Poor manís diamond moves out of reach

Killing it softly. Illegal sand mining is rampant in both North and South
Killing it softly. Illegal sand mining is rampant in both North and South

The major criticism of the country’s mining miracle has been that most citizens have found themselves watching from the sidelines, unable to break into production themselves. Sand mining, has thus been a God-send of sorts, but as Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI reports, even this poor man’s diamond has growing complications

It is everywhere, it looks free and if you take it, usually no one is watching or notices. And, with residential construction booming in Greater Gaborone, each load is fetching higher and higher amounts.

River sand, formed by natural weathering of rocks over many years, is the preferred aggregate in the production of cement concrete and mortar, two essential materials used in construction.

All around Greater Gaborone, sand piles in front of residential neighbourhoods are a familiar sight, as developers take advantage of the low interest rates and stable demand to invest in new real estate or expand existing structures.


In the capital city, a tonne of riversand at present fetches up to P2,000 or more depending on the supplier, making it a valuable and yet freely available mineral. Almost.

The easy availability of riversand, rising prices triggered by demand and poor monitoring of extraction by authorities has spawned scores of illegal sand miners who over the years have descended on every available river in Greater Gaborone.

Illegal sandminers, who allegedly intimidate and attack villagers who stand in their way, have hit hardest villages such as Metsimotlhabe, Kumakwane, Thamaga, Kubung and Mmankgodi and other parts of Kweneng District.

Unregulated and often operating at night, the illegal sandminers have decimated resources and for a period in 2012, the Department of Geological Services announced that Moshupa and Mmankgodi had run out of the industrial mineral.

Department of Mines auditors, who traversed the country in the same year, encountered 12 illegal miners while noting depleted riversand resources, dumped waste and oil contamination from trucks and machines excavating sand.

The audit, placed recently before a parliamentary committee, paints a picture of rivers as outlaw territory, with illegal miners freely damaging river systems, lowering the water table, increasing erosion rates and destroying river beds with impunity.

Even legal sandminers were found taking advantage of the situation to mine outside their demarcated areas and ignore environmental concerns such as the contamination of groundwater resources from oil leakages.

According to Minerals, Energy and Water Resources permanent secretary, Kgomotso Abi, the free reign legal and illegal sandminers have enjoyed over the years, is over.

Abi and his lieutenants in the ministry are turning the screws on sandmining through greater enforcement, steeper fines, stricter demarcations and tighter licensing processes. The permanent secretary is even considering the confiscation of machinery and vehicles from convicted illegal sandminers, taking a cue from the tactics used with poachers.

“It’s greed. Because motlhaba o hoo someone can just go and steal it,” he told the parliamentary committee recently.

“Illegal sandmining has been an issue and at first we were just trying to outfight the illegals. However, we came to a point where we saw that regulation alone was not enough.”

The new approach will involve distinguishing those with valid licences from those who do not, enforcing the environmental commitments under the law for those with valid licences and enforcing demarcations for sand mining.

One other new intervention is expected to ruffle feathers, especially among those who view sandmining as the poor man’s alternative to the capital and bureaucracy-intensive world of mainstream gem and metal mining.

The ministry wants would-be sandminers to produce prospecting reports indicating the riversand resources in their targeted areas, as a pre-requisite to being awarded licences.

“We thought river mining was straight forward and we didn’t think people needed prospecting rights before mining,” Abi said.

“The assumption was that there’s sand in the river. We are now at a stage that whenever someone comes, we want them to prospect first and say how much sand there is and over what period it can be extracted environmentally.

“If there’s enough for six months, we will give the licence for that period only and no more.”

For Nata-Gweta legislator, Paulson Majaga however, the requirement for prospecting before the issuance of sand mining licences would actually encourage illegal activities as people seek to escape the additional bureaucracy.

“The amount of processes for sandmining, is this not causing illegal mining?” he asked Abi at the parliamentary committee hearing.

“Illegal sandmining is their diamond. These prospecting licences for sand are an issue of concern. The main issue should be monitoring.”

The permanent secretary, however, dismissed the notion, saying responsible miners had gone through the official processes.

“I don’t believe the process is causing illegal miners. People see riversand as an easy thing. You just take a truck and a loader. However, others have gone through the legal route and gotten licences,” he said.

Government’s plans for a new era in riversand mining will hinge on whether developers adopt alternatives such as using quarry dust, where a pilot on the mixtures required to produce concrete and mortar is due out in December.

Another factor will be effective monitoring, which has been the Department of Mines’ Achilles’ Heel over the years, with only 30 inspectors for the whole country and these not specifically devoted to sandmining.

“Monitoring is not being done effectively because we don’t have the numbers,” Abi said. Ultimately, the solution rests with the demand.

“If you are buying from an illegal operator, you do so knowing and people know where to go. The consequences of your actions may not be immediate, but there are consequences,” said Abi.

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