15 August 2012

Zimbabwe: Nation's Forests Go Up in Smoke Amid Energy Crisis

Photo: Gates Foundation
A farmer carries firewood (file photo): Up to 90 percent of Zimbabweans now rely on firewood for cooking, a huge leap from around 50 percent two decades ago, according to non-governmental organisation Environment Africa.

Pensioner Thandazani Ndlovu earns his living selling firewood, making him better off than Zimbabwe's millions of jobless.

From the back of his pick-up truck, he has established a thriving business as demand for firewood continues to grow in Bulawayo, a city of 2 million people in the southwest.

Residents are turning to wood for cooking and heating as Zimbabwe's electricity outages get worse, with its energy utility battling to keep the lights on in urban areas.

As winter began, the state-owned power company announced in June it was increasing its load-shedding schedule - music to Ndlovu's ears.

He operates in the crowded streets of Bulawayo's townships, where preparing food over a fire has become a daily reality.

"On a good day, I can make $20," Ndlovu says. "I get the firewood from farms on the outskirts of the city where resettled farmers are clearing the land to build their homes."

With 56 percent of Zimbabweans living on less than $1.25 a day and unemployment as high as 80 percent, many people regard trees - even those on residential properties - as a potential source of income.

Concerned with making a comfortable living, Ndlovu doesn't worry that he and other firewood vendors might be contributing to deforestation in the southern African nation.

With no respite from the energy crisis, up to 90 percent of Zimbabweans now rely on firewood for cooking, a huge leap from around 50 percent two decades ago, according to non-governmental organisation Environment Africa.

Some 70 percent of the population resides in rural areas, where firewood has long been the primary source of energy.

"I have never thought about the implications of cutting down trees. What I know is that another tree will grow, because our ancestors found these trees there," Ndlovu says.

It is a common response to recent campaigns launched by the government and environmental groups to curb uncontrolled logging.

THIRD OF FORESTS LOST

The parastatal Forestry Commission estimates deforestation at around 330,000 hectares per year. Between 1990 and 2010, Zimbabwe lost more than 30 percent of its forest cover, according to commission data.

As its forests shrink, Zimbabwe has yet to confront the far-reaching ramifications of its energy crisis.

"It's one of the challenges that has the ministry (of environment) in a tough spot because you cannot tell people to stop cutting down trees without providing a solution to their energy demands," explains Kurauone Muringapi, a field researcher for the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources Management.

"There is no doubt that, despite not being an industrialised country, our contribution to carbon emission concerns increases when there are no forests to talk about," he adds.

Gilmore Sadza, an environmental consultant working with the ministry, says the government has been slow to join international efforts to combat deforestation.

"The wanton cutting-down of trees was ignored around the year 2000 when people moved into white farms and conservation areas," Sadza said.

"Climate change was never seen as an urgent matter, but at least now we are seeing some moves to address it, despite the obvious challenges," he said.

In 2011, officials began crafting a comprehensive climate change policy in collaboration with the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), which is funded by the British and Dutch governments.

And last month, the ministry gazetted new, stringent regulations on illegal logging in a move to curb deforestation. Among others, they target farmers who have been fingered for some of the worst abuses of Zimbabwe's forests.

The country will also have to deal with the consequences of smoke and other emissions from domestic cooking fires, as well as wildfires which have become an annual phenomenon here.

FUNERAL TREES

Zimbabwe's carbon footprint, like that of many African nations, remains tiny compared with developed countries.

Nonetheless, its current energy crisis could contribute to climate shifts that will affect future generations - not least because cutting down forests means fewer trees to store carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas causing global warming.

Zimbabwe is already seeing changes in the patterns of its seasons, lower rainfall and higher temperatures. But strategies to reverse deforestation could help reduce the risk of these trends getting worse, believes Simon Gapare, a Zimbabwean environmental researcher based in the United States.

"It's time initiatives like the National Tree Planting Day were taken seriously. If you ask anyone you know if they have ever planted a tree, you will be disappointed," he says.

On the first Saturday of December each year, Zimbabwe marks National Tree Planting Day, with the president leading the commemorations.

"Many people don't bother about these things, but solutions to climate change do not reside in conferences or textbooks, but right among us - (in) our own practices relating to how we treat the natural resources around us. Planting a tree is one such solution," Gapare argues.

The private sector has also started to launch reforestation initiatives.

For example, Nyaradzo Funeral Services, a company based in the capital Harare with branches across the country, plants a tree for each burial it conducts and gives families trees to plant after relatives' funerals. It is hoping to plant 500 million trees by 2025.

For firewood vendors like Ndlovu, participating in reforestation efforts could prove profitable in the long run. But with customers lining up to get their hands on an increasingly valuable source of energy, the issue of whether the business is sustainable isn't a priority for most.

"This is my way of life - as long as there is demand for firewood, I will keep selling," Ndlovu says.

Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

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