Mutare — Government should consider setting special environmental courts to exclusively deal with environment offences, as rampant deforestation threatens Manicaland's lush forests, a civic organization says.
Speaking on the sidelines of a community feedback meeting organizer Green Governance Zimbabwe Trust executive director Frank Mpahlo called for these special courts to deal exclusively with environmental offences.
The feedback meeting organized in partnership with Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), centered on addressing rampant deforestation in Mutasa district and access to information as a way of enhancing community participation in natural resource governance.
Mpahlo said without adequate access to information citizens cannot fully participate in natural resource governance or hold to account government institution which are custodians of those resources.
"The project we are implementing with MISA seeks to enhance participation of communities in natural resource governance, through access to information.
"For Green Governance the issue of environmental courts was a key takeaway from this meeting because environmental issues tend to take second precedence to other issues within our communities and the criminal justice processes or law enforcement system.
"Developing environmental courts means that issues of environmental protection are prioritised within that judicial set up for effective legal recourse using our law and policies to address environmental protection and natural resource governance," said Mpahlo.
He added, "The environmental courts is something that we subscribe to and we think it can make a big difference in terms of how we manage our resources, reduce clientism, corruption and unwarranted destruction of environment."
An official from Forestry Commission, Aaron Chinofunga also concurred that environmental courts can strengthen efforts of statutory bodies and local government authorities to curb rampant deforestation.
He said without the complement of special courts, environmental offences compete with criminal cases in courts which may take more precedent, threatening the sacrosanct duty to protect the environment for future generations.
"In our micro management strategy for the environment we work as stakeholders working with the City council that enforces by laws to manage the environment.
"As commission we hold joint operations with the City council and have the authority to arrest offenders and prosecute in collaboration with Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) within the purview of the law.
"Cases of deforestation are rampant we are always in courts and writing assessment reports as we have the mandate to quantify the value of the tree cut and go to court to defend and assist in the prosecution.
"Our main challenge is that these are not environmental courts, and environmental cases are placed together with criminal cases, maybe we have to move from the usual courts and establish environmental courts," he said.
The Forestry Commission said major drivers for deforestation in the province where identified as tobacco curing, fire wood in resettled areas and recently fire wood cutting which has become rampant in peri-urban areas especially Chigodora, Penhalonga and Dorapindu.
Chinofunga said communities must make use of alternatives for firewood as fuel for the community to use, as commercial illegal syndicates have also emerged as Lorries and trucks are ravaging the environs of Mutare with indigenous firewood.
"We cannot stop but we want to reduce it by also coming up with alternatives to curb the cutting of trees. We have moved across wards to educate communities through awareness campaigns to educate them on their environmental rights.
"We have much to contribute as communities to ending the challenge of deforestation, the challenge of tree cutting is too big for the FC alone, we need to partner with the community and civic organisations," he said.