The Sunday Mail
Emmanuel Kafe recently in Chimanimani
Chimanimani, one of the luxuriant sub-tropical regions of Zimbabwe which takes large tracts of beautiful, classic landscapes has some of the country’s biggest commercial timber plantations.
The timber plantations sit perfectly on its mountainous terrain and blend well with the flora and fauna of all types, the free-flowing rivers and streams, giving it an indelible idyllic setting.
As beautiful as it is, this region’s forest is under threat.
Illegal miners cut down trees before gouging into the earth in search of gold, and for them, the impact on the environment is none of their business.
So rare is such a perfect climate that the Chimanimani forests occupy only 200 000 of the 39 million hectares of Zimbabwe’s total land area, that is 0,5 percent to be precise.
And from this evergreen scenery, Zimbabwe gets three to four percent (3-4 percent) gross domestic product, and thousands are employed in the forestry industry.
From that little corner of Chimanimani East, near the border with Mozambique, these forests have sufficiently provided Zimbabwe and Southern African countries with most of its timber needs since their establishment in the late 60’s.
But all this is under a huge threat from illegal settlers, artisanal gold miners and syndicates exporting timber illegally through porous border entries.
The illegal settlers who have invaded some parts of the commercial forests, have not only started to decimate the environment, but have also made the timber firms’ job difficult as they encroach into the heart of the forest area thereby disrupting commercial activity.
Some of the settlers are cutting down pine and wattle trees to carry out destructive agricultural activities that not only push soil erosion, but threaten the balance of the entire bionetwork in the commercial forests.
A visit to the forests confirmed the state of the destruction of both forest areas by the illegal settlers and gold panners who swamped the areas through coercion from “politicians” eager to create a strong base for voters.
Tarka Forest, owned by Allied Timbers, could be the most affected of them all with illegal settlers eating into the forest area while illegal gold panners indiscriminately creating gullies and crevices that may take years to heal.
When The Sunday Mail Society visited the area recently, some of the panners refused to speak to the news crew as they hurled insults to this reporter.
They also threatened to unleash violence if the reporters persisted on getting information about their activities.
Unaware of the consequence to the forest investments and the environment, the settlers have also destroyed vast tracts of land through bush fires that spread across the plantations almost every year, destroying not only the trees, but kill animals.
Most of the forests in this area like the Tandaai and Tarka are the most occupied by illegal settlers and gold miners.
Locals who spoke to this publication said there has been reports of syndicates transporting timber to Mozambique illegally.
Mr Farai Nyakura, a farmer and who also operates a small timber mill firm in Chimanimani, said people have been arrested trying to illegally export timber to Mozambique.
“Trees are being cut in the middle of the night leaving a trail of destruction in the plantation by illegal smugglers selling them to Mozambique were there are fetching a lot of money,” he said.
The Forestry Act, which reserved the Chimanimani forests as protected, states that it requires presidential assent to de-commission the forests.
But in total disregard of the Forestry Act, some miners are operating having reportedly acquired licences to mine in the areas protected by the Forestry Act.
Experts in the timber industry like Moffat Hwingwiri are of the view that there is a need to reverse mining grants in the forestry areas.
“To safeguard and protect the multi-million dollar investments by both Government and foresters there is need to reverse mining grants in the forest areas,” he said.
Trees take up to 25 years and huge financial investments to mature, and so the wanton destruction of forests impact a huge loss to the timber industry.
Both settlers and illegal miners are destroying the beautiful scenery in the Eastern Highlands at an alarming rate.
Mr Hwingwiri said a multi-temporal satellite imagery assessment they undertook in 2015 with other stakeholders, confirmed that gold miners and settlers had destroyed 45 000 hectares of commercial timber forests in the area.
Illegal miners disturb the environment by diverting rivers and streams to their little gold mills.
“The effect of this to the environment is that the mercury and other substances used in gold panning contaminate the water bodies,” said Hwingwiri.
This has left locals and other players in the industry grappling to control the situation as miners and settlers both claim to be custodians of the forests illegally.
It however appears politics is at play in the conflict as one of the illegal settlers who spoke on condition of anonymity said they were entitled to settle in the forests as they had enough “political backing”.
“We are not here by coincidence, tine vakuru vedu (we have our leaders’ backing),” he said, without giving names.
Most of the people who spoke to the news crew called for the protection of forests and urged political intervention or a crisis indaba to map the way forward in an effort to resolve conflicts with settlers and illegal miners.
According to the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe (FCZ), “the commercial timber industry is one of the major pillars of the economy as it provides direct employment for most people.
In addition to this, commercial forest plantations act as water catchment areas and are sources to some of the major rivers in the entire Manicaland province.
The commercial timber plantations are made up of exotic timber species which can only grow well under high rainfall, cool temperatures and high altitudes.