via Deforestation must be curbed | The Herald April 14, 2014 by Jeffrey Gogo
Zimbabwe tobacco industry is beginning to wake up to the realities of the amount of damage inflicted on the environment due to the production of the crop.
The Sustainable Afforestation Association (SAA), a six-month old coaltion of top tobacco firms, merchants and Government, has come up with an ambitious afforestation project to stem the unsustainable loss of 7,5 million trees each year to tobacco-related work.
Smallholder farmers are destroying that much amount of forests yearly or 15 percent of all deforestation, according to the Forestry Commission, obtaining firewood critical in the curing of tobacco, Zimbabwe’s biggest cash crop.
But that damage causes severe environmental headaches at a time of rapidly changing climates.
Deforestation and forest degradation contribute globally to approximately 17 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions such as methane and carbon dioxide, the chief culprits behind global warming and climate change.
Yet, forests can act as sponges capable of removing those gases from the atmosphere and giving off indespensable oxygen.
Now, the SAA wants to build forests for the future.
The Association plans to spend approximately $33,5 million over the next seven years in programmes meant to curb deforestation from tobacco-related activities.
Until now, little effort has gone towards controlling the unsustainable levels of deforestation meted out, principally, by smallholder tobacco growers.
The money will be raised through a 0,5 percent levy on the country’s net annual tobacco earnings, Maggie Okore, chief executive of the SAA who are driving the project, said during a tour of a new plantation at Rothwell Farm in Zvimba last week. However, that levy will reach 1.5 percent in the current year to boost plantations growth.
“Tobacco is a national crop that brings immense revenue, but its production is destroying the environment. Through this afforestation project, we hope to minimise that damage,” said Okore.
From last year’s tobacco sales, the Association received over $3 million, part of which has already been used to plant 600 hectares or 1.3 million trees of the fast growing eucalyptus specie on leased land at Zvimba, Kadoma and Featherstone.
The first harvest will happen after seven years, Okore said, after which the timber will be sold to farmers at the prevailing market rates.
Between now and 2021, the SAA will plant, on the average, 5 000 hectares of forests every year at a cost of US$950 per hectare. That’s about 11 million trees each year.
The SAA does not have farms of their own, but have negotiated partnerships with land owners.
Farmers get 20 percent of output and can choose to continue with the project when the SAA eventually pulls out in 17 years, after three harvests.
The trees are planted during the rainy season to capitalise on the rains and avert moisture stress, now increasingly becoming common due to the increased frequecy of droughts.
“This is a very good project” said Lloyd Mubaiwa, a career forester who has regional experience working at SADC helping to establish plantation forests, and the SAA’s manager for Mashonaland West.
“It will serve as a model for the whole region. This has been a big stride by Zimbabwe in starting a project of this kind.”
Forests for the future
The project by the SAA is a good one for the future, but does nothing to address the critical deforestation crisis of the present day.
Seven years is too long a period to wait for benefits needed today to start manifesting.
For what we need immediately to curb deforestation or reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations through sequestration, the project achieves neither, at least not for the next several years.
However, if the SAA can sustain and meet the 66 million trees target by 2021, then those twin benefits might be fulfilled.
By estimate, it follows the Association’s projects will manage to surpass or equal the number of forests lost every year from tobacco-related work, if they can plant 11 million trees or 5 000ha yearly for the coming 7 years.
In the meantime, smallholder tobacco farmers, the biggest drivers of forest loss in the industry, continue to swell pausing new risks to Zimbabwe’s indigenous forests.
The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board expects the number of registered tobacco growers in the current year to rise 19.4 percent to 105 000.
More than 80 percent of the farmers will be small-scale, who practice poor farming methods that strain biodiversity.
What Zimbabwe needs to control deforestation linked to tobacco in the short-term is agressive action from Government and the private sector to push the use of cleaner alternative fuels such as solar.
“There is still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Ms Okore concurred.
“Yes we are planting trees, but it’s a drop in the ocean. There is need to vigourously pursue the issue of sustainable alternative fuels. This is a gap that needs filling.”
The TIMB chief executive Dr Andrew Matibiri said by email recently that their plan to promote coal, a dirty fossil fuel, was failing due to high costs.
Farmers were struggling to move the commodity from Hwange, which is over 800km from the main tobacco farming areas in Mashonaland and Manicaland.
The coal is sold in blocks of 40 tonnes at between US$150 and US$200 per tonne. Dr Matibiri said that the price was too steep for most smallholder farmers, unless it was sold in smaller quantities.
Coal is not a friend of the environment.
Its production and burning release methane gas and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the foremost gases driving global warming and climate change.
However, by using coal in tobacco curing, it was hoped forests would be spared to perform their carbon sink function, cancelling out emissions from coal.
Affordability, fire threat
If the SAA’s plants escape Zimbabwe’s runaway veld fires, which destroyed 1.2 million hectares of land in 2013, then they are likely to face resistance from farmers on pricing.
The current average price for a cube of timber is US$6,50. A cube equals 450kg of firewood.
So a farmer producing 20 bales of tobacco of average weight 120kg each will require at least US$312, excluding transport, to purchase 48 cubes of timber necessary to cure his crop in any one season.
That is 21 tonnes of firewood, using figures provided by the Tobacco Research Board in a previous interview that 9kg of wood cures a kg of tobacco.
The costs for transporting such a huge amount of firewood can easily put off anyone, let alone a communal farmer accustomed to harvesting a nearby forest where the major expense is that only of a well sharpened axe.
The failure in the coal project, where less than 30 percent of the farmers have taken up the alternative should provide valuable lessons as regards smallscale farmers’ attitude towards anything that increases production costs.
That is not to say the SAA ought to be stopped in its tracks, far from it. But Government should tighten the monitoring of the Statutory Instrument 116 of 2012, which, among other things, forces farmers to create woodlots on their lands for purposes of tobacco curing.
Stronger advocacy for adopting smarter energy alternatives should also be pursued.
It is clear the SI is being flouted and efforts at minisiming deforestation from tobacco are faltering. Clearly and painfully, in the short-term, the war on forest loss from tobacco is lost.
God is faithful.