Bulawayo resident Nobuhle Mpala desolately sits on a chair with huge firewood logs, old tires, buckets and pots shabbily strewn on her doorstep in Makokoba, the city’s oldest suburb, selling dry teak logs.
She looks anxious as her eyes dart around penetrating the crowded surroundings enveloped in destitution and desperation for the next customer in the poverty-stricken township. Her next meal depends on how much firewood she sells on the day.
Her bills are paid from this erratic business, which is a double-edged sword. It sustains livelihoods, yet also destroys them in the long run by fueling environmental damage, hunger and poverty. Unless, of course, sustainable methods of renewable energy are adopted.
While Mpala is not interested in those esoteric debates, her actions have devastating consequences on the environment except that she has a different model.
Mpala (50) sells firewood on the doorstep of her three-roomed house. The split logs are lined in bundles of four, each costs US$1 (ZW$400). On a good day, Mpala makes US$20 — a big haul for her. For Mpala, selling firewood is a fast business, one she runs with her 74-year-old mother who started it in 1988.
Monthly, Mpala says she sells at least three tons of firewood. While some passersby see only how logging drives deforestation, erosion and environment degradation, for her this is not about felling trees, it is about survival. Where others see a problem, she sees an opportunity.
Firewood is an energy source for a number of people in Zimbabwe. Fuel wood is mostly obtained from logs, twigs and branches of trees that have dried and fallen down. However, many people often cut trees for firewood or fuel wood.
Firewood is more common in rural areas where people do not have access to any other source of energy, but it is also now common in urban areas where the public faces shortages of electricity or have no access at all. Selling firewood brings food on the table for Mpala, but at what cost?
Environmental problems flowing from deforestation add more to the miseries of poor people. The damage they cause heightens the impact of floods and other environmental catastrophes.
Soil erosion, land degradation and deforestation lead to a decline in food production along with a shortage of wood for fuel. In short, the worst consequences of environmental deterioration, whether they be economical, social, or related to mental or physical wellbeing, are experienced by poor and vulnerable people like Mpala.
We depend on the environment for firewood and food, so there has got to be a balance for sustainability.
Mpala sources and sells firewood from legally harvested dead logs through the national forest agency, the Forestry Commission. She is also a licensed firewood trader, but worries that wood poachers who cut trees have given people like her who make a living from forests a bad name in a country where deforestation is a huge environmental challenge.
“The illegal cutting of trees is bad for the environment and makes my business look bad because there are many people who sell firewood obtained illegally,” Mpala told The NewsHawks in an interview outside her home, a makeshift firewood stall.
“We have to stop the illegal cutting down of trees, not that I want people to come and buy from my business only, but because it is not good for the environment and for our livelihoods. We depend on the environment for firewood and food, so there has got to be a balance for sustainability,” she said.
Mpala suggests that cutting down trees recklessly contributes to environmental damage and climate change, problems Zimbabweans are increasingly now aware of. Her knowledge of these issues cannot be doubted, as she is a member of the Bulawayo Wood Traders Association, a formal body formed to protect the interests of firewood sellers.
The association has taken part in activities to protect the environment, including annual national tree planting programs. In December 2021, the association planted 20 indigenous Monkey Bread trees (Piliostigma thonningii/ihabahaba/mutukutu).
The Monkey Bread tree was designated as the 2021 Tree of the Year by the Forestry Commission and was planted during the annual tree planting day that Zimbabwe has observed since 1980. Preserving forests and planting new trees helps in protecting landscapes from the impact of climate change witnessed through increased droughts, floods and high temperatures, according to scientists.
Trees are a storehouse of carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas emitted through human activities — which is responsible for global warming and a driver of climate change.
Each year, the Forestry Commission leads an afforestation program with a target of planting 15 million trees. It includes promoting agroforestry practices and establishing fruit tree orchards to ensure food and nutrition security at household level.
“The urgency to promote tree planting is greater now than ever before because we are fighting climate change,” says Violet Makoto, a spokesperson for the Forest Commission.
Zimbabwe is losing 262,000 hectares of forests annually because of deforestation driven by rising demand for wood fuel, agriculture expansion and road construction. Forests cover 45% of Zimbabwe’s total land area.
"The national tree planting campaign is helping to restore what we lose every year in terms of the rate of deforestation,” Makoto says.
She adds that the tree planting exercise was a primary response to deforestation, but woodland management practices were also promoted for communities to benefit from forest products and indigenous forests.
As of January 2022, more than 18 million trees have been planted in communal areas and on commercial timber lands, according to Makoto, an improvement from last year’s 16 million trees planted against a target of 25 million trees.
Demand for fuel destroys forests near villages and towns in many countries, including Zimbabwe. Loss of trees leads to environmental degradation and increased erosion. Where dried dung is used instead of firewood, soil fertility is lost and harvests are reduced. The other major threat to forests is “colonization”.
Other enemies of the forests are cattle ranching and logging (only species such as mahogany are extracted, but at the cost of widespread devastation), prime examples of export pressure on resources. Clearing forest for agricultural use, road construction and settlements as well as the massive dependence of urban and rural communities on fuel wood for cooking and tobacco curing are the leading drivers of land degradation in the country.
Although Zimbabwe ratified the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) in 1997, deforestation and its ramifications remain a huge problem. Zimbabwe participated in the recent UNCCD 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire where global leaders met to find solutions to desertification, land degradation and drought. “Now is the time for action,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, UNCCD Executive Secretary, adding: “There is no future for our children or the planet if we continue with ‘business as usual’ when it comes to managing our land…The decisions countries take at COP15 must be transformational, not incremental, to achieve land restoration and drought resilience the world longs for.” COP15 took place in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, from 9 to 20 May. Its theme, Land. Life. Legacy: From scarcity to prosperity, was a call to action to ensure land, the lifeline on this planet, continues to benefit present and future generations.
COP15 brought together leaders from governments, the private sector, civil society and other key stakeholders from around the world to drive progress in the future sustainable management of one of our most precious commodities: land. UNCCD has warned that up to 40% of all ice-free land is already degraded, with dire consequences for climate, biodiversity and livelihoods. Without swift action, 16 million square kilometers (almost the size of South America) of land will be degraded by 2050. The conference focused on the restoration of one billion hectares of degraded land between now and 2030, future-proofing land use against the impacts of climate change issues and tackling escalating droughts – some of the key challenges confronting Zimbabwe.
“The government has intensified actions towards environmental rehabilitation and investing in land, water, energy to realize prosperity for all and in the spirit of leaving ‘no one behind’,” says Professor Prosper Matondi, National Coordinator and Chief Director of Environment and Climate Services in the ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry. Matondi, who headed Zimbabwe’s delegation at the UNCCD COP15, said Zimbabwe expected the conference to increase capacity building and funding support by the Global Mechanism, the Global Environment Facility and other financing institutions to implement bankable land degradation neutrality (LDN) focused projects and programs. LDN refers to a state where the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystems to enhance food security remains stable or increase within a specific time. He anticipated Zimbabwe would enhance its engagement efforts with civil society organizations and the private sector to catalyze program implementation and significantly contribute to the country’s achievement of the LDN targets. Zimbabwe developed voluntary LDN targets in 2017 focusing on improved land cover, land productivity and soil organic carbon on 30% of the country’s land area. The targets have been translated into programs which focus on interlinked interventions such as tree planting, soil erosion control, and conservation agriculture, and agroforestry.
The Forestry Commission encourages farmers to plant forest and fruit trees that will provide economic and food benefits and discourage deforestation. In the semi-arid Matabeleland region, the Forestry Commission has provided fast growing exotic trees like Acacia which are important in protecting the soil from erosion, while providing firewood and fodder. Currently, it is undertaking field trials on promoting Chir Pine trees (Pinus roxburghii) which are commercially valuable for timber in the dry region.
Dealing with drought situations Under the country’s national drought plan, Zimbabwe has targeted to plant local and exotic tree species on over six million hectares of forest converted to shrubs and on 215,050 hectares of forest converted to crops to meet its LDN goals by 2030. Further, the country is seeking to rehabilitate 2,820 hectares of land which are showing early signs of decline and have declined in productivity. Matondi told The NewsHawks that Zimbabwe — with funding from the US$10 million Global Environment Facility — was implementing a sustainable forest and land management project to meet the country’s land restoration commitments. The project is targeted at Save and Runde catchments covering Manicaland, Masvingo and Midlands provinces.
It will result in the restoration of 2,150 hectares of land in forests and mixed land-use areas and 172,540 hectares of landscape under improved practices. The project will indirectly benefit 15,000 people, more than half of them women. “The major project components of the project are the creation of an enabling environment for the execution of land restoration initiatives through environmental planning, training and awareness,” said Matondi, adding that the project will include sustainable land and forest management interventions and community livelihood projects. An accelerated land restoration program will be implemented to enhance economic resilience, food security, biodiversity replenishment and increasing land cover, thus mitigating against climate change and creating green jobs," he said.
This story was produced as part of the 2022 UNCCD Virtual Reporting Fellowship, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Robert Bosch Stiftung. It was originally published in TheNewsHawks on 2 June 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Nobuhle Mpala / Credit: TheNewsHawks.