BY STEPHEN TSOROTI
MUDZI — The sound of diesel-powered chainsaws pierced the air, trees fell in quick succession and shabbily dressed men got busy with sawmills, grinding the fallen logs into planks.
Truckloads soon head for Harare where the planks will be prepared for export, with bits of the fallen trees, logs and twigs strewn all over the place in Mudzi remaining a monument of greed.
The illegal logging of trees in Nyakadecha Timber Salvage Concession in Mukota village, ward 17 in Mudzi district is now at its worst and threatening to turn the area into a desert.
A Chinese company, Blue Trade, aided by Mudzi Rural District Council, has been cited as responsible for cutting down the musau tree species (Ziziphus Mauritiana) for export to China.
The tree species, which provide locals and wildlife with the sweet soury fruit, have become the latest victims of the insatiable Chinese appetite for tropical trees.
A villager from Mukota, who identified himself as Killian, said he was miffed by the developments.
“Who gave the permission to do this massive logging?” he quipped. “There has been no consultation with the villagers. All we saw were the heavy tree-utting equipment, a council tractor and trucks without registration numbers combing the forest and then the insane cutting down of trees began. We suspect someone has or is getting paid.”
The indiscriminate cutting down of trees has heightened tensions between the villagers and council officials whom they accuse of conniving with the Chinese company to exploit this finite resource.
“The illicit chopping down of these trees is another wanton exploitation of our resources, which is not benefiting the community,” said another villager, Mirosi Saize, who points to the exploitation of the black granite stones as another resource drain that has been going on for years in the districts of Mudzi and Mutoko, with little benefit to the locals.
Investigations by NewsDay revealed that Blue Trade is headquartered at a Chinese complex along Enterprise Road in Highlands, Harare.
Following queries about the indiscriminate cutting of trees, a consultative meeting which comprised the Forestry Commission, Blue Trade and the local community was held to iron out issues surrounding the concession.
According to ward 17 councillor Kennedy Makarutse, the consultative meeting was to whip the company into line since it was cutting trees not in accordance with the provisions of the memorandum of understanding (MoU).
The tree-cutting deal is said to have been brokered by Mudzi District Council to the tune of $20 000 and the company would get tree logs in exchange for building bridges, roofing schools and providing furniture to a number of schools in wards 1, 2 and 17.
“Since the deal was brokered, only 600 bags of cement have been delivered,” said Makarutse.
The project is going to take five years. Following investigations by this publication earlier in the year, the project was temporarily stopped. It resumed recently, loads of timber were seen off in Who Hao Enterprises-imprinted trucks destined for Harare.
The land surrounding Nyakadecha has been described as arid and too fragile to withstand heavy tree-felling. Indigenous trees are said to grow slowly, taking up to 300 years to mature in some cases. The area may soon be prone to soil erosion and gullies if heavy rains fall. Investigations indicate that in the particular case of Nyakadecha forest, politicians and council leaders have been singled out as the culprits in the destruction of priceless indigenous forests by approving flawed foreign concessions.
“The project is not going to be sustainable if the company does not stick to the MoU entered into between them and the district council,” Makarutse said.
“This is the reason why it was initially stopped because the company breached the MoU and went on to cut different diameters of trees not mentioned in the MoU, and other tree species.”
According to the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe (FCZ) the consumption of forestry products is usually sanctioned by the Communal Lands Forestry Produce Act. This Act allows inhabitants in mostly rural areas to consume forestry products for fruit gathering, fire making and building projects which are not commercial.
In terms of commercial consumption the rural district councils (RDCs) are allowed to harvest trees sustainably in certain designated areas.
“It’s a concession that has been badly executed,” the FCZ told this paper.
“In terms of Statutory Instrument No 9 of 1989, RDCs are allowed to enter into timber harvesting concessions but with the guidance of the FCZ,” FCZ operations manager Stephen Zingwena.
In relation to the Nyakadecha fiasco, Zingwena says following reports of massive indiscriminate felling of trees, a team from FCZ was dispatched to the area and it discovered suspected irregularities.
“The FCZ promised to stop operations to give way to investigations,” he said.
The commission has helped the country in particular RDCs to introduce controls and measures of good governance in its forestry industry with limited success. This approach has produced significant results and the idea of eco-forestry is gaining ground, but not enough to counteract the devastating impact of international trade in tropical wood where greater efforts towards sustainability need to be made.
Zimbabwe loses at least 50 million trees each year to rampant felling, while external factors are proving the greatest threat to tropical forests of southern Africa with the majority of the logging companies in Sadc being foreign based. A local non-governmental organisation, the Centre for Natural Resources and Governance (CNRG) has deplored RDCs for signing concessions with private players while ill-informed.
The CNRG said that left the RDCs vulnerable to investors who can easily take advantage of their ignorance and make false promises while reaping millions and paying very little to the RDCs.
Transparency International, in a January 2016 report, “Assessing REDD+ and Corruption Risks for Africa’s Forests covering Cameroon, Ghana, Zambia and Zimbabwe” berated the Communal Lands Forestry Produce Act of Zimbabwe for only granting user rights to communities but excluding them from negotiating directly with private investors.
“The lack of any clear policy and regulatory protection in relation to forest tenure and carbon rights exposes communities to corruption risks such as land grabbing and embezzlement of funds accrued from the sale of forestry resources,” said the report.
According to Global Forestry Watch, an international watchdog on trade in timber products, Africa loses about US$17 billion to illegal logging activities with the demand for timber now at an all-time high, worsened by an international smuggling racket with China at the heart of this trade. China is number one importer of timber globally to satisfy demand for luxury furniture among its middle class. Antique-style furniture manufactured in China also finds its way to Europe and North America.
In 1998, China introduced a new forestry law banning logging in its remaining natural forests in the northern provinces. China is now looking to Africa to fill the huge gap created domestically.