Villagers, govt clash over Baobab tree harvesting

The lives of villagers in Nyanyadzi and Gudyanga areas in the drier parts of Chimanimani have been associated with the Baobab tree for a very long time.

Children sell baobob fruit along the Birchenough Bridge-Mutare Road.
Children sell baobob fruit along the Birchenough Bridge-Mutare Road.

Also known as the upside –down tree, the Baobab is one of the most distinctive and useful African trees, which can survive in dry conditions for as long as 500 years. Its fruit, bark and leaves have sustained many families in Nyanyadzi and Gudyanga areas through difficult times.

Many families have survived on Baobab pulp (Mauyu) during times of drought and some have managed to send their children to school by making craftwork from baobab fibre. “This area experiences recurrent droughts due to very low rainfall. Most of the people of my age grew up eating mauyu, not only during times of hunger but also during our everyday lives .The fruit is very nutritious and very common in the area, “said Zondai Mvutuza ,a local headman.

Apart from utilizing the fruit, traditional leaders also use the trees as ritual sites and burial grounds, and for water storage.

The commercialization of the tree mainly centres on the fruit, seeds and its fibrous bark, which is used by locals to make hats and mats for sale locally as well as export. One of the craftsmen, Rekerai Mwashata, who sells his wares along the Birchenough Bridge-Mutare highway, said he had been making baobab fibre crafts since 1990.

“I was taught to make the mats by my late parents. Since completing my secondary education, I have never been employed anywhere except weaving mats. Most of my clients are in South Africa and the United Kingdom,” said Mwashata, who has managed to build a five-roomed house from the proceeds of his business.

Naume Gwitira survives by only processing the baobab fibre and selling the raw material to local and foreign craftsmen.

“I supply baobab fibre to lot of people. At my homestead, I have got stacks of the fibre which I de- bark from the baobab tree and soak in water for a week before processing it. I sell a bundle of the fibre for $20 each I sell an average of three bundles every day,” said Gwitira.

As The Zimbabwean also discovered during a recent visit to the area, the sale of baobab fruit is also booming. Hordes of fruit collectors including school-going children line the highway selling the fruit to motorists and merchants from urban confectionary and beverage companies who process the pulp.

According to the villagers, the baobab seed oil is also highly in demand in neighbouring South Africa, where it is used in the cosmetic industry. The commercialization of the baobab tree in the area has clearly posed ecological and environmental challenges as evidenced by numerous de-barked trees. Concerned by the over-harvesting of the bark, various government agencies, including the Forestry Commission and the Chimamanimani Rural District Council, have intervened and put in place measures aimed at ensuring ecological and economic sustainability.

“The council has by-laws that govern the harvesting of such natural resources. We have been encouraging the villagers to harvest the bark sustainably. Our staff often ticket non-compliant harvesters,” said the district chief executive officer, Nehemia Deure.

The villagers, however, do not believe their activities are damaging to the environment. “We have very strict customary systems to police errant harvesters. A lot of people have been doing this craft business for a very long time – but the trees are still in existence .The debarking is done in such a way that after a certain period, the tree will regenerate itself,” explained headman Mvutuza.

Debates about the conservation of the Baobab tree have been raging for a long time.

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