For 15 years, sand poachers and illegal brick moulders have laid siege to the open space by Empumalanga suburb and Don Bosco in Hwange and now even camp in canvas tents so as to cut down on transport costs.
A number of operations to clear them have been waged, but the poachers and moulders just ran away from their pursuers and then regroup.
There are unconfirmed claims that some Hwange councillors have teams working for them as sand poachers and brick moulders, hence the absence of panic by the operators when they see unfamiliar visitors in their areas.
The illegal operators interviewed were willing to talk, but with one eye on an escape route just in case matters came to a head, and declined to be photographed or named. So bad is the situation that huge pits have been dug close to newly constructed houses, some said to belong to Zesa Holdings. Occupants of the houses say they are living in fear that the structures may cave in.
Community members say the pits left uncovered also pose a danger to livestock and people who walk through the area.
The bricks, sold for US$45 per heap of 1 000, are made from clay mixed with slurry with this slurry said to be illegally obtained from coal mining companies in the area, especially Hwange Colliery Company Limited, to the extent that one lorry driver seen offloading the slurry, begged photographers not to take photos of his lorry.
He claimed if the picture was published anywhere, he would be targeted by both Hwange Local Board and police.
Customers for the bricks are from Hwange itself, given the massive infrastructure work underway there, and as far as Victoria Falls and Bulawayo.
Illegal brick moulders interviewed said they have been operating from the areas for between one year and three years.
Speaking on condition of anonymity fearing they would be tracked by police, a man in middle age, who was busy preparing chicken for the day’s relish while his wife watched, said he had been moulding bricks for over three years.
“Business is good; I have been here doing this work for three years and generating money to feed my family and buying livestock such as cattle and goats so that when we are removed from here, I have somewhere to start from,” he said.
With an uneasy smile, the man later asked if the news reporter had an idea of when police and the Environmental Management Agency were planning to remove them from their “base”.
A young man in his mid-20s, said he had already bought three cattle and eight goats in the one year that he has been moulding bricks. Another said he had constructed a two- bedroomed house and bought three cattle in the last 12 months of operation.
In an interview, Hwange Local Board town secretary Mr Ndumiso Mdlalose said they were “very concerned” about the land degradation.
“The clay soil poachers are illegally extracting soil for brick moulding and the activity has culminated in massive land degradation,” said Mr Mdlalose.
“The open pits left behind by the poachers are becoming a danger to both human beings and animals with their existence being more hazardous during the rainy season.
“This illicit activity has been going on for about 15 years and as council, we have made various efforts to curb it but to no avail.”
Mr Mdlalose said the extraction of clay for brick moulding in an urban area was not permissible under the Regional, Town and Country Planning Act.
“However, our efforts to implement the legislation at our disposal have over the years been met with resistance.
“Our security details have always been threatened with violence by poachers who will be out-numbering them.
“Two years ago, we rehabilitated part of the area that had been affected by clay poachers after we had received an order from the Environment Management Agency,” said Mr Mdlalose.
Last year, Hwange Local Board continued with efforts to evict the illegal settlers with the assistance of state security members and other stakeholders under a Government operation code-named “Thunder Ball”.
Among other issues, “Operation Thunder Ball” was expected to protect wildlife, curb the transport or selling of wild animals by unlicensed dealers as well as to curtail deforestation and land degradation.
As a result of the intervention and subsequently the start of the rainy season, the illegal brick moulding activities stopped, but resumed a few months ago.
Mr Mdlalose said as council, they remain committed to curbing clay poaching activities and rehabilitating the affected area.
“However, it has to be noted that the rehabilitation requires a large amount of resources. Thus, as council we won’t be able to carry out the exercise without the assistance of other stakeholders since we are currently financially constrained.
“We are, however, optimistic that the rehabilitation of Empumalanga sewer plant might curtail the clay poaching since the poachers are relying on raw sewer water, which finds its way to the nearby Kalope stream for brick moulding,” said Mr Mdlalose. The rehabilitation of the Empumalanga sewer plant is part of the scope of works to be undertaken by the Ministry of National Housing and Social Amenities, which will start servicing over 2 000 residential stands at Empumalanga West soon. Herald