ONCE popular for an assemblage of ecosystems dominated by trees and other woody vegetation – Mapfungautsi State Forest which lies in Gokwe South District, Midlands Province is now a pale shadow of its former self.
The forest was once regarded as the third largest of the indigenous State forests in Zimbabwe.
When it was first demarcated as a state forest in 1953, it was 101 000 hectares in size before it was reclassified in 1972 as a communal area and some parts of the southern part were gazetted, leaving the forest with a total of 82 100 hectares.
Now an environmental disaster is looming as over 11 000 illegal settlers from all corners of the country have invaded Mapfungautsi which used to be a dense forest.
Villagers have unduly and undeniably made a home in the forest and to date very few teak and mahogany species remain in the reserve that forms part of the watershed for the Sengwa-Mbumbusi, Lutope, and Ngomadoma river system.
These rivers flow into Sanyati then the Zambezi River, along which Kariba Dam, an important tourist destination and generator of hydroelectric power for both Zimbabwe and Zambia, is constructed.
The villagers have shamelessly cut down trees as they clear the land to construct roads, schools, shops and their homesteads putting the country’s teak and mahogany tree species at risk of being wiped out.
Right in the forest at Mapfungautsi Plateau is a council school, Ngondoma Primary, which was commissioned by the Midlands Provincial Lands Committee and has more than 1 000 pupils with 19 teachers despite the fact that it only consists of three blocks which were built by parents.
There are plans however, to build more blocks at the school leaving the question of whether or not illegal settlers will ever be evicted from the forest after setting up such infrastructure.
Journalists on a media tour organised by the Forestry Commission to assess the impact illegal settlers have left in the forest, witnessed illegal settlers destroying the forest in various ways through poaching of game, timber and firewood.
Agricultural field expansions have significantly caused forest degradation and deforestation as there is no one providing them with appropriate extension services on farming and conservation of natural resources.
At the centre of the degradation of the forest is Chief Njelele of Njelele area whose land shares a border with Mapfungautsi Forest. The chief stands accused of settling the illegal occupants – some of them at a cost. He denies involvement in the settlements.
According to the Forest Act Chapter, the Land Reform Policy provides that all demarcated indigenous land will remain intact. Mapfungautsi Forest is one of the 14 gazetted forests in Zimbabwe. It falls under the category of woodlands and forest on state and protected areas.
The Forest Act states that the position of the Forestry Commission is that all demarcated forest areas shall remain so for the original purpose of protecting the catchment areas of the various rivers that originate or pass through them and no settlements should be allowed inside the forests.
Despite the law being clear on the issue of protected areas, political and traditional leaders have allegedly settled people in the forest.
Midlands Provincial forest extension manager, Mr Rodrick Nyahwai, said due to the illegal settlers in the forest, there has been revenue loss by the country as more people are cutting down valuable trees which could boost the economy.
“As the Forestry Commission, we’ve had major challenges with the settling in of illegal settlers in the Mapfungautsi Forest. They’ve engaged in the cutting down of trees be it for agricultural purposes or poaching for firewood.
“There’re high values of timber such as teak, mukwa and mahogany inside the forest and that could be huge revenue for the country,” said Mr Nyahwai.
He said the country is also at a great loss on other sectors such as tourism, as the forest has a lot of different animal species but are under threat due to villagers who hunt them down.
Mr Nyahwai said they have embarked on an initiative to evict all the illegal settlers from the forest.
“We’ve tried to evict people from the forest but we’ve faced challenges with some people in higher offices. Politicians come and override our Act as the Forestry Commission.
“We’ve tried to approach them and we also want to approach the High Court to get eviction notices,” he said.
Mr Nyahwai said some illegal settlers were practising stream bank cultivation with others cultivating on top of Lutope River, which is an underground river.
Forestry Commission information and communications manager, Ms Violet Makoto, said the deforestation of Mapfungautsi Forest had a negative effect on the water cycle of major rivers in the country.
“As you know, most of our gazetted forests were set aside for water catchment area protection and this also applies to Mapfungautsi. It’s the source that eventually feeds into the Zambezi River hence deforestation will greatly compromise the water catchment facility.
“We’ve three major rivers, Ngondome, Lutope and Sengwe but if there’s further deforestation at the rate we’re experiencing now, there’s going to be a serious compromise for rivers not only for Zambezi but the rivers in the whole country,” said Ms Makoto.
“Agriculture on the Lutope River will disturb water flow from Lutope to Sanyati River, which eventually leads to Zambezi and we really need to think about what’s going to happen in the next five years if this agricultural practice continues.”
One villager who spoke on condition of anonymity said Chief Njelele was the one who allocated villagers land in the forest.
“Chief Njelele is the one who gives people land to settle in the forest and because of him there’ve been many people who’ve settled in the area, maybe it’s because he wants to expand his territory,” he said.
Mr Austin Ndlovu, who was settled in the forest in Zanda Village, said Chief Njelele himself allocated him land in the area because the land in Chemagora was no longer fertile.
“I used to live in the Chemagora settlement area but the land there was no longer fertile so we decided to ask for permission from Chief Njelele to live here and we were granted a piece of land in Zanda Village in the forest,” said Mr Ndlovu
“The people who’ve settled in Mapfungautsi Forest are not causing environmental problems. There used to be animals in the forest and you would see tourists from all over the world coming to visit. We would get grass for making brooms and honey which we would sell to tourists.”
Chief Njelele denied settling anyone in the forest saying those living in the forest have been there since the early 80s.
“It is a forest but there were people who occupied a small area from as early as the 80s. There was a time when these people were ordered to vacate the area but they protested saying there were graves that belonged to their ancestors.
“We even held meetings with people of higher authority and it was considered that the people occupying the small area of the forest were thriving in various farming activities and should therefore be left to live there,” said Chief Njelele.
He said there have however, been challenges with villagers who settle in the forest without permission.
“We recently took action against those who had settled in the forest without permission. We removed them from the area despite the fact that they had built houses and prepared farmlands there,” said Chief Njelele.