Source: Timber industry raises flag | The Financial Gazette March 9, 2017
•Miners, settlers ravage forest reserves
•Conflicting legislation fuelling situation
THE road bravely snakes through interlocking spurs, creating a memorable spectacle as it penetrates swanky forests dressing the high Chimanimani mountains.
Verdant commercial timber forests spread as far and wide as the eye can see.
Established in the 1960s to create a vibrant industry that gave birth to a unique economy, the forests have until now, satisfied construction, furniture and paper demands in the entire southern African region.
The forests are vanishing.
Zimbabwe’s commercial timber forests, which showcase the country’s spectacular biodiversity, have become a haven for criminal activities that are leaving a trail of environmental devastation.
Chimanimani district is one of the country’s few most bio diverse places in the country due to the variation in altitudes and climates — from high mountains to pristine natural and commercial timber forests which are home to many rich and varied ecosystems.
A visit into the dense jungles, however, reveals a sad situation where large swathes of timber plantations are being decimated by illegal miners who are relentlessly digging for gold from one side.
Besieging the forests from the other side, is an army of illegal settlers that has occupied the forests, rampantly uprooting, cutting and burning substantial coppices to prepare homes, thereby replacing foreign currency earning timberlands with subsistence crop fields.
The Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe (FCZ), which is the custodian of the country’s gazetted forests, is struggling to contain the situation as both the miners and settlers claim to have legal rights to the land.
An enquiry by the Financial Gazette established a legal conflict in the applicable legislation.
It would appear that three laws, namely the Forestry Act, the Mining Act and the Rural District Councils Act are conniving to endanger the entire timber industry through land degradation.
Commercial forestry plantations were gazetted as protected forests under the Forestry Act (Chapter 19:05) after government felt the country needed timber for construction.
The Act demarcates 15 plantation forests in Chimanimani, including Tarka and Tandayi forests, which are the worst affected, to ensure there is enough timber.
Sections 35 and 36 of the law states that no one has authority to de-gazette these forests without presidential approval, which means they cannot be used for anything else except for timber plantation.
However, despite such provisions, some of the miners operating in the protected forests claim to have mining licenses from government under the Mining Act, while the Chimanimani Rural District Council is charging timber companies US$3 per hectare levy per year, inclusive of land which has been invaded by gold diggers and settlers.
FCZ learnt of the scale of destruction in a multi-temporal satellite imagery assessment it conducted last year, which revealed that over 45 000 hectares of commercial timber plantations have been destroyed by gold miners and settlers in the last 10 years.
At just 200 000 hectares, commercial timber forests occupy 0,5 percent of Zimbabwe’s total land size of 39 million hectares.
The forest industry lost a total of 14 000 hectares of these forests in the last two years alone.
The timber industry is thus feeling the full effects as it is now on the brink of total collapse, with some companies such as Border Timbers, Mutare Board and Paper Mills and the Wattle Company already suffering heavy knocks.
Players in the industry have since raised the red flag and are calling for an all-stakeholders convention to address the situation.
Their concerns stem from the fact that timber forests are being destroyed at a faster rate than they can be replenished, and the country could be forced to import timber if urgent measures are not taken.
Zimbabwe has been able to satisfy local timber demand since 1986 and even produce surplus timber for export to Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.
Zambia, Malawi and Botswana sorely rely on Zimbabwe for timber.
Also, there could be grave climatic consequences because the timber forests have helped combat effects of climate change through their carbon sequestration abilities.
There are also other environment dangers whereby gold panners are diverting river courses that flow through the forests to places where they use mercury and cyanide to extract the precious mineral before releasing the poisoned, murky water into Chisengu River, a tributary of the bigger Rusitu River whose waters are used by many communities downstream. Rusitu then carries the contaminated water into Mozambique, where authorities are understood to have raised concerns about the pollution by Zimbabwe of the shared water body.
At its peak in the 1990s, the timber industry directly employed around 50 000 people, but now manages just 5 000.
Towns and cities such as Mutare, Chipinge, Nyanga and Chimanimani have their foundations on the timber industry, on which their sustainability also depends.
It is a multi-million dollar industry which, despite being in a quandary, still contributes around four percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
All this could be lost if urgent corrective action is not taken.
In fact, players said Zimbabwe had just enough timber to last the next nine years.
“We really have to think again and intensify our efforts to protect and manage the forests. We don’t want to impoverish ourselves,” said Allied Timbers of Zimbabwe (ATZ) chief executive officer (CEO), Dan Sithole.
“We are calling for political intervention. The diminishing commercial timber forest land is a result of leadership failure at local, district, provincial and national level. What is needed is a crisis indaba where we can all put our heads together to resolve the issue right now,” said Sithole.
The environmental degradation is causing the commercial timber forests to disappear fast, said Darlington Duwa, CEO of the Timber Producers Federation.
“The situation is really bad. Diversion of rivers where the terrain is steep and soils can be eroded easily is causing serious damage to the environment and in such a scenario, normal forest activity cannot take place,” he said.
“The mining grants must be reversed; we appeal to government to reconsider their issue and stop all mining operations in the gazetted forests.
“The industry has raised the red flag that Zimbabwe is bound to import timber if the situation is allowed to continue,” he added.
Forestry economist, Dominic Kwesha, said these areas are unique in that they are the only places where timber species such as wattle, pine and eucalyptus, can grow well.