There’s a buzz in Zimbabwe’s lush forests, home to many animal species, but it’s not bees, bugs or other wildlife. It’s the sound of a high-speed saw, slicing through the heart of these ancient stands to clear land for tobacco growing, to log wood for commercial export and to supply local area charcoal sellers.
This, despite Zimbabwe being obliged under the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to ensure environmental sustainability by the end of this year.
“The rate at which deforestation is occurring here will convert Zimbabwe into an outright desert in just 35 years if pragmatic solutions are not proffered urgently and also if people keep razing down trees for firewood without regulation,” Marylin Smith, an independent conservationist based in Masvingo, Zimbabwe’s oldest town, and former staffer in the government of President Robert Mugabe, told IPS.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Zimbabwe lost an annual average of 327,000 hectares of forests between 1990 and 2010.
Smith blamed Zimbabwe’s deforestation on the growing numbers of tobacco farmers who were cutting “millions of tonnes of firewood each year to treat the cash crop.”
According to the country’s Tobacco Industry Marketing Board, Zimbabwe currently has 88,167 tobacco growers, whom environmental activists say are the catalysts of looming desertification here.
“Curing tobacco using huge quantities of firewood and even increased domestic use of firewood in both rural and urban areas will leave Zimbabwe without forests and one has to imagine how the country would look like after the demise of the forests,” Thabilise Mlotshwa, an ecologist from Save the Environment Association, an environmental lobby group here, told IPS.
“But really, it is difficult to object to firewood use when this is the only energy source most rural people have despite the environment being the worst casualty,” Mlotshwa added.
Zimbabwe’s deforestation crisis is linked to several factors.
“There are thousands of timber merchants who have no mercy with our trees as they see ready cash in almost every tree and therefore don’t spare the trees in order to earn money,” Raymond Siziba, an agricultural extension officer based in Mvurwi, a district approximately 100 kilometres north of the Zimbabwean capital Harare, told IPS.
According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat), there were 66,250 timber merchants nationwide last year alone.
Deforestation is a complex issue. A recent study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that during the decade from 1980 to 1990, the world’s tropical forests were reduced by an average of 15.4 million hectares per year (an 0.8 percent annual rate of deforestation).
The area of land cleared during the decade is equivalent to nearly three times the size of France.
Developing countries rely heavily on wood fuel, the major energy source for cooking and heating. In Africa, the statistics are striking: an estimated 90 percent of the entire continent’s population uses fuelwood for cooking, and in sub-Saharan Africa, firewood and brush supply approximately 52 percent of all energy sources.
Zimbabwe is not the only sub-Saharan country facing a crisis in its forests. A panel run by the United Nations and the African Union and led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki found that in Mozambique thousands more logs were exported to China than were legally reported.
Disappearing forest cover is a particular problem in Ghana, where non-timber forest products provide sustenance and income for 2.5 million people living in or near forest communities.
Between 1990 and 2005, Ghana lost over one-quarter of its total national forest cover. At the current rate of deforestation, the country’s forests could completely disappear in less than 25 years. Current attempts to address deforestation have stalled due to lack of collaboration between stakeholders and policy makers.
In west equatorial Africa, a study by Greenpeace has called logging the single biggest threat to the Congo Basin rainforest. At the moment, logging companies working mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are busy cutting down trees in over 50 million hectares of rainforest, or an area the size of France, according to its website.
An estimated 20 to 25 percent of annual deforestation is thought to be due to commercial logging. Another 15 to 20 percent is attributed to other activities such as cattle ranching, cash crop plantations and the construction of dams, roads, and mines.
However, deforestation is primarily caused by the activities of the general population. As the Zimbabwe economy plummets, indigenous timber merchants are on the rise, battling to eke a living, with environmentalists accusing them of fuelling deforestation.
For many rural dwellers, lack of electricity in most rural areas is creating unsustainable pressures on forests in Zimbabwe.
“Like several other remote parts of Zimbabwe, we have no electricity here and for years we have been depending on firewood, which is the main source of energy for rural dwellers even for the past generations, and you can just imagine the amount of deforestation remote areas continue to suffer,” 61-year-old Irene Chikono, a teacher from Mutoko, 143 kilometres east of Harare, told IPS.
Even Zimbabweans with access to electricity are at the mercy of erratic power supplies from the state-owned Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), which is failing to meet electricity demand owing to inadequate finances to import power.
“With increasing electricity outages here, I often resort to buying firewood from vendors at local market stalls, who get this from farms neighbouring the city,” 31-year-old Collina Hokonya, a single mother of three residing in Harare’s high density Mbare suburb, told IPS.
Government claims it is doing all it can to combat deforestation but, faced with this country’s faltering economy, indigenous timber merchants and villagers say it may be hard for them to refrain from tree-felling.
“We are into the timber business not by choice, but because of joblessness and we therefore want to make money in order to survive,” Mevion Javangwe, an indigenous timber merchant based in Harare, told IPS.
“A gradual return of people from cities to lead rural life as the economy worsens is adding pressure on rural forests as more and more people cut down trees for firewood,” Elson Moyo, a village head in Vesera village in Mwenezi, 144 kilometres south-west of Masvingo, told IPS.
“Politicians are plundering and looting the hardwood forest reserves since they own most sawmills, with their relatives fronting for them,” Owen Dliwayo, a civil society activist based in Chipinge, an eastern border town of Zimbabwe, told IPS.
“For all the forests that politicians plunder, they don’t pay a cent to council authorities and truly how do people get motivated to play a part in conserving hardwood forests?” Dliwayo asked.
“We will only manage to fight deforestation if government brings electricity to our doorsteps because without electricity we will keep cutting down trees for firewood,” said Chikono.
Edited by Lisa Vives/Phil Harri