Saturday, November 10, 2012

Killing Trees, Destroying the Land

I stopped the pickup truck abruptly, jumped out and outraged shouted at the tree cutters: “Where is your license?!!!” Bewildered the three of them looked at me, threw away their axes and fled; leaving clothing and an empty whiskey bottle behind. And, of course, a trail of destroyed trees.

Notes out of Zambia no 5: An incident of environmental devastation.

Photo 1. Recently lobbed tree at plot 2 of Harmony Settlement Scheme.

We have a small piece of land at Harmony settlement, 14 km out of Choma, along the Great North Road towards Lusaka. It is a settlement scheme with over 200 lots ranging from a few to over twenty hectares. Many people acquire such plots for very little money when they are given out not with the intention to develop the land into small farms, but to sell them sometime later with considerable profit. This thing happens all the time when government hands out plots for free as is the case with settlement schemes.

Our late neighbour at Lot no 2 at Harmony was such a man. He had another piece of land somewhere else and that land he did work on. Lot 2 was some kind of investment, or just something to hold on to. Not something to work on or with.

People who do nothing with settlement plots given out for free run the risk of losing them by repossession. One rule is that there must be occupancy of the land; meaning that there should be a house on it. The place must be inhabited. It does not have to be the owner, living in that house, it may be a caretaker. Sometimes this dweller is employed by the owner, especially when the owner does grow crops, plant trees and indeed needs labour to do such things. Quite often this dweller is not paid and therefore has to fend for himself. Surely, caretakers can grow some crops in the rainy season, but it is hard to sustain oneself all year around by agricultural production without resources such as a borehole, traction animals, a plough or even a wheel barrow. The agricultural equipment of these people is limited to one hoe and one axe and that is it.

Such is the case for the caretaker of lot no 2. Our late neighbour just offered him a place to stay and the obligatory resident never had the resources and perhaps the opportunity or desire to transform his residence into a viable economic venture.

But he did have his axe and the trees.

At settlement schemes in forest areas you are allowed to “clear land” by cutting trees when such “cleared land” is used to grow crops on. You are not allowed to cut trees just for the purpose of selling the wood as firewood or for charcoal production unless you have obtained the obligatory license. When Harmony settlement scheme started it looked like a war zone. Trees were burning everywhere for the sake of agricultural development; the proceeds of charcoal production had to provide working capital.

Our resident at Lot 2 did not have to clear land. The only useful part of Lot 2 had already been cleared on acquisition and was best for grazing. The other part of the land was dambo – low land - flooded with water from January to June. Because of all this water it also was good for cows, but not for crops. Remarkably it had a number of mature trees on it which made the land look beautiful. Over the years the number of these trees had been diminishing. One by one they went down, losing the battle for survival from our resident tenant. Just one of these big trees yields hundreds of thousands of Kwacha as malasha (charcoal) and even as plain firewood the takings are considerable. A heap of money in an environment where piece work yields only Kwacha 10,000 (2 USD) in a day.

At Harmony the procedure of replacing the Offer of Land with a genuine title deed has advanced and is said to near completion. To be accepted as a future title deed holder one needs approval of the local settlement office (resorting under the Office of the Vice President) and such approval only is given if indeed there has been development and agricultural activity. At Lot 2 there was neither development nor agricultural activity. Rumour has it that such Lots are to be repossessed.

The passing away of the former holder of the Offer of Land meant that there was effectively no control over what happened at Lot 2 and its tenant/caretaker. Our man, not accountable to anyone, rose to the occasion. He decided to kill the remaining the big trees, make a big bash and hopefully get away with it.
Photo 2. Tree before lobbing. The next in line?
He started on this brilliant project a few months ago. I drive past Lot 2 at least once a week. When I saw one of the last full grown trees mutilated and reduced to a bare trunk I asked our employed and salaries farm man to tell the neighbour to stop killing trees on pain of action being taken against him. He did not heed the advice; on the contrary, he decided to scale up his sordid business by cutting down whatever was left to cut down in as short a time as possible by bringing in two other desperado’s in the destruction exercise.

I have reported the matter to the Section Chairman of Harmony settlement scheme and will do so on Monday at the government office at Choma.

The rate of devastation of land by deforestation and cutting or lobbing of trees along roads is both alarming and appalling. This development seems to grow exponentially with ever increasing demand and ever reducing resources. The outcome is sickeningly obvious.

The big question is why so little is done to arrest this trend. Why is it that when you drive from Lusaka to Choma your vehicle is inspected multiple times and your driving behaviour controlled by camera traps; but at any point along the way you are free to get out of the vehicle and bring a tree down with impunity. Indeed, if you have a truck you can also load the fire wood thus obtained; put paying passengers on top and instruct them to start singing funeral dirges as soon as a road block comes in sight. This cleverness is called coping ability.

Now what would happen in Zambia if this amazing talent “to cope” would not be used to get what rightfully does not belong to you but in a constructive and socially responsible manner?