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Community Fights to Reclaim Areas Scarred by Unsustainable Brickmaking

Two illegal brick makers pass through an illegal brick making site with the background showing a ravaged earth. Image by Fairness Moyana

Facing degraded land from rampant illegal brickmaking, a community in Hwange, Zimbabwe, works to rehabilitate scarred areas and curb further environmental damage.

BY FAIRNESS MOYANA | @The_CBNews | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. | JAN 12, 2024

HWANGE (The Citizen Bulletin) — Misheck Ngwenya carefully navigates past two large holes as he herds his cattle near Don Bosco area in Hwange, Matabeleland North. The area, once ravaged by illegal brick molders and sand poachers, now looks desolate, abandoned and damaged - a clear sign of the impacts the activities had on the environment.

Illegal brick molding affects the environment and water sources in ways that could greatly impact sustainable development and water management, environment activists say. The environmentalists argue that the brick-making process negatively impacts the environment, though the extent of damage depends on the scale of the operation. It begins with land clearing, which usually involves massive tree cutting, followed by excavations to extract clay material, molding, and firing bricks in kilns.

Traditional brick kilns require wood for firing, releasing more carbon dioxide than commercial kilns that use coal fines. Deforestation and emissions further impact the ecosystem and climate indirectly. Excavations and clay extraction create huge pits and trenches that endanger humans and animals while rendering land unusable for crops and livestock. Pits also collect rainwater, becoming breeding grounds for pathogens and vectors like mosquitoes and posing drowning risks.

In 2022, Hwange Local Board (HLB) partnered with the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) and other security agencies in an operation to remove illegal brick molding in certain hotspot areas causing severe land degradation. This brought relief and order to the damaged environment facing water and land pollution from uncontrolled tree cutting.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which cost many jobs and livelihoods, drove many to illegal brick molding. Large numbers of people flock to Don Bosco and Empumalanga areas near Kalope Stream, where brick making quickly scales up industrially. Smoke from kilns can be seen for kilometers as traditional kilns burn clay bricks mixed with coal fines for strength.

However, the illicit activity's effects have been devastating - a scarred earth with gaping holes. Activities rampant in Empumalanga, Don Bosco and Truck Stop lead to massive deforestation and land degradation, leaving open pits that threaten underground water pipes.

The local authority has struggled with increasing illegal sand poaching and brick molding for 16 years, now threatening residential and commercial properties in the growing town. Damaged land stretches almost five kilometers along the sewage stream west of Empumalanga suburb into the 5 Miles forest, once densely populated with mopane trees.

According to EMA, illegal brick molding has far-reaching environmental impacts. Regulations prohibit extracting, possessing or transporting sand and clay deposits commercially without an EMA license, requiring a detailed excavation and rehabilitation plan and mitigation strategies.

Environmental Education officer Mildred Matunga says open pits left unattended lead to gully formation, deforestation and soil erosion.

“There is also land pollution due to open defecation on the sites as there are no ablution facilities, while the use of coal to treat the bricks was also contributing to air and water pollution,” Matunga says. “As an Agency, we tried to educate the molders while imposing fines on others, but all were in vain. For them, the financial benefits of digging up the earth without a rehabilitation plan outweighed the serious environmental degradation that ensued.”

Illegal molders argue they cannot regularize, citing distance to 5 miles and lack of water - key for brick molding - as discouragements. Most blame COVID-19 for pushing them into the practice, calling it lucrative given provincial infrastructure expansion.

One illegal molder who identified himself only as Phiri says authorities destroyed his bricks after a blitz, but he returned two weeks later as hunger stalked him.

“I have to put feeding my family above the risks of this work,” Phiri argues.

“As the sole provider for my children, the $400 I get from selling bricks supports their education and care. When the pandemic hit, I lost my factory job and haven't found another. At least here I earn more than I did working for the Chinese. Put simply, my family's survival depends on continuing this work.”
Phiri, illegal brick molder

Phiri says he molds 10,000 bricks over 15 days, producing 900 daily. Bricks sell as far as Bulawayo, Binga, Lupane and Victoria Falls where expansion occurs, 40 cents each in batches of 10,000. Modern trends show Zimbabwean houses as standard with brick materials used also in rural areas.

Acting town secretary Paulos Mabhureni says illegal molding in Empumalanga and Don Bosco bush areas overwhelmed local efforts to contain it due to resource shortage.

“The open pits left by these sand poachers are becoming a danger to both human beings and animals and as a local authority we have tried on several occasions to deal with the problem but lack of resources to carry out policing and monitoring has affected us a great deal,” Mabhureni says. “[The] Council remains committed to curbing the illicit activities and the rehabilitation of the affected areas before making calls for partnership support from local companies.”

According to the local authority, the extraction of clay soil for brick molding in an urban area is not allowed under the Regional, Town and Country Planning Act.

A bulldozer closes up gaping holes left by illegal brick makers. Image by Fairness Moyana

Mabhureni says following EMA orders, local authorities requested security agency help to remove illegal poachers and molders, which worked briefly before resurfacing as most molders preferred operating informally.

Environment advocacy groups such as Green Shango, a Hwange-based non-profit dedicated to mitigating environmental degradation and climate change are championing the adoption of sustainable development through corrective action such as land reclamation and rehabilitation to address brick molding impacts.

“Local authorities must allocate specific areas for brick molding where the environmental impact can be minimized and monitored,” Green Shango director Daniel Sithole argues.

“Council and brick makers must restore damaged land by filling up the pits, replanting trees and vegetation and improving soil quality. Alternative materials and energy sources such as renewable ones instead of wood or coal while serious awareness raising should be conducted in communities on the negative effects of illegal brick making and the benefits of sustainable practices.”
Daniel Sithole, Green Shango director

Mike Madamombe, a tribal elder in the area says those involved in brick making must plant trees as part of efforts to rehabilitate the damaged land.

“The problem of illegal brick making is not new here as we have been struggling with it for a long time. What we have tried to do as tribal elders is to encourage these people to carry out land reclamation as we place emphasis on the importance of preserving our natural environment in a way that our ancestors left it,” says Madamombe. “We are working with EMA and the Forestry Commission to ensure that as many trees are planted.”

ALSO READ: Coal Mining in Hwange Sparks Human-Wildlife Conflicts

Pastor Dumisani Sibanda, a community leader says they have been pushing for the regularization of brick molders to no avail.

“We note that there is an economic factor involved where families are trying to eke a living but we believe there it’s important to utilize the land that has been availed to us by Hwange RDC at 5 miles. It is our responsibility to preserve the environment for future generations even God requires that we take care of what He has given to us,” says Sibanda.

Although it has not allocated land for brick making within its jurisdiction, HLB has established a partnership with the Hwange Rural District Council, which has designated land specifically for these activities under a monitored system.

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