Forests in Zimbabwe ‘under siege’ amid electricity woes

BEATRICE, Zimbabwe 

In Beatrice, a farming community on the outskirts of the Zimbabwean capital Harare, a convoy of medium-sized trucks were parked on a roadside with men felling trees for firewood.

They were apparently ebullient about their money-making venture.

Among the wood poachers was 36-year-old Tamirira Gumbo, who said firewood has come in handy to provide alternative energy source, owing to daily power outages of up to 18 hours across the country.

According to the country’s Forestry Commission, Zimbabwe needs 9 to 11 million tons of firewood each year for domestic cooking and heating, and 1.4 million tons for tobacco curing.

“Electricity is not there for many hours and now […] we sell these [firewood] to people who suffer when there is no electricity as they have to cook and eat daily,” Gumbo told Anadolu Agency.

But, as Gumbo and his accomplices descend on the forests 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Harare, environmentalists say it’s a bad news for Zimbabwe’s already fading forests.

“If Zimbabwe would continue struggling without enough electricity, soon desertification would spread fast and disaster in terms of climate change would accelerate and environmental damage without trees would become more severe,” Happison Chikova, an independent climate change expert in the country, told Anadolu Agency.

According to the country’s Forestry Commission spokeswoman Violet Makoto, Zimbabwe loses about 330,000 hectares (815,450 acres) of forests annually.

There are now only 15.6 million hectares (38.54 million acres) of forests remaining in Zimbabwe due to rampant deforestation, according to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Washington Zhakata — Zimbabwe’s climate change director at the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement — deforestation statistics can largely be a result of feeble enforcement mechanisms in the country to curtail deforestation.

Hike in electricity tariff

Now, with electricity outages worsening, more and more trees could face the axe.

“Those statistics of cut trees mean nothing to us; there is no electricity and we have to provide energy for the people and also make money and therefore we have to cut the trees,” Gumbo said.

Under Zimbabwe’s Forest Act, anyone who cuts, damages, destroys, collects, takes or removes trees or timber without a license, faces a fine of about 100 Zimbabwean dollars ($0.28) or two years imprisonment.

However, many wood poachers like Gumbo are going scot-free.

Rising electricity costs in this southern African nation have also led people to use firewood for energy.

In October this year, Zimbabwe hiked its average electricity tariff by 320% despite the country’s incessant power cuts at a time when inflation has shot through the roof, hovering over 300%, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“Hit by exorbitant power costs and its non-availability, many people are turning to illegal wood dealers who are merely stepping up their game to feed the need for energy, resulting in continued destruction of the country’s forests,” said Dairai Mwayera, a government economic expert.

The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) — which supplies power to nearly the entire country — said its already inadequate national power generation had collapsed by about a third to around 900 megawatts since May, owing to climate change-induced water shortages at Kariba dam, its main hydroelectric power plant.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Power Development, around 61% of citizens are not connected to the national electricity grid, with urban households already consuming one to 4 tons of firewood per year, with rural people using almost double of that.

Makoto said there has been a sharp rise in the charcoal business in the last few months.

“The problem is now severe and just lately we seized 1,000 bags of charcoal being unlawfully trafficked to Harare, meaning forests are under siege,” Makoto said.

But, for wood poachers like Gumbo, it is business as usual. “More power blackouts mean more money for us,” Gumbo said.
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