A new wave of farm invasions in Zimbabwe has been dubbed the Fourth Chimurenga (liberation struggle) - the fast track-land reform programme launched by President Robert Mugabe in 2000 was the third - but this time they are not looking to redistribute land, they are looking for gold.
Thousands of unemployed Zimbabweans trying to survive in an economic meltdown that has lasted almost a decade have taken to unlicensed prospecting for gold and other minerals along the country's rivers.
As more and more illegal miners crowd the river banks, people have begun spreading onto farms near the rivers; sometimes they find consenting land owners, who often collude in the illicit enterprise.
Undocumented miners cannot dig openly so they sneak onto the farms at night and use wheelbarrows and sacks to cart away the rocks - which they hope will be gold-bearing - to millers who crush the ore and extract the gold.
"This is a new wave of land invasions and we have nicknamed it the Fourth Chimurenga," said Derick Gatsi, 24, an illegal miner or "makorokoza" who made the 300km journey from rural Wedza in Mashonaland East Province, in northeastern Zimbabwe, about a year ago.
"There are now too many makorokoza on the rivers and alluvial gold is becoming scarce; on the other hand, the farms that lie close to the rivers are rich in gold and that is why we have turned to them."
He said some of his colleagues had relocated to the Shamva district in neighbouring Mashonaland Central Province, about 260km away, where "the farms are also rich in gold."
Miners trespassing on farms were sometimes caught up in violent running battles with the farm owners and their workers, or were arrested when the police swooped on them, but Gatsi said they were never prosecuted because the police readily accepted bribes.
Ordinary Zimbabweans have to contend with a variety of shortages - foreign exchange, food, clean water, fuel, energy - because the industrial base has contracted by more than a third and unemployment is at nearly 80 percent.
Zimbabwe's mineral wealth has been in the spotlight, accompanied by lively speculation that it could take care of the country's enormous debt, but the International Monetary Fund has said this was unlikely - external debt is projected to reach 151 percent of gross domestic product by 2015.
|I make more money in a month [around US$700 a week from mining] than a farmer who gets a good harvest from cotton or maize after toiling for a whole year|
Farm owners collaborate
Elijah Mhuri*, 53, a veteran of Zimbabwe's liberation war, lives in Mashonaland West Province, about 180km southwest of Harare, the capital, where for years he has employed illegal miners to dig for gold on the 32- hectares plot near the Musengezi River allocated to him during the fast-track land reform programme.
The mounting costs of agricultural inputs and a breakdown in extension services mean that Mhuri and other resettled farmers have struggled to earn a living from their new farms. "I make more money in a month [around US$700 a week from mining] than a farmer who gets a good harvest from cotton or maize after toiling for a whole year," he said.
"As a war veteran, I support the land reform programme, but I don't have any problem with resettled farmers switching to gold panning for a living because that is one benefit we have from the land that we took from the whites."
The land redistribution programme forced more than 4,000 white commercial farmers to make way for thousands of land-hungry blacks, but dislocated agricultural production and turned Zimbabwe into a food insecure country that depends on imports.
The government has admitted that most beneficiaries of the land reform programme have underutilized the land allocated to them. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, has repeatedly called for an independent land audit to determine how many farms are gainfully used.
There have been efforts to subsidize inputs and more land has been planted; around 1.68 million people are expected to be in need of food aid in the pre-harvest season for 2010/11, compared to about 3.5 million people in 2009/10.
Impact on agriculture
Some farmers are concerned about the impact of illegal mining on the environment and food security - river banks are becoming severely eroded, affecting water flow, and mining on fertile land means less food is being produced.
Rodrick Masango, 60, a war veteran who was allocated a 40-hectares plot, said he was being harassed by illegal miners, who had brought down his fence, stolen livestock and tractor parts, and had ruined land he prepared for planting.
"I have made several reports to the police to flush out these illegal gold panners, but even though some raids have been made, the invaders keep coming back to dig up my farm. I don't have enough money to employ full-time security personnel," Masango told IRIN.
Innocent Makwiramiti, a Harare-based economist and former head of the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC), said poverty was driving illegal miners to exploit farmland.
"These miners are desperately looking for opportunities to make a living; illegal alluvial gold panning is no longer lucrative because of the intense competition among the miners and the destruction of the rivers," Makwiramiti told IRIN.
He said the move to dig for gold on farms threatened the land reform programme. "The government has always said the land reform programme was meant to boost food production by subsistence [farmers], and the new crop of commercial farmers, but if trends like the illegal invasions of farms by gold miners continue, I don't see how that will happen."
Last week the Zimbabwean authorities reportedly arrested five Russian nationals for illegal mining.
* Not his real name
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions