GROWING demand for fertile ground and wetlands for paddy farms in Coast Region has led farmers to continuously clear mangrove forests in the Rufiji Delta, adversely affecting the ecosystem.
The Rufiji District Forestry office says 38 hectares were cleared illegally between January and September this year bringing the total to 98 hectares of mangroves that have been destroyed in the last four years. Mr Henry Mallya, the Rufiji District Forest Officer, says the Rufiji Delta originally covered more than 53,000 hectares but controlling the destruction has not been an easy task.
He said lack of speedboats coupled with the limited number of rangers to patrol the Rufiji River basin, has complicated efforts to save the mangroves, a natural system that acts as a sieve for rivers not to pollute seas. Illegal loggers, he said, have gone high tech, using mobile phones to alert their colleagues in the field that officials were either on patrol on approaching them.
"Worse still, logs from the cleared land are burnt to ashes," Mr Mallya explained as he showed dozens of recently felled mangrove logs to this paper early this week. Villages surrounding the area include; Saninga, Salale, Simbaulanga, Kiomboni, Nyamisati, Mtunda and Nganyanga. Those involved in the destruction of the delta come from the villages and some individuals are believed to have been employed by Dar es Salaam based 'big shots' to open new rice fields.
Coast Regional Commissioner, Ms Mwantumu Mahiza in collaboration with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism organized an open-discussion meeting early this week upon learning of the ongoing delta destruction. The meeting, attended by local and district leaders discussed possible solution to end the destruction of mangrove forests, a delicate species that takes years to grow.
"Enough is enough. Anyone found clearing the land will face legal action. The mangrove forests support an extensive food web, which must be protected. Future generations should also benefit from the aquatic resources," Ms Mahiza said.She advised officials from the ministry and their counterparts in the district and the regional level to disseminate information on the importance to conserve the eco-system of the Rufiji Delta and river, sometimes dubbed the African Amazon.
"Responding to questions raised by villagers and explaining to them how useful conserving the forest is as well as letting them realise that today's actions will have adverse effects for generations to come is very important," the RC explained. She went on: "The effects are obvious. Buying fish here (Nyamisati) is more expensive than in Dar es Salaam. This shows that there is a depletion of the resources, which should not be allowed at any cost," RC Mahiza explained.
Rufiji District Executive Director, Nassoro Mwingira said his office in collaboration with the Ministry of Lands and Human Settlements Development has set aside 30,000 acres for villagers to cultivate rice away from the Delta. RC Mahiza challenged them to make extra efforts to buy a tractor for modern farming for the villagers. "The land set aside is strictly for the villagers and not for intruders from outside," she stressed.
The Rufiji District Commissioner, Mr Nurdin Babu, promised close supervision of the exercise and the ongoing efforts to form a team that would educate and share information with villagers on community development issues. The Nyamisati Ward Executive Officer (WEO), Arfani Abbas Njenge, said soil fertility within the Delta was the major motivating factor that drew villagers to the area.
"Since people are in need of a reliable supply of food it is necessary for authorities to encourage irrigation agriculture. There should be a way to better utilise the Rufiji River to support irrigation schemes, which will prevent villagers from invading the Delta," Njenge explained.
The Mangrove forest Director from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Zawadi Mbwambo, said application of force has not been the option.
"We (ministry) have resorted to negotiations with the village leaders and the local residents to encourage re-planting of the mangroves. More than 40 acres have been planted. Phase-out approach has been adopted such that once the wood covers the land rice farmers have to vacate," Mbwambo explained.
He said the Rufiji Delta is characterised by its mangrove forests, which are the largest in the country with plant species uncommon elsewhere. "The Rufiji Delta and Mafia Island are important wintering grounds for migrant birds, including waders and terns. Wildlife, such as hippopotami, crocodiles and monkeys, feed and shelter in the mangrove forests," Mbwambo said.
Nyamisati Village chairperson, Mr Jumanne Yusuf asked for clarification on cultivation agreements reached between the forestry department and villagers that allowed a five-year period of phasing out rice in favour of tree planting. "The contracts are not clear and should be explicit to avoid unnecessary friction. There should be regular meetings to promote harmony and protection of the natural resources," Yusuf explained.