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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Zambia's Vanishing Forests

Air Date: Week of

Musenje Kapumba of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation reports from the Copperbelt Region of Zambia on the demise of her tropical homeland's forests. Around 3500 square miles of forest ecosystem are lost each year in Zambia to industry, timbering, small scale farming, and charcoal production. While some believe any policy changes will be “too little too late,” others are calling for tougher government protection before the forests are entirely gone.


CURWOOD: Deep in the heart of the tropical forests of Africa, the people and wildlife of Zambia are losing almost 3500 square miles of forest ecosystem every year. At the present rate of forest loss, Zambia will be denuded in the next century. The culprits include small farmers and charcoal burners, but also Zambia's timber and mining industries. Musenje Kapumba of the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation has our story.

(Singing and woodcutting)

KAPUMBA: Another tree is cut down. I found this man cutting wood a few kilometers' walk from the town of Chingola in the Copper Belt region of Zambia. He is a charcoal burner and he makes his living supplying fuel wood to the towns nearby. More than 60% of Zambians depend on charcoal for cooking fuel, and about 45,000 hectares of woodland are cleared every year to meet the charcoal demand. But that's only one small part of a much larger problem. Zambians are being warned that if we keep cutting trees down at the current rate, in just 50 years time there will be none left at all. I decided to try and find out why the forests are disappearing. My investigations took me to the Copper Belt area in the northeastern part of Zambia, home to over half Zambia's population, and where trees are disappearing faster than anywhere else in the country.

Along with charcoal, Zambia's trees provide timber for domestic and industrial use. Or sometimes they are cut down because people want to use land for agriculture. But what's the biggest cause of deforestation in the Copper Belt? That's the question I put to Colin Hegget, the chairman of the Environmental Conservation Association of Zambia.

HEGGET: The biggest consumers of timber on the Copper Belt are in the mines. They are responsible for having cut down over 40,000 indigenous trees per month, of which only 10% is actually utilized by the mines. The rest, the waste, instead of being turned into charcoal, these are just burned to dispose of it.

KAPUMBA: So, precious wood that could be used for fuel is being wasted by the mines. The second largest user of timber in the Copper Belt is the sawmilling companies. There are many sawmilling companies in Zambia, including two new ones in the Copper Belt. That's good news for the national economy and good news for the local people who've got employed. But it has led to more trees being cut down.

(Sawmilled trees)

KAPUMBA: At this sawmill in the town of Ondola in the Copper Belt, thousands of trees are processed into timber each year. I could see for myself that it was a wasteful process. While some of the timber was really being used, a lot was thrown away. Timber processors themselves admit that they can waste up to 50% of the wood. I decided to pay a visit to one of the major timber companies. Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation Ltd., known as ZAFICO, agreed to talk to me. I met with the company's acting director, Peter Chetombo, and asked him how much of Zambia's forest they are cutting down in the Copper Belt each year.

CHETOMBO: Apparently, we are clearcutting about 300 hectares per year. That does not mean that we get all our requirements from clearcutting. In some cases we are doing thinning. You go in and select some trees which are not performing well and take them to the sawmill, so that you give chance to the best trees so that those become your finer crop.

KAPUMBA: Environmentalists have expressed concern really that ZAFICO doesn't really plant any trees but just reap, and then never plant back what they rip up out from the ground. And that you also go out of your way from your plantation. What would be your comment on that?

CHETOMBO: I think it is environmental. The best thing they could do is maybe to pass a visit. Then they'll get to the first-hand information. But as far as I am concerned, or as far as ZAFICO is concerned, we do replant these areas.

KAPUMBA: But some environmentalists are not happy with the company's policy. The company often replants exotic trees like pine and eucalyptus instead of the indigenous Zambian trees they have taken away. Environmentalists argue that indigenous Zambian trees are fast-growing and suitable for commercial use, but unlike eucalyptus and pine, they can also support other forest products, too, such as medicine or plants, fruits and nuts.

But now, back to the issue of charcoal. In the Copper Belt, the demand for fuel wood is so great that the charcoal burners are cutting down too many trees each year. As I found out when I listened to some charcoal burners, making a living gets harder each year. They are one of the causes of deforestation and they are also its victims.

TRANSLATOR: Fuel wood is very difficult to come across these days. You really have to sweat to find it. The woods are found in distant places. Some time back, we used to collect from nearer places, but it's not the case today.

KAPUMBA: So how do you manage?

TRANSLATOR: It is very, very difficult. But if you want to eat, you have to sweat to find the fuel wood.

KAPUMBA: Some fuel wood cutters have started to make charcoal from the old cuts of waste wood from the sawmilling companies like ZAFICO. This is a small step towards using the forest timber carefully. But, is it too little too late? Colin Hegget of the Environmental Conservation Association of Zambia thinks that it is. He believes there's not enough control of timber extraction. I asked him how much of logging that goes on is illegal.

HEGGET: Unfortunately, I would say that most of it is. There are many licenses issued by the Forestry Department, but most of your commercial operators ignore the forestry regulations, and overlog to a very large extent. They will pay for one trees or one cubic meter of timber, and maybe take ten. So it is a very serious problem.

KAPUMBA: And who probably could be blamed for all these things, you know, that are happening here?

HEGGET: I put the blame fairly and squarely on previous governments, and unfortunately, the last year, the present government isn't moving fast enough to put the brakes on. Although they have the rules and regulations, they don't have the manpower or the political will to enforce it.

KAPUMBA: So, what's the matter with the Zambia Forestry Department? I went to see Mr. Aaron Bander, the chief training and publicities officer with the Department of Forestry in Indola. He made no excuses for his department's lack of influence.

BANDER: We are trying our best within the limitations, but I can assure you that we could do much better with resources at our disposal. Our staff on the ground are few, the transport is just not there, the financial resources for generation purposes are not adequate. There are so many, so many problems.

KAPUMBA: Many foresters in Zambia feel frustrated. They can only watch as their unsustainable exploitation of the resource continues each year. Still, some Zambians say, what does it matter to me if we lose the forest? It won't affect me. But about 9,000 square kilometers is being destroyed every year, and the results do affect all of us. Trees are an important part of our environment. Their roots hold onto the precious soil of our farmlands. In parts of Zambia, we have seen that when the trees go, the topsoil goes, too. Also in Zambia, there is a critical shortage of forest products such as fuel wood and timber for construction. The wild animals, too, whose presence in the forest could greatly boost the tourism industry, are also being denied their natural shelter. this is why many Zambians are asking the government to pass tougher forest protection laws and to come up with the resources to enforce them. And why they are also asking their countrymen to become involved at all levels of forest conservation. Conserving our forests, they say, is a major challenge that should not be given a blind eye, but requires the attention of all Zambians. For Living on Earth, I am Musenje Kapumba in the Copper Belt region of Zambia.



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