Ish Mafundikwa in Mhondoro Ngezi
Miller Chizema walked through the woodlands near his home and came across a pile of freshly-cut logs, a sight that caused dismay and anger.
The logs were arranged in such a way that they were ready to be burnt into charcoal — a fuel that has become a substitute source of energy, at a terrible cost to the natural environment.
“It hurts to see trees decimated like this,” said Chizema, who lives in Mhondoro Ngezi, a district in the province of Mashonaland West.
Some loggers come from as far as Harare, about 150km away, “where we hear there is a big demand for charcoal”, he said. “We, as elders, try to discourage the practice, but it’s all about money and survival.”
For nearly six months Zimbabwe has been in the grip of power cuts, sometimes running to 19 hours a day. The price of gas has increased more than six-fold since the beginning of the year, placing it beyond the reach of many. For lower-income urbanites, firewood and charcoal have become the main sources of energy — and rogue logging is the result.
Zimbabwe is losing more than 330 000 hectares of woodlands every year, according to Abednigo Marufu, general manager of the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission.
“There is no electricity and our people need to feed themselves, they need heating in their homes,” he said.
But “agriculture is still the number one driver of deforestation”. A controversial land reform programme launched in 2000 saw people clear land for cultivation. “Some of them started growing tobacco and cut down trees to use for curing their crop.”
The practice continues, because farmers view wood to be free compared with other options.
Authorities are confronted with an enforcement conundrum. Charcoal production is outlawed in Zimbabwe but it can be imported from neighbouring Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, with special permits.
Marufu said no such licences had been issued for over a year, yet Zimbabwe was awash with charcoal. “How do you then know what charcoal is imported and locally produced?” he asked rhetorically.
Darkened patches are evidence of where the logs have been piled and burned in Mhondoro Ngezi’s woodlands where Best Muchenje has been the district’s forestry officer for the past two years.
“Deforestation was already bad when I came here,” he said. “But the power crisis has worsened the situation, [and] the mopane tree is a target because it is hard and produces quality charcoal.”
Mopane, with their butterfly shaped leaves, grow in hot, dry, low-lying summer rainfall areas. The law allows people to cut trees for personal use but not for commercial purposes.
The crackdown on charcoal production has widely been ignored. For people like Enia Shagini, poverty forces them to risk being fined or jailed for cutting down trees for charcoal.
She sells a 50kg bag for the equivalent of R7.40. “We have children to send to school,” said the mother of three.
In Harare, vendors at the Mbare Musika market display 50kg bags of charcoal for sale.
Prudence Mkonyo said she got her charcoal from Nyamapanda, near the border with Mozambique. “It’s difficult bringing the stuff to Harare,” she said. “We ferry it on trucks at night but sometimes you have to deal with the police at roadblocks. You need to be prepared to pay them bribes when you get stopped.”
She sold her charcoal at the equivalent of between R37 and R44 a bag, but sales are slow. Few people have jobs in the country’s current economic crisis.
Although the law is clear on production of charcoal, the government is in a dilemma. “It’s a very complicated issue,” said Nqobizitha Ndlovu, the new minister for the environment and climate change. “We acknowledge the shortage of electricity and that gas is expensive, so wood and charcoal are alternatives. So while we are worried about [the woodlands], we also worry about human beings.” — AFP