Patrick Chitumba, Midlands Bureau Chief
EVERY day in Gweru, over 50 donkey drawn scotch carts invade the city’s suburbs loaded with firewood or charcoal for sale to residents, restaurant and tshisanyama owners.
Small trucks and big lorries are also used to carry firewood from the forests to the city centre.
On Monday last week, 400 bags of charcoal worth approximately US$1 200 were recovered from a truck in Gokwe that was headed for Harare.
In one of their blitz, a Forestry Commission ranger targeting problem areas in the Midlands province arrested two charcoal dealers in Copper Queen and one timber poacher, who was transporting wood banana -semi processed timber.
The value of the timber is approximately US$200.
These are just but two of thousands of cases where firewood poachers, charcoal and timber poachers are arrested, but in many cases, they reach their destination as evidenced by availability of these commodities in towns and cities.
To date, over ZWL$400 000 fines have been issued to firewood poachers and charcoal dealers across the country since the launch of the blitz in August, but is it deterrent enough?
Deforestation and woodland degradation are issues of great concern in Zimbabwe. Debate on these issues has identified a number of causes, which include expansion of arable land, demand for wood fuel, construction poles and urban expansion.
Zimbabwe has about 54 percent (21 million hectares) proportion of land covered by forest with an estimated rate of deforestation at 1,5 percent per year.
Over the years, Zimbabwe has witnessed a reduction in the quantity and quality of its natural resources, mainly as a result of uncontrolled deforestation due to erratic power supply and lack of alternative and clean energy sources as a result of urban expansion.
The majority of people in Zimbabwe, both in the rural and urban areas, live off natural resources for farming and energy and this has led to increasing deforestation and land degradation across the country.
So, the quest for survival has given birth to rampant cutting down of trees impacting negatively on the environment.
At Mapfungautsi Forest in Gokwe South, there is massive siltation of minor and major rivers, which mirrors a sad case around the whole country as a result of soil erosion caused by the loss of tree cover.
Environmentalists say the end result will be a decline in agricultural production.
Forestry Commission Midlands provincial manager Mr Roderick Nyahwai said continuous efforts were being made to curb this problem.
“Our blitz is still ongoing and targeting all problem areas in the province. Two charcoal dealers and one timber poacher. The value of the timber is approximately US$200. Approximately 20 tonnes of charcoal was recovered and was destined for Harare, according to the suspects,” Mr Nyahwai said.
It is widely acknowledged that human beings are largely responsible for the widespread alteration of ecosystems on the planet. The forest loss affects the national interest to produce goods and ecosystem services and this translates into a substantial contribution to greenhouse gas emissions.
During the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP-13 in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007, the international community called upon countries to explore the concept of reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) as a new mechanism to combine forest protection with objectives of climate protection, biodiversity conservation and improvement of local livelihoods.
Mr Nyahwai said deforestation in the Midlands province in areas such as Mapfungautsi were rife largely due to an increase in firewood demand, charcoal production and general expansion of human settlements.
“Deforestation and woodland degradation are issues of great concern in our province and the country at large.
Deforestation is very serious and the rate of deforestation is just too much in districts such as Gokwe, Zvishavane and Gweru. We are losing forests in Copper Queen more than any other areas due to charcoal. The most disappointing thing is that they are using Mopane, which is one of the slowest growing indigenous tree species,” he said.
Mapfungautsi Forest, Mr Nyahwai said, was gazetted in 1953, measuring 101 000 hectares, but half of it has been taken over by illegal settlers.
It was established primarily to protect the fragile Kalahari sand plateau.
The forest area/plateau is also a source of four rivers forming a radial drainage pattern, which are Sengwa, Mbumbusi, Lutope and Ngondoma.
“There are thousands of families surviving from the four rivers and deforestation taking place is causing siltation of the rivers from where they start and also downstream,” he said.
There are very valuable timber species in Mapfungautsi Forest such as teak, mukwa and mahogany and these have since been depleted due to illegal settlements.
“Mapfungautsi constitutes the Hwange-Sanyati biological corridor that allows wildlife to move freely from the western side of the country to central and northern parts of the country. The forest cover of the two areas is critical carbon stocks which is an important element in climate change issues. They are also an important evaporation base in the rainfall making process,” said Mr Nyahwai.
He said there have been 147 cumulative arrests of firewood dealers and 48 charcoal dealers.
“Fines in the province are now at ZWL$563 785, while vehicles impounded so far are 21 and 12 scotch carts,” said Mr Nyahwai.
Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu said the Government was alive to the effects of deforestation across the country.
He said to curb deforestation, the Forestry Commission had embarked on a national blitz targeting firewood poachers, charcoal traders and timber poachers.
“It’s now been more than a month that we’ve been running the blitz against perpetrators of deforestation. Tickets issued nationally have surpassed ZWL$4 million, vehicles have been detained for a period and we believe it has been very effective,” said Minister Ndlovu.
He said as a long-term deterrent measure, the Ministry had concluded the Forestry Amendment Bill, which was waiting for the President’s assent.
“Once the Bill becomes law, there will be stiffer penalties for deforestation. We have moved fine levels up. We are also increasing surveillance and this should not be an operation, but part of the core business of Forestry Commission rangers to monitor our forests, especially in hot spots where people are producing charcoal,” said Minister Ndlovu.
He said deforestation is competing with the human need for energy and also the need to conserve indigenous forests.
“We plan to intensify other alternative sources such as biogas for our communities. We’re working with the Ministry of Energy and Power Development so that we don’t continue looking at forests as a source of energy when there are cheaper alternatives like biogas,” said Minister Ndlovu.
Zimbabwe loses about 330 000 hectares of natural forests annually to deforestation. Deforestation has led to a loss of more than 21 percent of Zimbabwe’s forest cover over the past two decades.
Forests and trees outside forests contribute to food security through provision of forest foods and incomes and protection of soils and water resources on which agriculture depends.