Firewood fervour may turn Zimbabwe into an ‘outright desert’

Global Forest Watch data

Global Forest Watch data

Zimbabwe, home to more than 14 million people, is currently facing a severe economic crisis. Under President Robert Mugabe’s land distribution reforms, in the year 2000 all white-owned commercial farms were forcibly seized for redistribution to landless native Zimbabweans. In February this year, the BBC reported Mugabe had finally admitted his land reforms amounted to badly thought out land policies. These reforms are thought to be the driving force behind Zimbabwe’s agriculture-based economy’s thunderous collapse.

Mugabe has previously blamed poor agricultural productivity on the weather and Western sanctions, as the BBC points out.

Once a potential bread basket for surrounding countries, Zimbabwe’s economic collapse led to severe shortages of food and fuel and an inflation rate estimated at 8.5 percent in 2013. To make matters worse, a majority of the population is without work. A 2009 estimate put the national unemployment rate in the formal sector in Zimbabwe at between 80 and 90 percent.

In developing countries like Zimbabwe and in much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, fuelwood is a major source of energy for cooking and heating for people who can’t afford electricity. A 2014 study published in Resources and Environment highlights the severity of this issue in Zimbabwe. The study, which explores firewood consumption patterns, shines light on the severe shortage of electricity in Zimbabwe. It blames a weak infrastructure, erratic supply, maintenance issues and the unaffordable cost of electricity in the face of unemployment and low incomes for contributing to increased use of firewood, which, in turn, is driving deforestation in the country.

Another significant industry in Zimbabwe is tobacco, which has also been in the limelight recently for accelerating deforestation. According to an article published by the Inter Press Service (IPS), forests are being cleared and converted to tobacco fields in some remote areas.

“The rate at which deforestation is occurring here will convert Zimbabwe into an outright desert in just 35 years if pragmatic solutions are not proffered urgently and also if people keep razing down trees for firewood without regulation,” Marylin Smith, an independent conservationist and a former staffer in the government of President Mugabe, told IPS.

According to Global Forest Watch, Zimbabwe lost approximately 373 000 hectares of tree cover from 2001 through 2012, representing about two percent of the country’s total forest cover. Based on data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), five percent of Zimbabwe’s primary forests remained untouched since 2010.

Zimbabwe is dominated by relatively sparse forest, with Global Forest Watch data showing only about five percent of the country’s forested area is comprised of thick tree cover with canopy coverage greater than 30 percent. Its protected areas (PAs) have not been immune from deforestation; Global Forest Watch Commodities shows that of the approximately 373 000 hectares of tree cover lost in Zimbabwe, more than 64 400 – 17 percent occurred within PAs. In 2009 alone, more than 13 000 hectares of PA tree cover were lost.

Zimbabwe isn’t the only African country dependent on wood for fuel. An estimated 90 percent of the entire continent’s population uses fuelwood for cooking; in sub-Saharan Africa, firewood and brush supply nearly 52 percent of all energy sources.

However, even those who have access to electricity are subject to erratic power supplies from the state-owned Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), which is failing to meet the demand for electricity owing to insufficient finances to import power. Firewood is then used as a substitute.

To put in perspective just how bad Zimbabwe’s economy is, one Zimbabwean dollar is currently equal to roughly 0.00276 U.S. dollars; that is, two-tenths of a cent. With such a deep trench to crawl out of, the future of the country’s natural resources looks bleak at best. As Chikono, a teacher from Mutoko, told IPS, “We will only manage to fight deforestation if government brings electricity to our doorsteps, because without electricity we will keep cutting down trees for firewood.”

With such a slippery slope to conquer, many in Zimbabwe are choosing to walk away. As of 2014, almost 21 people out of every 1 000 were migrating out of the country, increasingly to South Africa and Botswana, in search of a better future.

Author  Apoorva Joshi

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