Mozambique: Gold prospecting poisons fish, devastates fish farmers

| September 14, 2015

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Samu Boce earned his income and provided food for his family by raising fish.

In the impoverished province of Manica in Mozambique, fish farms on small streams provide food and income to many farmers like Mr. Boce. Manica is 650 kilometres north of the capital city, Maputo, near the border with Zimbabwe.

For ten years, Mr. Boce trapped Karapao bream in wire cages in freshwater streams. He grew the fish in small ponds that dotted the rice fields which provide many local farmers with their income. Every morning, the 37-year-old fed his fish with grain, papayas, chicken manure, and yams.

Mr. Boce says: “Raising fish fed my four children, bought them medicines, and clothed them. One basket of dried fish earned me US$50, as it is tasty. It can be dried or fried with cassava leaves. It’s popular with [customers].”

Photo credit: Pedzai Runde

Photo credit: Pedzai Runde

But a recent gold rush is polluting streams and poisoning fish. As a result, farmers and their children are going hungry. Gold mining has made Mr. Boce a fish farmer with no fish.

The gold rush has attracted more than 15,000 fortune seekers from Mozambique, unemployed young people from neighbouring Zimbabwe, and even merchants from as far away as Lebanon.

The damage caused by gold prospecting has been a catastrophe for the more than 400 fish farmers that earned their living from small local streams.

Angelina Gayo is one of these fish farmers. The widow raises matemba bream in six small ponds which are filled from a nearby river.

Mrs. Gayo’s hands tremble with fury as she says: “Gold panners uprooted trees on river banks, dried streams, [drained] swamps, and flooded [our] fish ponds with red mud.”

She scans the horizon, then stares at a group of gold prospectors who are chopping down nearby bushes for firewood to process their gold.

Mrs. Gayo is exasperated. She shouts, “No one stops them! Our fish dams have turned brown; they are silted up with hard mud and rocks. All the fish died out. We are lost!”

Angry fish farmers frequently fight with gold prospectors.

Elisha Fuzani is another who can’t stomach the situation. The fish farmer earned US$180 a month by supplying fish to seven restaurants in the nearby town of Susunhenga. He was doing well.

Mr. Fuzani says: “It’s such a mess now. My income is gone. Just one week of gold mining up the stream knocked out my fish ponds. The mud—it spoiled everything!”

Nisbert Dondo is a Rural Poverty Outreach economist with Oxfam in Manica. He says: “Gold diggers flood fresh water streams with mercury to capture and refine gold ore. Mercury cleans gold ore … but wipes out hundreds of river fish at the same time. Just [a little] spilled into a stream is fatal to fish, frogs, and anything swimming about.”

Mr. Dondo expects the worst. He says, “Traces of … mercury linger on in rivers for years. Fish stocks will continue to die.”

Percy Vimba is a public health nutritionist with the Mozambique Ministry of Health. He says, “As the fish die, children are becoming malnourished. In Musapa town, 800 primary school children need outside food and diet intervention every month. It’s a worrying scenario.”

Disgruntled fish farmers like Mr. Boce feel they have no options. He says: “All the fish farmers I know here have abandoned dams. I’ve abandoned my fish dams. I’m picking [up] a shovel to join the gold diggers, too. It’s lawless, shameful … [but] what else can I do?”

Photo: Susunhenga residents inspect a newly restored fish farm. Credit: Pedzai Runde