1 June 2017

Zimbabwe: Tobacco Farmers Wreak Havoc On Forests

As the vehicle negotiated Hurungwe District's rugged terrain, weaving through countless tree stumps, it was difficult to imagine that once upon a time, the area was a dense forest.

Years of deforestation by tobacco farmers seeking wood for their barns have taken a serious toll on the country's indigenous forests.

The situation continues to get worse as few new trees are being grown where the old are being cut down by an increasing number of farmers turning to tobacco farming.

Most farmers in Hurungwe have since abandoned maize farming for tobacco, citing low prices and viability challenges they have faced in growing maize.

With more than 98 000 registered tobacco farmers, up from just 600 in 2000, Zimbabwe's forests are indeed under siege.

According to the Forestry Commission, every year the southern African nation is losing more than 300 000 hectares of forests to deforestation.

At least 15 percent of the destruction is attributable to tobacco farmers.

Previously, tobacco farmers would mainly cure their crop using coal, but wood has become the cheapest and readily available fuel for the army of farmers who have migrated to tobacco.

Under these circumstances, finding a lasting solution to the increasing deforestation is near impossible.

But the solution could come from a most unusual source: Bees.

Arnold Guzha, who chairs the Mudzimu Bee Keeping Group, said bee-keeping was bringing double benefits to the Hurungwe community.

"As well as earning money from selling our honey, we have also started taking more care of our forests because this is where the bees live and build their natural hives," he said.

"We have not used our forests wisely until now. Instead of cutting down trees, we are keeping them. If we had started our honey activities a few years ago, we would have known to make wiser use of this natural resource," he added.

Guzha is among an estimated over 6 000 full-time beekeepers in Zimbabwe.

The beekeepers have support from farmers who are still growing maize.

"Our culture preserved forests by labelling them sacred. No one ever dared to cut down trees, but tobacco farmers in this area have wrecked havoc and if nothing is done to stop them our trees will become extinct," said Vian Bhachi, a maize farmer who has watched Hurungwe forests vanish.

He added that herbalists in the area were now walking long distances in search of herbs.

"Indigenous trees are very helpful in many ways and parents are struggling to find certain trees for herbs when children experience stomach ache," added Bhachi.

The Forestry Commission, which is responsible with preservation of forests, is now hoping that the enactment of a law through a Statutory Instrument (SI), could help force farmers to plant trees. The SI is currently being crafted, said Forestry Commission general manager, Darlington Duwa.

Duwa said: "The instrument will force farmers to set aside land for the growing of trees to be used during tobacco curing and these will be fast growing trees. Our research division is working on fast growing tree varieties and the law we are talking about is almost 80 percent complete and should come into effect very soon."

Despite these efforts tobacco farmers says they have very little choice but to rely on the indigenous forest for fuel wood.

"Firewood is the only available source of fuel we can secure to cure our tobacco, we know the government policy on indiscriminate cutting down of trees but we are left with no choice. The advantage of indigenous trees is that they are flammable and last long," said one farmer Forward Chigara.

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