Kasukuwere vows to revive timber sector

The government has promised to forge an alliance with the business community to resuscitate the economically strategic but ailing timber industry.

Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere
Environment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere

The revival of the forestry sector is seen as fundamental to the recovery of the country’s economy. Allied Timbers Zimbabwe, the Wattle Company, Border Timbers Limited the now defunct Mutare Board and Paper Mills used to employ a total of 14,253 people in 2005. The figure has plummeted to 5,000.

The forestry sector and other parastatals have the capacity to contribute 40 percent to the Gross Domestic Product and generate up to $100 million annually – in striking contrast with the $192,000 recorded in 2008.

The adoption of the multi-currency regime has seen the sector making gradual positive changes. In 2012 it accounted for over $57 million in local and export sales. However, it is still struggling to regain its former glory owing to a myriad of challenges including illegal occupation of plantations, prioritisation of mining at the expense of timber and lack of adequate funding for capital investment.

Johnson Mhungu , the chief executive officer of the Timber Producers Federation, said the sector had lost 7,256 hectares of land to occupation by 1,536 illegal settlers.

Various timber plantations have been taken over for mining activities in areas such as Taka Forest and Charleswood Estates, which were allocated to Russian mining giant DTZ-OZGEO.

Meagre budget

Moreover, the industry has been grappling with an acute shortage of funding. From a bid of $7,1 million the Forestry Commission, mandated to regulate the forestry sector, was allocated a mere $4,6 million in government’s 2014 Budget – mostly for employment costs.

Of the bid $3,7 million was for capital expenditure, which received a paltry $250,000 – a mere 7 percent of the bid. The overall implication of this inadequate budget is that the organisation will not be able to fulfil its mandate.

Against this backdrop that government and timber producers have found common ground in a bid to unlock the impasse affecting the timber industry and restore it to its former self.

Way forward

The financial director of Border Timbers, S Dube, said there was need for adequate funding for the revival of the sector. “The Timber industry requires long-term investment. The current available local funds have rates of about 18 percent against a period of 25 years. So the biggest cost in the industry in terms of its revival is the time value of money. It is important that we look at a unique way of funding sensitive to the sector, with funds set aside specifically for this industry,” said Dube.

The Wattle Company’s managing director, Solomon Mugavazi, echoed the same sentiments and called for long-term loans set aside for timber players, as some plantations take up to 25 years before being harvested.

In terms of production, ATZ boss and TFP chairman Joseph Kanyekanye said there was need to replant, utilise all timber plantations and set up more sawmills. “There has to be a change to remain relevant and ensure that our production levels are okay.

“If we are to do things correctly, we should have one sawmill in Charter area, one sawmill in Nyanga and one sawmill in Penhalonga. We have three sawmill managers in the country instead of about 24. The Forestry Commission also needs to set up one effective nursery.

“In terms of the resource base that we have in Zimbabwe, we are cutting less than half of what is sustainable. We have about 5,000 hectares that needs to be replanted and 27,000 hectares of unused land which we need to utilise,” said Kanyekanye.

He pointed out that illegal settlements were targeting planted areas, yet there was 27,000 hectares of unused land.

Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Saviour Kasukuwere, in his response said government has committed itself to revive the ailing forestry sector. “This industry must survive. We must restore Manicaland’s prime position as a timber industry,” he said.

No future invasions

The minister vowed to put the lid on any further illegal settlement before he advised current settlers to legalise their occupations or risk being kicked out.

“We will not allow anybody to allocate themselves land illegally. Those days are over. If you didn’t get land when we were doing jambanja, you can’t jambanja now. If you do so, you are a criminal. We can’t let this industry be destroyed right under our nose,” he said.

Kasukuwere indicated that individuals and companies should follow proper channels to acquire land through the responsible ministry.

“We also have a situation of companies settling themselves in forestry land. Forestry Commission, Allied Timbers are government entities, so their land belongs to the state. You can’t allocate yourself such land. If you want it you must apply, there has to be a proper way of doing it,” he added.

Slash salaries

The former Indigenisation Minister said the forestry sector should start making contributions to the national fiscus.

Kanyekanye said the sector was mooting a plan to trim its number of managers and slash salaries by 40 percent to lower operational costs. He said the industry was courting foreign investors and markets for survival.

Meanwhile, the Wattle Company is expected to double its charcoal production while an integrated group of timber producers has engaged Chinese investors who are keen to inject $25 million into the revival of MBPM.

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