EDITORIAL COMMENT : Charcoal threat: Let’s all be agents of change

This year’s National Tree Planting Day should provide an opportunity to reflect on, and audit current and previous strategies at re-greening the countryside in the wake of a new threat from charcoal merchants.

Driving the demand for fuel wood are power cuts, some lasting for periods of up to 18 hours a day.

Power is available to most consumers, but only at times when the majority are asleep. Consequently, this has seen an increase in demand for charcoal as a new alternative source of energy requirements for urban dwellers.

Forests lost to veld fires stand at 330 000 hectares annually nation-wide. Now, added to this environmental destruction is deforestation resulting from an escalating demand for fuel wood.

While veld fires are a perennial threat, the question arising from this is the measurable/evidential impacts of national campaigns designed to counter the threat from deforestation and the environmental wastelands they leave in their wake.

The National Tree Planting Day is meant to amplify the importance of maintaining a balance in the ecosystems and for communities to preserve and protect.

While an average of five million trees were being planted annually up to the first decade of the millennium, Zimbabwe lost more than 20 percent of its forest cover during the first decade and half of the new millennium. But this was before the emergence of the threat from charcoal merchants.

Forests areas in Chiredzi, Chirundu, Hwange, Mt Darwin, Mudzi and Muzarabani are being decimated by charcoal trading syndicates, who then transport the charcoal into urban centres in the dead of the night.

The tragedy is that the people being lured to decimate the forests are the same communities who will bear the brunt of deforestation, environmental degradation, soil erosion and other unintended consequences of the pillage and plunder of their natural resources.

A villager, abetting the destruction of forests in his community/district earns $12 a bag, but once the same bag of charcoal lands in Harare, it fetches as much as six times more than the amount paid to the villager.

The police and the Environmental Management Agency should work together to effectively deal with, and put an end to the threat.

Their responses so far are far from reassuring.

A multi-faceted approach is required to address and arrest this threat. It could begin with the 2019 National Tree Planting Day programme of activities.

The first approach could involve a blitz awareness campaign initially targeting the six areas in the country where the problem has become rampant.

The second approach could seek to engage village heads and other traditional leaders, such as chiefs, on this new threat to the environment, because they must surely be aware of the activities being conducted in areas under their jurisdiction.

The same campaign could be rolled out to communities and schools in the affected areas.

A schools campaign would be an investment ensuring school-going children are fully aware of the need to protect and preserve their natural forest resources for posterity.

One of the reasons villagers are being lured to destroy forests in their districts is because of the monetary reward.

But if there were public works programmes/food-for-work schemes in the affected areas, it is possible the villagers would not be unwitting accomplices in the destruction of forests in areas they inhabit.

Therefore, this year’s National Tree Planting Day is an opportunity for climate change  organisations and campaigners to move into the six affected areas and become champion change agents.

This would be a worthwhile investment, one that contributes to international efforts against global warming and desertification.

While reclaiming the lost dividends by re-greening areas that have been deforested as a result of the trade fuelled by charcoal merchants, among others, the Government, the Environmental Management Agency, the Forest Commission, non-governmental organisations and international agencies should seize the opportunity presented by this year’s National Tree Planting Day to focus on planting indigenous trees, particularly fruit trees as they contribute to household food security.

Always, these efforts should be accompanied by a campaign drawing the attention of all communities affected to the short-term benefits against the threat. Significantly though, the campaigns should offer alternative solutions.

This is an opportunity that should not be missed because as has become evident from gold panning, the lure of money wreaks environmental degradation that is costly to rectify.