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Sunday, February 08, 2015
Chopping down the forests
Zimbabwe's lush forests, home to many animal species are being cleared for tobacco growing, to log wood for commercial export and to supply local area charcoal sellers. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Zimbabwe lost an annual average of 327,000 hectares of forests between 1990 and 2010.
"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, and former staffer in the government of President Robert Mugabe, told IPS. 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 "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. 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. 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. For many rural dwellers, lack of electricity in most rural areas is creating unsustainable pressures on forests in Zimbabwe. 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. "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, 61-year-old Irene Chikono, a teacher from Mutoko, 143 kilometres east of Harare.
"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. According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat), there were 66,250 timber merchants nationwide last year.
"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.
"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.
Disappearing forest cover is also 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.