A HUGE, muscular man with a wide, pulpy face reclined next to a sky-scraping, indigenous musasa tree on the banks of Sengwa River, deep inside Mapfungautsi forest in Gokwe.
Dressed in clothing of rich stuff, but old and frayed in places, the man smoked a homemade cigar, spewing out thick, white smoke as he took a break from his demanding task: Felling the decades-old musasa tree.
Fallen trees, logs and twigs are strewn all over the place evidence of the man's exploits.
In the coming winter, everything will go up in smoke to clear the land for farming.
His name is Freddy Moyo (Not related to Deputy Mines Minister). He lost his job at Dairbord Zimbabwe Limited's Kwekwe branch in 2007 and came straight to settle in the forest.
He is one of the many illegal settlers who have invaded the pristine woodland, with the blessings of local politicians and traditional leaders, to erect homesteads over the past 10 years and are clearing huge swathes of virgin jungles for subsistence farming.
The Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe (FCZ) has hopelessly watched as the forests, which they are meant to protect under provisions of the Forestry Act, vanish.
But Mapfungautsi is just a tip of the iceberg.
Zimbabwe has a total of 14 gazetted natural forests studded with great tree species. All are under siege.
About 836 478 hectares of land in Zimbabwe is under statutory protection.
The forest-based land reform policy provides that all demarcated indigenous forest land should remain intact as provided for by the Forestry Act Chapter 19:05. Demarcated indigenous forests must ideally continue to be owned and managed by the State for conservation purposes as provided for by the same law.
Sadly, the environmental bulwarks are vanishing due to unplanned settlements.
In addition to decimating tree species, some of which, like teak and mahogany, are of high commercial value, settlers are also poaching large and small game.
As a result, wildlife which has been roaming freely in these protected forests is diminishing due to habitat loss and excessive poaching.
Information from FCZ indicates that the wildlife situation is adverse in Matabeleland North where there are 11 gazetted forests that were previously home to a range of thriving wild animal species.
Settlers are currently destroying the province's Mzolo, Kavira, Bembesi, Gwaai, Lake Alice, Ngamo, Gwampa, Chesa, Inseze, Inseze Extension and Umguza forests.
While the rest of the world is stepping up re-forestation efforts, Zimbabwe seems to be fervently promoting deforestation.
Mapfungautsi forest, one of the country's worst affected with 11 200 settlers occupying about 12 000 of its 88 000 hectares, demonstrates the massive scale of destruction.
Inhabitants have occupied a 15-kilometres stretch of marshland that is part of the source of Sengwa River.
The river banks have been ravaged and turned into maize fields.
The first settlers arrived there in 2001, but since then, the influx has turned into a flood.
A deadly war of attrition has since broken out between the settlers and villagers who live in neighbouring communal areas who had "preserved" the pristine resource for generations.
Moyo is one of the late arrivals among the settlers. He settled in the forest in 2015 and is now busy clearing land along Sengwa River for the next agricultural season, oblivious of the dangers he is posing to the area and country's ecosystem.
As a result of stream bank cultivation, the upper watershed of Sengwa River has been running dry for years and was only miraculously resuscitated by the recent heavy rains that pounded the country between December and February.
The same scenario is obtaining on three other rivers, Lutope, Mbumbusi and Ngondoma, which emerge from the same forest and are vital tributaries of the mighty Zambezi River, which practically serves as the life support for Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique.
By allowing the rot to continue, Zimbabwe is in violation of collaborative agreements with its neighbours. There are five other countries that share the Zambezi River basin.
Eight nations, including Zimbabwe, committed themselves to save the endangered Zambezi River and its basin.
In 2008, under the Southern African Development Community's water division, Zimbabwe appended its signature to the Zambezi River System Action Plan (ZACPLAN) aimed at achieving environmentally sound planning and management of water and resources in the Zambezi River basin.
This means that the unplanned and unauthorised settlement in Mapfungautsi, a catchment area for the Sengwa River which pours into the Zambezi River, is a clear violation of the principle of environmentally sound planning and management of water and resources in the Zambezi River basin as enshrined in the ZACPLAN initiative.
Further, Zimbabwe is a member of the Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), an institution jointly and equally owned by the governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It has the primary function of operating and maintaining the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River with a view to optimising the generation of cheaper and environmentally-friendly hydroelectric power.
The decimation of these forests, including those in Matabeleland North province, will, thus, in the long-run, compromise the objectives of ZRA.
It also means Zimbabwe is not abiding by its conservation commitments as enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by United Nations member States in Paris in 2015, particularly goal 15, which compels member States to "protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss".
These agreements do not mean anything to Moyo and others, who have settled in the 14 gazetted forests.
All they care about is producing enough food, of which the rich alluvial soils along Sengwa River guarantee.
"I have been able to feed my family since I came here. The land is good for us," said Moyo, pulling off his dirtied cap and revealing crisp fair hair.
"I am not an invader, I was given this land by the chief," he said, in response to a question over the legality of his settlement.
He proceeds to cut the musasa tree, felling the giant tree.
Most of the indigenous trees grow slowly, taking up to 300 years to mature in some cases.
Investigations by the Financial Gazette indicated that, in the particular case of Mapfungautsi forest, politicians and traditional leaders have been the biggest culprits to the destruction of the invaluable indigenous forests by allowing illegal settlements, mainly for political expediency.
This attack on environmental policies is accompanied by something more dangerous: An attack on Zimbabwe's moral fabric, which has seen those who are supposed to be at the forefront of protecting the forests encouraging their destruction.
FCZ Midlands regional manager, Rodreck Nyahwai, said there have been several efforts to save the forest, including obtaining High Court orders to evict the settlers, which have not been implemented because of political interference.
"We have also appealed for the intervention of some influential national leaders, but it seems even them have their own issues, which have not helped the cause of these endangered forests. For example, the ZANU-PF deputy national secretary for environment and tourism, Auxilia Mnangagwa, has visited the place and publicly expressed concern over the illegal settlement of people in gazetted forest areas and encouraged stakeholders to resolve the matter expeditiously. This did not help because a week after she left, a local political heavy-weight encouraged more settlers to take occupation of the same forest," he said.
Midlands Minister for Provincial Affairs, Jason Machaya, who also hails from Gokwe, is allegedly linked to the invasion of the forestry.
FCZ has attempted to engage Machaya, who allegedly did not respond to written correspondences from the commission.
One letter, dated December 19, 2015 and written to Machaya by the FCZ board, reads: "The Forestry Commission hereby kindly requests responses from your good offices to the following questions:
"1.On what basis did the Midlands Lands Committee authorise Chief Njelele to resettle families who are/were on Chemagora Resettlement Area into Mapfungautsi Forest?
"2.Is the Midlands Lands Committee aware that the ongoing exercise of resettling families/households in Mapfungautsi State Forest is violating/breaching Zimbabwe's legislation and regional as well as other multilateral environmental agreements?"
The FCZ board said it hoped Machaya's response to its query would "accompany the board's recommendation to the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate".
Machaya declined to comment when contacted by the Financial Gazette.
Chief Njelele denied settling people in the area, saying they were brought in by the Midlands provincial lands committee, which Machaya chairs.
"No one invaded the forest. The people were brought in by the Midlands provincial lands committee. They know better," he said.
FCZ acting director general, Abednego Marufu, said: "The position of the Forestry Commission is that all demarcated forest areas shall remain so for the original purpose of protecting the catchment areas of the various rivers that originate and/or pass through them. No settlements should be allowed inside the forests. This is the guidance we get from the Forest Act Chapter 19:05."
While the settlements bring temporary relief to land hungry citizens and keep the politicians in power, the environmental costs could be catastrophic.
The land inside Mapfungautsi is too fragile to withstand human settlement pressure and, already, deep gullies are forming in settlements due to indiscriminate felling of trees that help prevent soil erosion.
There are also many other environmental dangers associated with disappearing forests.
For example, forests act as carbon sinks, helping to clean the environment of harmful greenhouse gases -- chiefly carbon dioxide, which have been linked to global warming and its adverse effects like climate change.
The United States-based National Aeronautics and Space Administration has observed that partly due to forest clearances and increasing industrial emissions, global temperature has risen by one-degree Celsius over the past century.
The warming could further rise to 1,5 degrees by 2030.
Scientists have also warned that if the earth's temperature rises by two degrees Celsius, the world would go through a global climate catastrophe given that the sun is a powerful warming machine, emitting large beams of ultraviolet rays into the earth's atmosphere.
One of these rays is infrared, which is felt by life on earth as heat and an increase in heat levels has already manifested in sporadic heat waves across the globe that have claimed many lives.