Battle for timber plantations …Chiefs join looting spree

Bruce Muusha (44) and his family live in the middle of the timber plantation owned by Allied Timbers Holdings. For the past six years he has survived on illegally cutting timber and panning gold in the plantation, causing serious environmental degradation.

An illegal settler with his family staying in a timber plantation in Chimanimani.
An illegal settler with his family staying in a timber plantation in Chimanimani.

He claims he was legally settled by a local traditional leader and has no intention of moving.

“We were resettled here by our chief and we don’t have anywhere to go.We cleared our fields and this is our land,” said Muusha boastfully.

He is one of thousands of illegal settlers, mainly war veterans and Zanu (PF) supporters, who have occupied 2,386 ha of the 50,028 ha timber plantation in Chimanimani

According to statistics released by Allied Timbers, forestry contributes three percent to the Gross Domestic Product – but it is on the verge of collapse as illegal settlers, with the backing of politicians, continue to destroy the environment.

Although the illegal settlers claim their need for land is a genuine concern, ATH Chief Executive Officer, Dr Joseph Kanyekanye,says they are driven by greed.

“What is happening in the timber plantation is corruption of the highest order. These occupiers are a new breed of settlers whose motive is to steal and deprive future generations,” he said.

The industry is losing close to $18 million annually as a result of illegal activities in the plantations. Settlers contribute to 75 percent of fires in the estates.

Kanyekanye blamed the local Lands committee, chaired by District Administrator Borerwe, for fuelling invasions in Chimanimani by allocating land to people illegally.

He blasted state security agents for not doing their job professionally to curb crime.

“We are not getting any support from law enforcement agents. They are reluctant to arrest anybody or enforce the law,” he said. The ZRP even arrested his officers for trying to evict the settlers.

Kanyekanye also accused Chiefs Ngorima and Chikukwa of overstepping their boundaries of being custodians of heritage to inciting people to settle illegally.

Allied Timbers Chief Executive Officer, Joseph Kanyekanye showing some destroyed trees plantations near  Chief Chikukwa Communal area.
Allied Timbers Chief Executive Officer, Joseph Kanyekanye showing some destroyed trees plantations near Chief Chikukwa Communal area.

“At one time Ngorima sought permission to harvest our timber for sale. We turned down his request,” said Kanyekanye, adding that the chief was supposed to be the custodian of the forest and lead by example.

Kanyekanye recently wrote a strongly-worded letter to the District Administrator appealing for the responsible authorities to “stop this act of madness”.

In the letter, copied to Environment Minister Francis Nhema, Lands Minister Herbert Murerwa and Environment secretary Nhekairo, Kanyekanye said the illegal occupation of forests was blatantly illegal and no amount of ‘politicking’ would ever make it legal.

“The entire industry is based on merely 89 000 hectares. That we deliberately, illegally and viciously allow these forests to be cut, settled and timber stolen by people known to you and we do nothing is very embarrassing and sad. I feel ashamed to witness this,” wroteKanyekanye.

Last year Nhema requested Murerwa to deal with illegal settler challenges in state-owned and demarcated forests.

“This issue is threatening the very survival of the industry through indiscriminate cutting down of timber and uncontrolled veld fires. As you may be aware Hon Minister, illegal settlers settled themselves in various forests estates most which are gazetted forest.

“Most of these properties are owned by Forestry Commission and are either operated or leased by Allied Timbers(ATH)(a wholly owned state enterprise)as authorized and defined under section 17(1) and 3rd schedule of the Forest Act(Chapter 19:05) of 1996,”said Nhema.

In his response, Murerwa acknowledged Allied Timbers Holdings lawful authority to administer land leased to its terms of the Forest Act.

“The Acquiring Authority has no intention of resettling people in these areas which are for the forestry industry and should be maintained as such. The authority has not authorized anyone to be resettled in these areas,” said Murerwa in a letter copied to Manicaland Governor Chris Mushohwe.

Close to 130 families at Runhowa illegal settlement vowed not to move out of the forest, saying their stay was official.They said Allied Timbers did not have the right to evict them because they have offer letters from the former government.Some came from as far as Buhera, Nyanga and Makoni.

They said their houses were once burnt by police and army in 2000 but they were later given assurance by local politicians to stay put.

“Top politicians came and assured us that we were safe here so we are here to stay,” said one of the settlers who came from Buhera in 2000.

A local environmentalist and forester, Tafadzwa Munotyiwei said government should intervene to bring sanity in the country`s forests.He accused politicians of sacrificing the environment to gain political mileage.

Post published in: Environment

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