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.
“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,” said Marylin Smith, an independent conservationist. 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. Zimbabwe currently has 88,167 tobacco growers, whom environmental activists say are the catalysts of looming desertification.
“Curing tobacco 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, told IPS. “But really, it is difficult to object to firewood use when this is the only energy source most rural people have,” 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,” said Raymond Siziba, an agricultural extension officer.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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 make a living, with environmentalists accusing them of fuelling deforestation.
“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,” said 31-year-old Collina Hokonya, a single mother of three residing in Harare’s high density Mbare suburb.
“We are into the timber business not by choice, but because of joblessness and we therefore want to make money in order to survive,” added Mevion Javangwe, an indigenous timber merchant based in Harare.
“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,” said Elson Moyo, a village head in Vesera village in Mwenezi, 144 kilometres south-west of Masvingo.
“Politicians are plundering and looting the hardwood forest reserves since they own most sawmills, with their relatives fronting for them. They don’t pay a cent to council authorities and truly how do people get motivated to play a part in conserving hardwood forests?” asks Owen Dliwayo, a civil society activist.