Harmony Agere recently in Chimanimani
Industry leader Allied Timbers has stopped operations at its Gwendingwe Sawmill in Chimanimani after its plantation was destroyed by fire in a suspected case of arson.
The plantation was ravaged by fire late in 2015 resulting in Allied minimising and eventually stopping timber production as supplies diminished.
Although police in Manicaland last week could neither deny nor confirm if it was indeed arson, it is widely suspected that the fire was started by disgruntled workers in a bid to “fix” the company for failing to meet certain working conditions.
Workers, however, rubbish the accusation and instead point the finger at illegal settlers who have built homes in the State-owned company’s plantations.
There is a long and well-documented history of clashes between Allied Timbers and illegal settlers in Chimanimani district, with some 3 000 families having settled on State land.
The refurbished Gwendingwe Sawmill was commissioned two years ago and sources in the company say its closure means Allied Timbers is losing about US$1 million a month.
When The Sunday Mail Extra crew visited Gwendingwe Estate, both the sawmill and the plantation were almost abandoned with little activity at staff quarters.
The destruction was evident almost everywhere.
Workers who talked to this writer confirmed that the mill had stopped running about a month ago with little hopes of resuming operations soon.
“As you can see for yourself the mill is closed because there is no timber. The plantation burnt around December last year and we stopped operations shortly after,” said one worker.
“Only a small area which was not affected much was sustaining us until a few weeks ago. It is not clear what caused the fire. Some are saying it was caused by illegal settlers while others are saying it was an act of sabotage by workers.
“But I doubt if there was any sabotage because the settlers were clearing land for their fields around that time and the fire that they used might have caused this.”
Another worker said it could have been sabotage – but not by employees.
“When the fire started, it started in all directions showing that whoever did this was well-organised and co-ordinated because it was done systematically,” said the worker.
“As workers we have things we would like to be addressed but I can confidently assure you that it wasn’t one of us who started the fire,” he said.
Employees estimate it will take years to restore the plantation through re-forestation.
There are suggestions, as well, that management at Gwendingwe had not put up fire guards hence the extensive destruction.
The mill closure comes after Allied Timbers abandoned contract milling with a view to acquiring its own equipment to plug production shortfalls. And with the threat of veld fires ever present, things are not looking too good.
Contacted for comment, Allied Timbers management declined to comment. Having put forward all the findings, reports and allegations to Allied, corporate communications manager Ms Veronica Gutu said the company had “no comment”.
Environment Management Agency spokesperson Mr Steady Kangata said the company should have put up fire guards.
“If this happened after October then there is little chance that these were veld fires because the period for veld fires stats in July and ends in October. That is the only time of the year you have enough dry grass and biomass to cause such a vast fire. So what happened there could have been acts of sabotage or arson.
“But what happens in plantations, wildlife conservatives and other areas owned by other entities is not really our responsibility. It is up to Allied Timbers to protect their plantations from fire, it is their duty to put in place fire guards to prevent greater damage.”
Mr Kangata said as long as there were settlements near the plantations, the risk of fires remained high.
The areas targeted by illegal settlers – like hilltops and valleys – are remote and officials have had a hard time dealing with them.
There is a claim that the district lands committee and officials in the district administrator’s office are responsible for settling people illegally on plantations.
Chimanimani acting district administrator Mr Lloyd Kasima professed ignorance over the matter.
At an Oxfam workshop in Harare last week, Environment Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri said both communities and companies should always be equipped to deal with fires.
“Drought conditions are likely to exacerbate wild fire occurrences which could destroy tress in research trials, woodlots, orchards and indigenous woodlands,” she said.
“A total of 56 trials were burnt of which 44 were of exotic pine species and 12 eucalyptus species and both were in the two Manicaland South Districts of Chimanimani (34 trials) and Chipinge (12) trials,” she said. A trial is an research seed-bed.
According to the Forestry Commission, Zimbabwe is losing about US$600 million worth of timber annually through decimation of forests.
Allied Holdings, wholly-owned by Government, is concerned with plantations, harvesting, processing and marketing of timber.
The company’s operations are highly concentrated in the Eastern Highlands, Midlands and Matabeleland areas.
The company exports its products to Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa and plans to expand its export market.
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