Agriculture

Zim deforestation in relentless march northwards

PHILLIMON MHLANGA

Zimbabwe is losing close to 400,000 hectares (ha) of forest a year as humans continue to tear through the country’s forests, compounding fears of losing the war against climate change, it has emerged.

This represents a 100% surge from about 200,000ha lost between 2010 and 2014.

The spike sounds much. At this rate, experts this week warned, much would disappear and remains likely in the next decade due to Zimbabwe’s economic crisis.

And the threat, Forestry Commission spokesperson Violet Makoto said, has grown more sophisticated.

“It [deforestation] has worsened to close to 400,000 hectares,” Makoto told Business Times last week adding that: “More tobacco farmers are now using trees for curing than before.”

Causes are varied.

As the impact of agriculture expansion, especially tobacco farming where the vast majority of farmers are now cutting trees to cure the golden leaf more than ever before, becomes more evident, so too does the scale of illegal mining where the artisanal small-scale gold and chrome miners who are now scattered across the country.

The artisanal miners have since upstaged big mining houses and are delivering more of the minerals than their counterparts.

In the past, coal was enormously useful for tobacco curing, but the challenge now is the skyrocketing cost of the fossil fuel and its transportation from largely Hwange, which many can no longer afford.

This has resulted in them overwhelmingly accessing forests for trees to use as an alternative, causing damaging destruction of forests.

Such calamities, once considered freakish are now a common thing.

Logging, which refers to cutting of trees and processing to produce timber and pulp to supply markets for furniture, construction, and other products, is also playing a major role in the increase in deforestation in Zimbabwe.

Throw in poverty, the picture gets worse as households to go after resources which do not belong to anyone amid electricity woes.

They even cut green wood for firewood without waiting for it to reach maturity.

These have compounded fears of climate change.

Zimbabwe’s economy contracted by -6.5% last year and the recession is likely to continue this year, mostly on account of climate change induced challenges such as the drought related food insecurity, depressed electricity generation (especially hydro at Kariba), negative impact of Cyclone Idai and macroeconomic challenges which included foreign currency supply bottlenecks, currency devaluation and inflation spikes.

In response to the macroeconomic and climate induced challenges, most sectors of the economy recorded negative rates in 2019.

And several consequences seem to be emerging resulting in government and environmental experts sounding the alarm over the increased rate of degradation of forests.

“Tobacco processing [curing] is one of the major contributors to deforestation particularly our indigenous trees,” said Nqobizita Mangaliso Ndlovu, Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry minister.

“A worrying statistic is that in Mashonaland East Province, we are losing on average 35,000 ha of forests to tobacco curing and planting on average 1,000 ha.

This is highly irresponsible and unsustainable, hence the importance of the tree planting programme.”

In light of climate change, State-owned Forestry Commission, has its flagship initiative to plant trees every first Saturday of December each year across the country to motivate the nation to plant, care for and conserve trees.

This ensures sustainability in the management and utilisation of our forest resources.

Tree planting remains one of the key programmes for the country to replenish its forest resources on view of the rate of deforestation.

The national tree planting day was declared in 1980, when the country attained independence, and has become an important part of Zimbabwe’s calendar on which the tree planting season is officially launched.

This is critical for the enhancement of biodiversity and household food security. But, its efforts are out paced by the rate of deforestation, which is claiming close to 400,000 ha each year.

A global forest expert was also equally concerned.

“For every hectare of forest loss, we are one step closer to the scary scenarios of runaway climate change,” Frances Seymour of the global research organisation, World Resource Institute (WRI) which runs Global Forest Watch said.

The effects are damaging. Given what is at stake, it is no wonder that governments across the world agreed global warming and climate change must be stopped.

The impact of climate change could very plausibly include greenhouse gas emissions going up despite Zimbabwe being one of the countries which vowed in Paris about five years ago, to keep warming well below 2°Celsius.

In December last year, Zimbabwe was involved in Madrid climate change talks.

Numerous studies have shown that trees really matter as stores of carbon dioxide, which is why the loss of close to 400,000ha a year is concerning.

That might sound hard to Zim deforestation in relentless march northwards believe, but, to understand the situation properly, if forests continue to vanish and release greenhouse gases into the air, some crops like bananas, wheat, tea, avocados and coffee, could be lost in our lifetime, experts warned.

Studies show that the extreme removal of trees disrupts the carbon cycle, meaning that fewer trees are available to absorb carbon dioxide from the air.

Additionally, when trees are cut, especially in large amounts, the carbon dioxide stored in trees is released into the atmosphere and eventually contributes to global warming.

This is a leading cause of climate change and also perpetuates increased greenhouse gas emissions and decreases soil quality.

Left to rot, those trees no longer capture and store carbon dioxide but instead release it into the atmosphere.

According to the Woods Hole Research Centre, deforestation is currently responsible for close to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Human-induced forests destruction also threatens biodiversity, decreases carbon absorption, magnifies natural disaster damage and disrupts water cycles.

Numerous researches show that forests are a vital component of the water cycle that regulates rivers and precipitation patterns.

Without trees, a process called evapotranspiration- the evaporation from land and release of water from plant leaves-would not occur.

This would alter precipitation patterns which would lead to catastrophic droughts, floods and heatwaves.

This lead to severe agricultural disturbances.

In addition to regulating rainfall, evapotranspiration from forests also regulate temperature.

Most scientists agree that planting trees would have a cooling effect on the land.

Unfortunately, these temperature regulating trees are being cut down every day, which also weakens soil quality and induces flooding.

It also results in increased soil erosion and excessive flooding. Apart from that the effects of climate change worsen.

And threats are growing and the causes are varied.

A lot of deforestation, however, has less to do with natural factors and more to do with human activities.

Deforestation such as these is often tied to subsistence farming and ranching.

Others cut down forests to make way for illegal small-scale gold mining, which has weakened environmental protection.

This is becoming a top deforestation driver.

Threats also continue to grow from other numerous directions including an expansion of tobacco farming.

A larger portion of Zimbabwe forests are also cut down to create wood based products.

The aggressive removal of forests threatens plant and animal species in addition to the natural regrowth of tree samplings.

Expansion of cities is also contributing to cutting of forests.

Last year, Zimbabwe even had one of the highest deforestation rate in Africa.

In Africa, Zimbabwe is, however, trailing Cameroon and Ghana where massive forest destruction is happening to make way for palm oil plantations and cocoa bean crops, which are replacing the rainforests.

A report by Global Forest Watch shows that forest loss in Cameroon was 777, 000 ha and Ghana more than 500, 000 ha respectively.

Of particular concern is the continued destruction of what are termed primary forests.

Primary forests are those that exist in their original condition and are virtually untouched by humans.

If a section of a forest is cut down, some of the species, which play a key role in the ecosystem, living in the patches of the forests might disappear.

This affects biodiversity across the whole forest system.

Sometimes referred to as old growth forests, these areas can harbour trees that are hundreds, even thousands of years old.

They are critical to sustaining biodiversity, and are home to animals as well. And pressure has reached a new pitch in the past year following Zimbabwe’s experience of two climate extremes in a year, the El Nino induced drought and the Cyclone Idai.

An independent environmentalist, Chioniso Sibanda signalled concern about the situation.

“We are on the brink of mass extinction and if humans continue tearing through our forests for profit, it will happen sooner than expected.

The extinction of plants and animals in forests is bad news. Its effects will shake the entire country,” Sibanda told Business Times.

Deforestation is a leading cause of climate change which is a leading cause of crop extinction.

It removes vegetation which anchors soil in place.

Without enough trees, soil is vulnerable to erosion and nutrient loss.

The absence of roots causes topsoil to easily wash or blow away leading to decreased soil quality and increased landslides.

Numerous studies show that a large amount of arable land in Zimbabwe has been lost to soil erosion and degradation.

Soil is compromised and loses its ability to hold moisture which leads to flooding.

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