MUTARE – Residents of Chimanimani are bitter that the timber industry that used to sustain thousands of lives and support the growth of its urban settlement in Ngangu has been destroyed because of government’s poor land policies.
Although its tourism sector was only second to Victoria Falls in 1999 it has suffered due to the ricochet effect of poor handling of the land reform as most people in this region depended on agro-business for their livelihoods.
Charter Estate, a Border Timbers concern, is a pale shadow of its glory days as charred remains of its pine forests burn the retina. Its remaining timber is unpruned and choking with weed while haphazard settlements are strewn across the estate.
And the locals are angry at government for resettling people in plantations.
“The blame goes to government and ruling party politicians. Unless they move in to restore sanity in this sector their vote among the educated will continue to dwindle,” Phibion Rusinga opines.
The 30-year-old Rusinga feels the ruling party sacrificed the local economy for a few thousand votes.
He said any talk of being open for business should be based on bringing sanity to the sector.
“For us the ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ mantra does not mean anything until we see them moving in to clear the squatters.
“The squatters may be our families but they are frustrating our local economy. They surely can be settled elsewhere and not in plantations where they start fires just to spite the company. It’s us who are suffering now,” Rusinga, a qualified fitter and turner said.
He is one of many who pursued technical training that was relevant for the industry but are no longer needed as companies fold up.
Susan Chikavhanga an elderly local resident also believes government needs to urgently bring sanity to the forestry industry.
“This sector bore so much potential to our children. We sent them to college to do courses that were in line with the local economy but it’s all gone to waste now,” Chikavhanga whose son did forestry and had to relocate to Mozambique where he got employment said.
Beyond the squatter problem which was driven by politicians, government’s chaotic land reform programme also sought at one point to transform even commercially viable State-run agricultural concerns into communal land use.
It, however, made a U-turn by barring the resettlement of people in plantations in spite of gazetting huge tracts in a ruinous assault on the country’s leading timber industries’ land tenure security – driving away millions of dollars’ worth of foreign investment.
It later announced that it had developed a policy sparing thousands of hectares of plantations from being parcelled out in spite of having already gazetted these for resettlement, a move that brought relief to the agricultural sector.
But where people had already been settled the anomaly is yet to be corrected as is the case with people settled in Tarka Estate in Chimanimani where they continue to pose fire risk to government-owned Allied Timbers.
Manicaland provincial lands committee said in a statement a year ago that plantations will enjoy the same privilege and protection that has also been extended to the dairy industry.
“The same applies with dairy. Unless otherwise there are very special circumstances then it will be dealt with,” government said.
The move to gazette large tracts of plantations disrupted their viability and allowed for Zanu PF activists to move in often to plunder mature trees armed with dubiously obtained offer letters.
Insurers and investors have also being driven out of the sector due to plantations having been swamped by illegal settlers.
Government has for years been dithering on removing squatters who continue to scare off investors in the sector.
Timber players in trying to appease government had even ceded thousands of hectares hoping to have their enterprises spared.
According to Timber Producers’ Federation (TPF) Wattle Company ceded 2 030 hectares of its plantations for resettlement purposes but it still does not have control over a further 20 hectares which has illegal settlers sustaining approximately 2 640 individuals.
Border Timbers was, however, the biggest loser after losing control of about 4 882 hectares to 1 650 families of its commercial forest land with Allied Timbers losing 3 106 hectares to 5 952 individuals.
“Our hope depends on the timber industry here in Chimanimani and we hope government will move with speed to bring order into this sector otherwise we didn’t see anything under the so-called new dispensation and we won’t expect much under the so-called second republic for as long as there is no sanity in the timber industry,”
Jacob Ngorima an unemployed middle-aged man from Ngangu said.
This currently stands as the biggest test for the new government about its seriousness to restore the economy to locals.