawafa, deputy provincial mining director Eileen Savieri, Officer Commanding Manicaland police, Officer Commanding Mutare police and the Officer-in-Charge Penhalonga.
“The need to conduct a thorough accident investigation to acertain what transpired during and after the accident and the damage caused by the alleged ground subsidence and to allow rescue of personnel.
Furthermore, suspension is being effected to set up measures to prevent re-occurrence.
“Lack of access control, improper clocking in and clocking out which is resulting in an inability to account working personnel within the working areas. This is in contravention of the Mining Management and Safety Regulations (SI 109 of 1990), Part 1 on Management and Responsibilities in Mines, Section 9 (1) (g) which states that the mine manager must: ensure that there is a force system to enable determination of the number in the underground working time.”
According to the letter, Redwing’s mining methods have not been adhering to mining standards such as maintaining pillars between shafts at a distance of not less than 35 metres, while some of the shafts are ill-equipped to prevent collapse.
The letter pointed out that Redwing does not have updated surface and underground plans as per requirements of section 78 of SI 109 of 1990, which all shafts should have demarcated infrastructure and contours in compliance with SI 109 of 1990.
“Illegal and uncontrolled access to old workings and areas connected to old workings are not adequately safeguarded. In accordance with SI 40 of 2022 Mining (General) (Amendment) Regulations, 2022 (NO.27), and upliftment of the suspension carries a penalty of US$375 and a breach of operation suspension order carries a penalty of US$375. This suspension will be lifted by the provincial office in writing after rectification, payment of fines and compilation of the accident investigation.”
However, in its analysis this week, the CRD resource watchdog said the reasons mentioned by ministry of Mines in the letter are not new and a recent government statement that it was going to conduct a thorough investigation cannot be taken seriously.
“CRD led a growing citizen voice in warning government against the proposed project in 2021. CRD went on to highlight the dangers of conducting surface mining activities on top of disused shafts and tunnels at Redwing at the Betterbrands EIA stakeholder consultation meeting.”
“The letter pointed out poor access controls that were in violation of mining management and safety regulations (S.1. 109 of 1990) part 1 on management and responsibilities in Mines, Section 9(1) (g) and that mining method was not adhering to mining standards such as maintaining pillars between shafts,” reads the analysis.
“The letter also bemoaned the illegal and uncontrolled access to old workings and that these areas were not safeguarded.”
CRD said it has been calling for an overhaul in the company’s mining operations for years.
For instance, while the organisation led a civil society coalition in January 2023 demanding the government stop the disastrous mining activities at Redwing, Betterbrands wriggled out and was granted authority to resume operations.
“Government succumbed to growing citizen concern and closed Betterbrands mining operations in January 2023. However, another green light to resume the deadly operations was given to Betterbrands by government in March 2023. Pressured by political elites to open the Mine, Ema [Environmental Management Agency] drew the following conditions similar to reasons raised by the ministry of Mines in its suspension letter to Redwing,” CRD said.
CRD said Betterbrands has also failed to meet conditions for re-opening suggested by Ema, after pressure from political elites, that include purchasing eight gas monitors, strengthening access control with immediate effect by enclosing mining areas, introducing a clocking-in and -out system to ensure accountability in compliance with mine management and safety regulations (109 of 1990 and Statutory Instrument 72 of 1989).
Ema also ordered Betterbrands to put effective waste management systems, dust suppression measures, standard ablution facilities, while ensuring adequate protective clothing such as helmets, safety shoes, and protection of working shaft gate.
“To a greater extent, none of these conditions have been met by Betterbrands, hence the number of fatal mining incidences have increased at Redwing Mine. Needless to mention that the company had made commitment to adhere to various statutory instruments on waste disposal, air pollution assessment and periodic water tests to be conducted due to proximity of mining operations to Mutare River.
“They also made commitment to oblige by the Hazardous Substance Act, Public Health Act, Gold Trade Act, and Labour Act, among other statutory laws in their EIA plan approved by government,” CRD said.