Tobacco-linked illegal logging doubles

Jeffrey Gogo Climate Story
TOBACCO-related illegal logging has in the last two years doubled to 30 percent of the national total, latest data from the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe shows, placing ecosystems and biodiversity in extended danger. The data also demonstrates that interventions by Government, the Forestry Commission and the tobacco industry to combat deforestation linked to the production of the golden leaf are failing to achieve the intended outcomes.

Tobacco now accounts for the second largest share of all forest loss in Zimbabwe ahead of perennial culprit sectors like energy (firewood), and other land use changes in urban development.

At 55 percent, agriculture expansion remains the biggest driver of deforestation, says Mr Abednigo Marufu, Forestry Commission deputy director general.

In other words, small-scale tobacco farmers – which numbered 100 000 between 2013 and 2014 – are now responsible for cutting down the equivalent of 98 100 hectares of native forests each year to help cure their crop, up from 49 500ha per year previously.

“For the years we have had those big numbers (of smallholder growers), surely it (the rate of tobacco-related deforestation) ranges between 25 and 30 percent,” said Mr Marufu by telephone on Friday.

Smallholder farmers account for two thirds of Zimbabwe’s annual output of over 190 million kg of flue-cured tobacco, which raked in export earnings of more than $550 million in 2015.

But their reliance on fuel wood to cure the crop has decimated the country’s natural woodlands – key to stabilising climates at both the macro and micro levels.

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, Zimbabwe lost 327 000 hectares of plantation forests and natural woodland on average each year between 1990 and 2010. Now there are only 15,6 million hectares remaining.

From virgin land clearing for farming to barn construction to curing, flue-cured tobacco production naturally consumes vast amounts of wood, experts say.

For curing alone, some 9kg of wood will be required to treat a kg of tobacco, say experts, meaning for every half hectare with a 600kg output, 60 full grown trees must fall – and never to rise again.

Catch 22

Concerned at the unsustainable deforestation rate, authorities in 2012 passed a law restricting the use, trade and movement of firewood.

The law forces smallholder tobacco growers to establish a hectare of the fast-growing eucalyptus for every 10ha under tobacco, but, as the latest numbers show, loggers have had a mind of their own.

And this has become a nightmarish Catch 22 for the forest regulator.

“It is impossible to tell the farmers to stop cutting down trees,” admitted Mr Marufu.

“Instead, we encourage the sustainable use of the trees; to replace every tree they cut (down).”

It would be tolerable were tobacco farmers destroying only plantation forests, but their axe has been indiscriminate, falling on treasured indigenous trees, too.

Natural woodlands provide a range of water, climate and biodiversity benefits that cannot be found in man-made plantations, according to experts.

The complexity of a natural forest, which allows self-regeneration in a uniquely small individual climate, and the wide range of plants and animals, distinctly separates it from plantations.

Plantation forests “tend to grow a single species and require ongoing intervention such as fertilisation and pesticides.”

“We call it deforestation because trees will not be replaced; land use patterns change completely (with deforestation),” said Mr Marufu, hopeful a new tobacco industry-led reforestation strategy will provide a sustainable long-term solution to the illegal logging problem.

In 2013, the industry formed the Sustainable Afforestation Association (SAA), aiming to plant at least 4 000ha of gum trees each year for the next 7 years, creating a future energy source for curing the golden leaf.

To date, the SAA, which is funded by 15 merchants through a 1,5 percent voluntary levy on the value of their tobacco purchases, has planted 8 000ha.

The tobacco industry is now trying to encourage farmers to use more fuel-efficient methods of curing their crops, worried that deforestation could ultimately be bad for business as well as for the environment.

But the gap between now and the SAA’s first harvest, expected only around 2021, will be a defining era on the environmental sustainability of tobacco production in Zimbabwe.

To put things into perspective; unmitigated, tobacco-linked deforestation can result in wholesale desertification in a very short space of time.

In Mt Darwin’s Pfura district, there is only two years cover of forests left due to rampant illegal logging, according to new satellite mapping by the SAA.

Pfura lies in one of Zimbabwe’s major tobacco farming regions. But just 30 years since small-scale tobacco production started, forest cover has declined nearly 200 percent to 1 464ha in 2008 from 4 264ha in 1986.

And that much destruction to feed only 561ha of curing needs. “At the current rate of deforestation in the Pfura district, forests could be wiped out as early as 2017,” said the SAA’s Lloyd Mubaiwa in a previous interview.

God is faithful.

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