CHIMANIMANI, Zimbabwe, Feb 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
F rom the mountaintop at Skyline in the Chimanimani district of
eastern Zimbabwe, a mosaic of scorched trees and timber can be
seen stretching for miles on end.
Lit by a wave of illegal settlers, the fires regularly rage
through the pine and eucalyptus plantations of Manicaland
province, destroying vast swathes of timber at enormous cost.
Darlington Duwa, CEO of the Timber Producers Federation
which represents local plantation companies, said
it was difficult to know exactly how many settlers had moved
into the area but an estimated 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of
land are known to be illegally occupied.
"Most of the timber plantations (in Manicaland) are occupied
(by illegal settlers)," Duwa said
Also visible from the mountaintop are scatterings of crude,
grass thatched huts built by the settlers in and around the
Manicaland produces the bulk of Zimbabwe's exotic timber
requirements, but the industry is being undermined by illegal
settlers, say plantation representatives.
"It is no exaggeration that unless the situation is
addressed, the future of the timber industry in Manicaland is
bleak," Duwa said.
Many of the settlers moved onto the plantations during the
country's chaotic land reform programme which saw President
Robert Mugabe expropriate millions of hectares of land owned by
white farmers for redistribution to black citizens.
The illegal settlers do not have proof of ownership or land
titles but remain defiant, arguing they were given the green
light to settle on the plantations by the government itself.
"We are not going anywhere," Tawanda Chikukwa, an illegal
settler in a local timber plantation told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation. "These timber companies stole the land from our
forefathers. We are reclaiming it".
Plantations owned by some of the biggest timber companies in
the country have been affected, including Allied Timbers
Zimbabwe, Border Timbers and Wattle Company.
While the government announced late last year all illegally
settled people must leave the plantations they have occupied,
there has been no official move to evict people, Duwa said.
He added that in the majority of illegally settled areas,
traditional community leaders themselves do not support the
Local timber experts say apart from economic losses, illegal
settling of the plantations affects local forest management
practices, from planting and harvesting to fire protection.
Poaching of wildlife is also a problem.
"There is (also the) loss of employment opportunities as
companies downsize in line with reduced timber resources and
timber shortages. This results in the country resorting to the
importation of timber," Duwa said.
The federation estimates that last year alone, the industry
lost about 3,000 hectares of planted trees of various ages and
this has become an annual occurrence.
"At this rate, the industry is bound to suffer irreversible
damage" Duwa said.
RISK DAMPENS INVESTMENT
Experts warn that while the timber industry needs government
financial incentives to expand and grow, the risk posed by
illegal settlers makes investment unattractive.
Mandi Chimene, Minister for Manicaland Provincial Affairs,
said that in Chimanimani alone, illegal settlers were
responsible for the "wanton" destruction of trees over nearly
The Ministry of Lands and Rural Resettlement has served
more than 3,000 illegal settlers in six districts with notices
"Squatters are a menace and it is unfortunate that some
politicians and traditional leaders to some extent, are to
blame," Chimene said.
The system of application for traditional land claims was
also complicating the issue, she said, as local chiefs argued
the land was historically theirs.
"While plantation companies are getting eviction orders from
the courts, the challenge is that a different group invades the
very same piece of land, and the cycle continues like that,"
The solution, she said, lies with bringing together all
groups - from government and plantation companies to local
politicians and traditional leaders - to agree on acceptable
uses for the land, find alternative plots for those displaced
and to forge compromises with competing groups.
But time is running out, said Duwa.
"The issue of illegal settlers is taking too long to
address. The time when the nation will solely rely on timber
imports is fast approaching, let us all join our hands to
prevent this from happening," he said.
(Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani, Editing by Paola Totaro;
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