Cashing in on forests

Tobacco farming has been blamed for vegetation loss where the golden leaf is being farmed.

By Norma Tsopo

The success of tobacco farming in Zimbabwe has often been dampened by its negative impact on indigenous forests.

Mashonaland West Province, like most tobacco growing regions, has been losing huge tracts of its native woodlands to the duel between environmental conservation and commercial exploitation of the forests.

An increasingly balding landscape pointed to the triumph of the later.

Districts in Mashonaland West are being paid to preserve their forests to allow them to absorb and trap Carbon Dioxide the most common greenhouse gas

Tobacco farming has been on a growth path and surpasses an annual production of 200 million tonnes making Zimbabwe the largest tobacco producer in Africa.

It has been a major foreign currency earner for the country.

But this comes at an undeniable cost to the environment. The upset ecological balance has begun sending feedback with an unusual backlash – intelligent and highly adaptable, baboons, facing depleting food sources, began experimenting with tobacco as a new food – an expensive taste for farmers to bear.

Chief Chundu feels that this was an expression of displeasure by the ancestral spirits on the conduct of tobacco farmers.

Tobacco farming is clearly one of the country’s biggest threats to its indigenous forests as they account for 20 percent of its annual 350 000 hectare loss of forests according to Forestry Commission statistics.

Tobacco farming has been blamed for vegetation loss where the golden leaf is being farmed. Pic: The Herald

The industry has often been condemned as being run unsustainably.

To mitigate against the negative impact on the environment Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) and tobacco merchants established a Sustainable Afforestation Association (SAA) in 2013 to spearhead reforestation across the country.

The programme is meant to counter massive deforestation that is taking place as a result of the increased number of small scale tobacco farmers.

The merchants were expected to contribute an amount equivalent to 1,5 percent of total tobacco sales for the whole season.

The initiative will provide a sustainable source of timber for use in the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe; investigate and implement strategies for the conservation and rejuvenation of existing indigenous and commercial forests; and undertake activities and projects directly or indirectly relating to the provision of sustainable sources of timber and the conservation and rejuvenation of existing timber resources.

Through this commercial-scale eucalyptus plantations have been established in tobacco curing districts.

“Eucalypts have been selected for initial establishment because they are fast-growing, their management requirements are well understood, they provide good-quality firewood and seed is readily available. Since January 2013, SAA has established over 11 000 ha of fuelwood plantations nationwide,” Isheanesu Moyo TIMB’s public relations official told this publication.

This has allowed local communities to have a practical balance between tobacco farming and conservation efforts allowing for them to even make money from preserving their forests.

Preservation of the vegetation also has potential to earn community money on the side-lines of sustainable tobacco farming practices through a climate change mitigation carbon sink initiative.

The relief the education and intervention TIMB and SAA is having on the conversation of indigenous forests communities in Mashonaland West is boosting the success of a Carbon Green Africa’s Kariba REDD+ project which is being run in four districts in the province – Binga, Nyaminyami, Hurungwe and Mbire.

Through the project, locals now fully appreciate that they do not need to cut down a tree to realise its value.

REDD, an acronym for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, according to the United Nation is an effort to create financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low carbon paths to sustainable development.

This is achieved by rewarding appropriate management of forests by reducing deforestation and degradation of the forests by paying local communities for their standing trees through carbon credit system that is overseen by the UN and which is reviewed periodically with the money increasing with increasing foliage and reducing with loss of vegetation.

Since the inception of Kariba REDD+ in 2011, local communities have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars which has been channelled towards community development and conservation farming training which has seen about 1 200 Farmers being trained annually.

To date more than 7 000 farmers have benefited from the training programme, where necessary, material inputs have been provided to them.

Carbon Green Africa CEO, Charles Ndondo said the project maintains two Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards Gold Level criteria which are the Climate Change Adaptation Benefits and Exceptional Biodiversity benefits.

Carbon Green Africa Managing Director Charles Ndondo

Gold Level criteria from the Community, Climate and Biodiversity Standard is awarded to projects that mitigate climate change, contribute to the sustainable development of local communities and biodiversity conservation.

Ndondo says their projects are covering over 785 000 hectares of forest ecosystems and benefitting up to 200 000 people from some of the country’s poorest communities.

“Conservation farming techniques are more drought-adapted than conventional agriculture,” Ndondo said.

Beyond the initiative by TIMB through SAA, Carbon Green is also promoting cassava farming as a potential answer to the country’s interlocked energy and food security requirements with the roots being a rich source of carbohydrates while the woody stems have potential as fuel for tobacco curing.

The province has been leading an experimental project to provide food and fuel for the curing of the cash crop.

Clearly, agricultural practice is showing concern for ecological balance with key stakeholders in the growth and marketing of the golden leaf now coming on board the conservation bandwagon.

This section is sponsored by Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) as part of its efforts to promote forest conservation and responsible farming practices.