Commercial timber plantations under threat from illegal settlers

CHIMANIMANI — this semi-tropical region of Zimbabwe — which has large tracts of beautiful, evergreen landscapes — has some of the country’s biggest commercial timber plantations that sit perfectly on its mountainous terrain and blend well with the flora and fauna of all types, and the free-flowing rivers and streams.

BY TAPIWA ZIVIRA

Illegal miners cut down trees before gouging into the earth in search of gold, and for them, the impact on the environment is none of their business

Illegal miners cut down trees before gouging into the earth in search of gold, and for them, the impact on the environment is none of their business

From this beauty, Zimbabwe gets 3 to 4% gross domestic product, and over 10 000 jobs.

According to the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe (FCZ), “the commercial timber industry is one of the major pillars of the economy as it provides direct employment for over 10 000 people and downstream industries employing over 20 000 people”.

In addition to this, commercial forest plantations act as water catchment areas and are sources to some of the major rivers in the entire Manicaland province.

Some of the rivers that get their water from the forests are Mutare, Pungwe, Honde, Odzi, Rusitu, Tanganda, Mhakwe and Changazi.

The commercial timber plantations are made up of exotic timber species which can only grow well under high rainfall, cool temperatures and high altitudes.

So rare is such a perfect climate that the Chimanimani forests occupy only 200 000 of the 39 million hectares of Zimbabwe’s total land area or precisely about 0,5%.

From that little corner, near the border with Mozambique, these forests have sufficiently provided Zimbabwe and Southern Africa with most its timber needs since their establishment in the 1960s.

But all this is under a huge threat from illegal settlers.

Timber Producers’ Federation head Darlington Duwa said there was need to reverse the mining grants in the forest areas to safeguard and protect the multimillion dollar investments by both government and foresters.

The illegal settlers who have invaded some parts of the commercial forests, have not only started to decimate the environment, but have also made the timber firms’ job difficult as they encroach into the heart of the forest area thereby disrupting commercial activity.

Some of the settlers are cutting down the commercial trees to carry out destructive agricultural activities that not only push soil erosion, but threaten the balance of the entire ecosystem in the commercial forests.

One of the forests, Tandaai occupies over 5 000 hectares, but 200 of these are already occupied by over 60 illegal settlers.

Unaware of the consequence to the forest investments and the environment, the settlers have also destroyed the vast tracts of land through bush fires that spread across the plantations, destroying not only the trees, but kill animals.

Allied Timbers forest economist Dominic Kwesha said their assessment on the impact of fires showed that in 2015, they lost 9 000 hectares of plantations, with 4 000 of these having been completely destroyed.

“Last year fire destroyed 4000 hectares and a thousand were completely destroyed,” Kwesha said.

Trees take up to 25 years and huge financial investments to mature, and so the wanton destruction of forests impact a huge loss to the timber industry.

It is not just the settlers who are threatening the industry — illegal miners were also destroying the beautiful scenery in the Eastern Highlands.

Kwesha said a multi-temporal satellite imagery assessment they undertook last year, confirmed that gold miners and settlers had destroyed 45 000 hectares of commercial timber forests.

Tarka Forest could be the most affected of them all with illegal settlers eating into the forest area while illegal gold panners indiscriminately creating gullies in the forest.

The illegal miners cut down trees before gouging into the earth in search of gold, and for them, the impact on the environment is none of their business.

They disturb the environment by diverting rivers and streams to their little gold mills. The effect of this to the environment is that the mercury and other substances used in gold panning contaminate the water bodies.

A visit to the forests confirmed the state of the destruction of both forest areas by the illegal settlers and gold panners who swamped the areas through coercion from politicians eager to create a strong base for voters.

The mining activities have left huge gullies and crevices that may take years to heal. When NewsDay visited the area recently, some of the panners refused to speak to the news crew and hurled insults at this reporter. They also threatened to unleash violence if the reporters persisted on getting information about their activities.

However, government officials told NewsDay that while the forests were protected under an Act of Parliament, through FCZ, some State corporations were working at cross purposes as various pieces of legislation presented major sticking points in efforts to remove the settlers.

The Forestry Act, which reserved the Chimanimani forests as protected, states that it requires presidential assent to de-commission the forests.

But in total disregard of the Forestry Act, some miners were operating, under the Mining Act, having reportedly acquired licences to mine in the areas protected by the Forestry Act.

This has left the FCZ grappling to control the situation as the miners and settlers both claim to be custodians of the forests legally.

FCZ acting general manager Abednego Marufu called for immediate action to evict the illegal settlers.

It however appears politics is at play in the conflict as one of the illegal settlers who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were entitled to settle in the forests as they had enough “political backing”.

“We are not here by coincidence, tine vakuru vedu (we have our leaders’ backing),” he said, without giving names.

Allied Timbers of Zimbabwe chief executive officer Dan Sithole also called for the protection of forests and urged political intervention or a crisis indaba to map the way forward in an effort to resolve the conflict.