Power cuts fuel Zim’s illegal logging business
Since early October, Zimbabwean households have endured up to 18 hours of power cuts a day, forcing many to turn to wood for cooking and heating.
With wood’s share in the national energy mix at around 53 percent, according to data from power utility Zesa (Zimbabwe Electrical Supply Authority), Zimbabwe’s forests have already been dwindling rapidly.
But as illegal loggers step up their activity to feed the need for energy, say experts, the devastation of the nation’s forests has become almost unstoppable.
Zesa, which supplies nearly all of the country’s electricity, said at the start of October that its already inadequate national generation had collapsed 17 percent to 984MW due to climate change-induced water shortages at its main hydroelectric power plant at Kariba, in the country’s northwest.
Studies by the University of Zimbabwe show that in a country where 61 percent of citizens are not connected to the electricity grid, urban households already consume one to four tons of wood per year, and rural families more than double that.
And with worsening power outages to come those numbers are likely to surge, experts say.
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Zimbabwe lost 327 000ha of plantation forests and natural woodland on average each year between 1990 and 2010. Now there are only 15.6 million hectares remaining.
At the 6 100ha Lake Chivero National Park, on the outskirts of Harare, the damage illegal loggers have done is evident.
In a vast area where decades-old trees once stood there are now only countless fresh stumps. “We estimate that 36ha have been cut down this year alone,” said Violet Makoto, spokeswoman for the Forestry Commission.
A senior employee at Kamba Caravan Park in Lake Chivero National Park, who asked to be identified only as Ben, has seen the loggers at work. He said they use a variety of tools, from hand axes to chainsaws, to mow the forest down.
Ben sees between two and four 6-ton trucks loaded with the logs leave the forest nearly every night. “As soon as the workers at the national park knock off around 6pm, the poachers immediately move in knowing there is no one to apprehend them,” he said.
According to Oliver Wales Smith of Environment Africa, a local nonprofit organisation, the logging syndicates work with corrupt police and officials to exploit legislative loopholes that allow them to pass off illicitly obtained wood as legitimate.
The government passed a law in 2012 restricting the use, trade and movement of firewood, but with fines that rarely exceed $20 the legislation is proving a poor deterrent, experts said.
Forestry Commission spokeswoman Makoto conceded power cuts were making it difficult to keep deforestation under control.
“It has become more and more difficult to enforce legislation as the situation becomes more about livelihoods.”
And in a vicious ecological cycle, the shrinking of Zimbabwe’s forests is expected to exacerbate the water shortages fuelling the illegal logging trade.
The Energy Ministry said the country is not expected to produce enough non-wood power and become fully energy secure until 2020, when a number of planned power projects is due to go online.
“All we can do is encourage people,” said Makoto. “And to plant more trees.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation