By Ngoni Shumba
FRAGILE deep Kalahari sand ridge that extends into Gokwe from Namibia and Botswana needs to be kept clothed by vegetation cover to prevent the creation of a local version of the Kalahari and Namib deserts.
If it unravels, one of the country’s major watersheds – Sengwa-Mbumbusi, Lutope and Ngomadoma river system will choke with sand making Mapfungautsi State Forest’s integrity key to averting such tragedy.
The rivers flow into Sanyati then the Zambezi River, along which Kariba Dam, an important tourist destination and generator of hydroelectric power for both Zimbabwe and Zambia, is constructed.
The threat of this forest disintegrating is not coming from the usual suspect – tobacco, but Zimbabwe’s staple grain, maize.
“The deep Kalahari sand is not ideal for tobacco so the threat is coming from maize after illegal settlers moved into the protected forest,” Forestry Commission’s Midlands provincial forest extension manager Rodrick Nyahwai said.
He said tobacco farming was not as widespread in the province hence not giving as big a threat to indigenous forests as clearances for maize farming, firewood and other wood uses.
His organisation however says 20 percent of the 330,000 hectares of natural forest lost annually were cut for firewood to cure tobacco making it one of the biggest threats to indigenous forests.
Deforestation also peaked during the height of the land reform programme, which began in 2000.
But it was not all due to tobacco which is often scapegoated for this growing problem to the exclusion of all other threats.
The most authoritative figures on forest cover loss come from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Global Forest Resources Assessment which in its 2010 edition, listed Zimbabwe as being among 10 countries that recorded the largest forest cover loss between 1990 and 2010.
It says Zimbabwe had been losing 327,000 hectares of forest cover per year over the two decades – period going beyond the euphoria of tobacco farming.
Vegetation cover is being lost through other sectors such as brick-making, mining and general agricultural expansion driven by population growth as well as forest fires.
People migrating to Mapfungautsi in search of more fertile farmlands has seen over 11 000 illegal settlers invading the forest from across the country.
Nyahwai said ministry of lands had begun evicting the invaders from the one-time largest indigenous forest.
When it was first demarcated as a state forest in 1953, it was 101 000 hectares in size before it was reclassified in 1972 as a communal area and some parts of the southern part were gazetted, leaving the forest with a total of 82 100 hectares.
It is one of only 14 gazetted forests in the country and falls under the category of woodlands and forest on state and protected areas.
According to the Forest Act such reserved forest areas were established both to protect their ecosystems and the riverine system that either originates or pass through them. No settlements are allowed inside the forests.
This is backed by the Land Reform Policy which provides that all demarcated indigenous land will remain intact.
The coming in of illegal settlers who are curving it open for agricultural land has already seen huge gullies forming with thousands of tons of sand being washed into rivers.
This is being compounded by the some of the illegal settlers practising stream bank cultivation with others cultivating on top of Lutope River, which is an underground river.
Apart from poor farming practices threatening to wash off all the sand, Nyahwai said the forest was also being cleaned out of its animals and precious indigenous trees like teak (Baikiaea Plurijuga), mahogany (Guibortia coleosperma), mukwa (Pterocaspus angolensis) and other indigenous hardwoods such as bloodwood, wooden banana, Leadwood and white seringa (Kirkia Acuminata).
“They’re also poaching high value indigenous timber like teak, mukwa and mahogany at a huge loss to the country,” he said.
He said in areas where the soils were supportive of tobacco they were encouraging the farmers to buy permits to use trees for firewood which many farmers were amenable to except a few.
“You would obviously get some who would resist but our situation is not as bad,” Nyahwai said.
He said the situation with tobacco farmers is expected to improve as they are set to receive funds from a two percent levy from tobacco sales.
“We intend to set up plantations that the farmers would then use for tobacco curing,” Nyahwai said.
He said they would work with Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) and Sustainable Afforestation Association set up in 2013 by tobacco growers and merchants continues to also promote the planting of woodlots for tobacco curing.
Environmental Management Agency has been complaining that more trees are being felled than being planted.
TIMB communications official Isheunesu Moyo said while encouraging setting up woodlots for curing of the golden leaf they were also encouraging research in more efficient barns.
“Cutting down indigenous forests for tobacco curing is not a sustainable farming practice and we would like our farmers to have woodlots to back up their farming practice. That is what we are pushing for.
“Even then we feel there is need for better barns that could require even less firewood like rocket barns which uses 50 percent less wood because of their design,” Moyo said.
This section is sponsored by Tobacco Industry Marketing Board as part of its efforts to promote conservation and responsible farming practices.