Hwedza Forests serve many functions, but primarily they protect and form natural resources, providing an essential link to livelihoods, addressing climate change and other environmental challenges.
United Nations Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner says forests represent many things to many people including spiritual, aesthetic and cultural dimensions that are, in many ways, priceless.
But they are also cornerstones of economies, whose full economic value has all too often been invisible in national accounts of profit and loss.
However, Zimbabwe’s forests are increasingly under threat from land clearance for agriculture, fuel wood collection, wildfires and illegal harvesting for wood curio carvings.
Zimbabwe is estimated to have lost 15 percent of its tree cover in the last 15 years due to deforestation with experts saying at the current rate of loss, the country risk turning into a desert within 35 years.
But some communities in Mashonaland East province are now eager to protect their forests from further depleting and are managing to sustainably utilize the resource which is providing a livelihood to thousands of local farmers and villagers.
Through the support of Environment Africa (EA) and the Forestry Commission, communities in parts of Hwedza and Marondera are preserving their forests through communal woodland management and afforestation programmes.
Hundreds of farmers in Hwedza’s Chigondo area are conserving their woodlands through bee keeping, peanut butter and market gardening projects.
Chigondo Environment Action Group chairperson, Munyaradzi Mupfupi said participants were trained in the production of honey and beeswax by EA.
He said equipment was provided by cooperating partners and a honey-processing centre has been set up at Chigondo which was producing pure natural honey.
Mupfupi said the project was now self-sustaining providing livelihoods to farmers who are earning thousands of dollars through the marketing of honey to supermarkets and members of the apostolic sect who use the product for medicinal purposes.
Some farmers now have up to 200 bee hives which produce two crops of honey every year. On average one hive produces 20 litres of honey, with a 500 millimeter bottle selling for US5. “Farmers are now earning a good income from honey production and there is no need for them to go about unnecessarily cutting down trees which are giving them a livelihood,” said Mupfupi.
He said the local community now appreciates the value of trees, as their bee hives are located in the woodlands.
Some farmers now have up to 200 bee hives which produce two crops of honey every year. On average one hive produces 20 litres of honey, with a 500 millimeter bottle selling for US5
“We also now make our bee hives using eucalyptus instead of bark from indigenous trees and this has helped to save our forests,” Mupfupi said.
He said when it was off season for honey, the farmers would process peanut butter and dry vegetables for resale.
Paradzai Svinurai a local extension officer with Environment Africa said local dams and rivers have survived siltation through the preservation of forests and banning of agricultural activities around catchment areas. The said forests in the area help regulate surface water runoff, moderate high and low temperatures and prevent soil erosion.
This has enabled farmers to start thriving irrigation projects producing crops, vegetables and fruits which are being marketed as far as the Capital in Harare.
Indigenous knowledge systems are also being used to conserve woodlands, with myths and legends being employed to discourage people from cutting down trees. A Chigondo farmer, Admire Bhake, said it is taboo to cut down trees such as the indigenous muhacha, mukute, muzhanje and muonde species which are a source of fruits and food especially during times of droughts.
According to legends and myths in the area, a misfortune can befall anyone who cut down trees such as mukute and muhacha which are a source of fruits and food
“Trees such as muchakata are traditional meeting places and a misfortune can befall anyone who cuts them down,” Bhake said.
“We have heard of a number of people who have disappeared in our mountain ranges after cutting down certain trees considered sacred by our tradition,” he added.
Bhake said locals have to get special permission to cut down a tree. Those caught cutting down trees without permission are hauled before traditional courts where they can be fined a beast or goat.
Tobacco farmers Eustine and Jane Chizeya of Wenimbi resettlement area in Marondera do not cure their tobacco using indigenous trees as they want to conserve the natural woodlands.
The two farmers are now planting a hectare of exotic trees every year for the next six years for use in the curing of tobacco.
“We are also making fire guards to ensure that indigenous woodlands and our exotic plantations are now affected by fire especially now that we are entering the veld fire season,” said Eunice Chizeya.
Environment Africa team leader for the Northern Region, Kudzanai Gwande said seasons are no longer predictable due to climate change.
He said EA supports environmentally friendly communal development projects such as bee keeping and nutrition gardens and these have given a livelihood to farmers who are now able to harvest at least four times a year. “We are telling communities that if they conserve forests, they will get a benefit,” said Gwande.
He said community conservation projects have been a great success, with some areas in Hwedza now having significantly increased their forest cover.
Forestry Commission deputy general manager responsible for conservation and extension, Abednego Mambu Marufu said due to the country’s current economic constraints, funding of afforestation activities has not been easy especially in view of other pressing government budgetary priorities.
Marufu said the government with the support of different organisations, last season planted 5,3 million seedlings countrywide as part of efforts to re-green the environment and mitigate the effects of climate change.
He said the target this year is to plant over 10 million seedlings targeting schools, farmers, individuals and interested organisations.
Marufu said the commission is organizing conservation awareness campaigns and providing technical expertise to famers.
He said there is need to build and capacitate local level institutions so that the community as a whole can take collective responsibility over the communally owned forest resources through the formulation and implementation of appropriate by-laws and practices.
Marufu said Forestry is largely considered as a medium for development and not a viable land use system hence it is not adequately catered for in the national land use plans.
Furthermore, he said given the problem associated with the valuation of forest product ns services at the local level, they have frequently been omitted in the national level accounts and hence their contribution and importance to the national economy are grossly understated.
there is need to build and capacitate local level institutions so that the community as a whole can take collective responsibility over the communally owned forest resources through the formulation and implementation of appropriate by-laws and practices
“This has tended to limit the amount of resources ploughed into this sector by government. There is therefore need for increasing the visibility of the forestry sector by ensuring that its total contribution to the national economy is reflected in the Gross Domestic Product,” Marufu said.
He said the forestry industry contributes over four percent to GDP, but some of the benefits from the resource can not be quantified such as money generated from the production of mushrooms, edible mopani worms (madora) and fruits such as mazhanje.
Marufu said Zimbabwe has been experiencing electricity load shedding for a number of years now and since the country has also gone miles in rural electrification, the infrastructure has been rendered disused. “Households have therefore resorted to firewood as the most easily accessible source of energy, leading to increased deforestation,” he said.
The communal land tenure system that operates in communal and resettlement areas was said to be incentive to the long term investment in natural resources such as forests largely due to lack of individual accountability on the resource.
This was exacerbated by the erosion of the powers of traditional leaders who used to oversee the observance of certain environmentally friendly resource management and utilization regimes.
Marufu said there has been an increase in incidences of uncontrolled forest fires particularly in resettlement areas since year 200, resulting in the loss of unconfirmed hectares of forest and woodland areas.
“Unlicenced wood curio carvers have also depleted certain species of trees through selective harvesting of superior trees particularly those of high commercial value,” said Marufu.
“There has also been some localized damage by wildlife, especially elephants whose population levels have dramatically increased over the years to over 70 000,” he added. The United Nations has declared 2011, International Year of Forests marking 12 months of celebrations and action towards improved conservation and management of these essential natural assets.
UNEP’s report Towards a Green Economy – Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication – analyses how investing 2 percent of global GDP in 10 key sectors can, with the right enabling public policies, grow economies and generate jobs in a way that keep humanity’s footprint within ecological boundaries.
In respect to forests, the report analyzes the contribution that $15 billion a year – or 0.03 percent of global GDP – can make to greening this sector, including triggering greater investments.
The report suggests that a transition to a Green Economy could increase forested land – currently close to 4 billion hectares – by over three per cent in 2020, eight per cent by 2030 and over 20 per cent by 2050, relative to business as usual.