Firewood at a price
The road to Ingwavuma goes through a dustbowl. The veld is parched and the trees are stunted.
Piles of firewood lie on the side of the road, awaiting potential buyers on their way to Sodwana and Kosi Bay.
But no one can be seen near this loot—indigenous hardwood—an indication that illegal trade may be taking place.
Anyone who cuts down an indigenous tree requires a permit that is issued by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. Very few, if any, have been issued to rural residents of the Ubombo and Ingwavuma districts of Maputaland.
When confronted by conservation officials, the illegal gatherers often say “they are just gathering the dead wood that is lying around. This is hard to disprove,” says Mandla Tembe, a conservation officer with KZN Wildlife. “We are trying to convince these people that the trees are being wiped out. But they don’t believe us because they see so many trees. They don’t realise that some species are on the brink of disappearing because they can’t tell one species from another.”
The permit system and prosecuting people are not popular measures for enforcing compliance; the best approach is to involve communities in conservation programmes. KZN Wildlife has introduced a programme in Ndumo to persuade people to replant the trees they cut down.
“Even though we are only really responsible for proclaimed areas we cannot sit back and allow people to cut down trees in rural areas ... we are working with the department and the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa [to reverse the damage caused],” says KZN Wildlife spokesperson Maureen Mndaweni.
Another initiative that complements the programme is the University of Pretoria’s Centre for Indigenous Environmental Knowledge, based at Phelindaba in Maputaland.
“The centre set up an indigenous nursery so that people can replant trees and they are doing research into the indigenous uses of these trees,” says Sipho Masuku, assistant director of forestry at the department.
Masuku says the department has deployed fieldworkers to implement a participatory forestry management project. “We interview the rural people about their use of trees, be it for medicine, firewood or shade purposes. Then we encourage them to plant the trees they need.”
To make the programmes effective conservation authorities included traditional chiefs in the process.
“We are working with the chiefs to make the protection of trees part of traditional law. If the chiefs warn people to look after the trees it takes on a whole new aspect and becomes part of their own by-laws. And then the rural communities will enforce it themselves,” says Masuku. “Also, any fines for contravening the laws then go into the rural funds and can be used by the people themselves.”
Cooperation from traditional healers has been phenomenal. “They can see that the trees are diminishing and that certain species are disappearing. They are very anxious to replant these trees so that the source of their muti does not disappear. But the ordinary people don’t care,” Tembe says.
He attributes the illegal trade in firewood to drought. “It has not rained since January. There is no grazing and no crops. Selling firewood is often the only income they have.”