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Cemeteries to Sand Mines: Impoverished Africans turn to the dead in order to survive

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA) – Illegal sand mining has been an issue for decades but cemeteries have become the miners latest targets because there are fewer and fewer places, such as rivers and sandstone mountainsides, where financially viable amounts of sand can be harvested, the writer says.

By Dominic Naidoo

Sand has been the cornerstone of civilisation since humans began using tools. Many historians believe that the first evidence of man-made shelter is in Terra Amata in France. Dating back to 400,000 BC, these temporary huts likely provided shelter for early humans to use during the hunting season. This is one of the first known instances of man using mud, a mixture of sand and water, to reinforce a shelter.

Today, the construction industry is one of the industries in the world with sand being a major contributor in everything to do with almost all construction materials. Sand Shifters, a local South African sand supplier, estimated that annually, over 50 billion tons of sand is used in construction globally.

Not all sand has the same properties, and therefore, different sands are used for different supplies. Beach sand, for example, would be a rare ingredient in construction, due to the composition being irregular.

For decades, illegal sand mining or “sand poaching” has been growing rapidly, unchecked in Zimbabwe with Africa News reporting in October 2022 that “thousands of hectares of cemetery land in the country’s capital city, Harare have been left extensively damaged” by sand pirates.

Speaking to Africa News on condition of anonymity, a sand poacher said that they “resorted to sand poaching and brick laying because there are no jobs”. “It’s easy for us to find the sand we need because it is easily accessible at the nearby graveyard.”

The miner says that they need to find a way to survive, even if it means breaking the law. Several men within the miners community are involved in this practice.

Illegal sand mining has been an issue for decades but why have cemeteries become the miners latest targets?

No, sand mined from hallowed ground is not more valuable than river mined sand. The simple answer is that there are becoming fewer and fewer places, such as rivers and sandstone mountainsides, where financially viable amounts of sand can be harvested.

Thus, sand poachers in Africa have resorted to harvesting within cemeteries, which are also closer to urban areas and potential buyers, such as the Harare’s high density suburb of Epworth where illegal sand miners are exhuming the dead and disposing of the corpses in nearby rivers which leads to possible to biological pollution of downstream water supplies.

Africa News reported that Epworth’s community leaders are greatly concerned with one saying that “as a community leader who had taken part in the burial of more than 100 deceased children, I am saddened that a huge chunk of the graves at which we laid them to rest has disappeared, all that is left is a shallow ditch”.

Another laments the condition of some of the graves as “some of the graves are now exposed”. “The sand poachers have removed a lot of corpses and thrown them in the nearby river.”

After requesting comment from Zimbabwean authorities, Africa News notes that the government is reportedly unaware of the situation.

“What you find is currently within Chitungwiza and Epworth. We have got rampant sand poaching. Sand poachers are basically going into areas where there is river sand and any other form of sand used for construction”, says Tafadzwa Muguti, secretary for provincial affairs and devolution in the office of the president and cabinet for Harare Metropolitan province.

“The challenge we have as we approach the rainy season is that when the rains come and fill up most of these places (ditches left by miners) we have children who will drown. As it is, our laws need to be reviewed. EMA, our environmental management authority, is in the process of reviewing all their ACTS so that we can criminalise most of the aspects of land degradation”.

Africa News’ Mary Mundeya said that Epworth, as one of Harare’s forgotten suburbs has for years been subject to illegal sand mining otherwise known as sand poaching and it remains to be seen whether thousands of hectares of land in Epworth’s Zinyengere’s cemetery will recover from the immense environmental degradation its being subjected to on a daily basis.

But Zimbabwean cities are not the only ones to be hit by cemetery sand mining.

Zambia’s Byta FM News reported in 2018 that illegal sand miners “have started mining sand at Choma’s Ban cemetery” with deep ditches and exhumed graves being found around the cemetery.

Choma Municipal public relations officer, Adams Sinyama, promised Byta FM that inspection officers will see to it that the issue is addressed. Sinyama told local media that the mining activities at the cemetery are illegal adding that the introduction of sand and stones levy will aid in curbing illegal mining activities taking place in the district.

More recently, news site Sierraloaded reported that residents of Goderich in Sierra Leone’s Western Rural District have been experiencing the brunt of environmental degradation as loved ones buried in the cemetery regularly disappear.

The illegal sand mining within the area surrounding the graveyard has undermined the underlying stability of the area with rapid destruction of graves thereby leaving corpses floating on the beach whenever it rains heavily.

“Anytime flooding occurs, we see human corpses and coffins floating,” a local fisherman told Sierraloaded of how frequently corpses are being exposed caused by sand mining. This has prompted stakeholders, including the sitting Member of Parliament and councillors to raise alarm for the attention of the relevant authorities to take immediate action.

Kadie Davies, Sierra Leone member of parliament for the 110th constituency within which the cemetery sits, expressed “great concern over the ugly development” in an interview with local media at the time.

She said that “persistent sand mining activity has brought great disrespect to the dead, in addition to destroying the coastal environment.”

The MP lamented that bodies of loved ones are no longer respected because they are being washed away by the tide. She said the situation is now becoming even more alarming as many local youth see sand mining as the only means of generating income.

The United Nations Environment Programme said that sand mining from rivers and marine ecosystems, leads to “significant environmental impacts, including coastal and river erosion, shrinking deltas, land-use changes, air pollution, salinisation of coastal aquifers and groundwater reserves, threats to freshwater and marine fisheries and biodiversity”.

Dominic Naidoo is an environment activist and writer.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.