Timber was one of the biggest and most vibrant industries in Zimbabwe, employing thousands of people in plantations, with a large number of communities depending on it as their source of livelihood. But today, the industry which used to employ more than 10,000 people on plantations and pay US$1.2 million in monthly wages, is reeling under the effects of the chaotic land reform programme initiated by President Mugabe’s government 10 years ago.
A recent report by the Timber Producers Federation (TPF) revealed that nearly 40,000 dependents or communities supported by the timber industry are in limbo, while the downstream construction and timber products retailing sectors are also seriously depressed. The report painted a gloomy picture for the timber trade and fears abound that there will not be any industry to talk of in the next five years. Efforts to save the industry from total collapse have yielded no results as the whole issue has been more of a political affair than an economic one. The TPF disclosed that Zimbabwe's timber producers have lost a massive 30,000 hectares of prime timber expanse due to politically motivated illegal plantation occupations and other disruptions. The illegal occupation has affected mostly plantations owned by giant timber companies which includes Allied Timbers Zimbabwe, Border Timbers Limited and Wattle Company. 30,000 hectares is a huge figure considering that many timber enterprises in the country are on the verge of collapse.
After the government implemented the messy land reform programme in 2000, thousands of families illegally resettled in timber plantations with the blessings of senior Zanu PF politicians. The invaders have taken to unlawfully harvesting immature wood, and in the process have burnt thousands of hectares of forest causing major disruption to the logging cycle. And there are already fears of massive losses again ahead of the ‘fire season’ which starts in August. But the government is turning a blind eye to the settlers. People from Chikukwa, Ngorima and Muusha areas in Chimanimani claimed that the holdings were part of their tribal lands; hence they were moving back to reclaim their ancestral heritage.
Allied Timbers chief executive officer, Joseph Kanyekanye, told Think Africa Press that during a media tour last year some of the settlers claimed to have received blessing to occupy the land from the highest echelons of the Zimbabwean government.
“Who are you to tell us to leave these timber plantations? President Mugabe told us to occupy the land. And no one can tell us to leave, only President Mugabe can tell us to leave” one local told Mr. Kanyekanye.
The TPF reports (which are not currently available online) show that forest-based land reform policy framework recognises that timber plantations are an acceptable and viable land use option, and as such should be allowed to thrive without conversion to other uses. But the illegal settlers are clearing the land to make way for crops like maize, sweet potatoes, beans and vegetables among others.
The report also revealed that fire damage on timber plantations in the last six years is far greater than in the previous 30 years added together, with the damage in 2005 more than double any previous years.
Out of a total 120,000 hectares from the 1999/2000 period, only 90,000 hectares of commercial estates remain due to persistent fires and settlements. Sawn timber production, for example, has declined by more than half to 138,000 hectares — from a peak of 395,000 hectares 12 years ago — while paper products manufacturing has totally vanished from a high of 60 000 tonnes per year. Over 50 % of the fires were due to an influx of illegal settlers who start fires for land clearing, the report revealed. The worst year of fires to date was 2005 when 126 fires out of 240 for the year came from the illegal settlers.
This 50 % of fires account for 90 % of timber damage, as even when the fires are extinguished they always start again. And before the land reform programme fire losses did not exceed 120 hectares in any given season. While the country gets almost 100 % of its timber requirements from Manicaland province, the future of the timber industry looks austere as timber production has gone down to a low of only 64 % of its 1997/8 peak, according to the figures. Before the land reform programme, Zimbabwe had a well-established plantation forest resource base covering some 155,853 ha with about 90 % of the plantations located in the eastern districts in Manicaland province. About 71 % of the planted area was under softwoods, 13 % under hardwoods and 16 % under wattle. With respect to the plantation ownership pattern, about 42 % belonged to the government, 54 % to private companies and the remainder to small private growers who include co-operatives.
"The presence of these unauthorised settlers is of great concern, as the majority of last year's fires were linked to unauthorised settlement of forest land. Timber plantations fires have been linked to the presence of illegal settlers and the settlers are illegally felling down timber on Charter, Martin and Skyline estates," Allied Timbers, chief executive officer, Joseph Kanyekanye said during the launch of the fire awareness campaign in Chimanimani last year. In Chimanimani alone, one of the leading timber producing areas in the country, it was revealed last year that more than 1,300 families were illegally occupying more than 5,000 hectares of forest land.
TPF noted that unrelenting land takeovers by more than 1,300 peasants and other bargain hunters, including gold panners would exacerbate fire hazards at a time 20 % of national resource was destroyed in 2008 alone. Other timber-producing areas are Chipinge, Nyanga, Vumba and Mutasa which all borders the country in the east.
Kanyekanye expressed disgust over the failure by the police to eradicate the problem. Kanyekanye challenged Chimanimani police to evict illegal settlers from timber plantations in the district amid reports that police were turning a blind eye on the illegal settlers. “We are concerned that illegal settlements at Gwendingwe Estate and here at Martin Estate can cause serious damage as history shows us that if the illegal settlements remain, we lose our timber forests. If the whole issue is not addressed in five years time there will be no timber industry to talk of in Zimbabwe,” Kanyekanye said.
An analysis of the fire incidences and the extent of damage between 1993 and 2001 has shown that the entire industry rarely lost 2,000 hectares to fires in one year. In 2003, fire damage skyrocketed to 6,500 ha and reached a frightening plateau of 10,000 ha or 12 percent of national forests in 2005.
On paper, the Government's position on plantations is clear, as timber plantations would be maintained and no settlement should be done in plantations. “Plantations will remain plantations and there is no change on that. We cannot cut down timber and grow maize on plantations. It might be only the ownership which changes and not the land use. However, I advised farmers not to cut immature timber. The rules of the timber industry must be followed otherwise we will all lose as a country," Environment and Natural Resources Management minister Francis Nhema told Think Africa Press.
The law on causing forest fires is also clear, Zimbabwe’s Environmental Management Act clearly spells a fine of $5,000 per hectare for any offender, but the reluctance by the police to enforce it remains baffling, putting credence to allegations that the illegal settlers have received the blessings of senior Zanu PF politicians to occupy the plantations.
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