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Post: The Zimbabwe forestry industry past and present

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The Zimbabwe forestry industry past and present

According to the UN FAO, 40%, or about 15,624,000 hectares, of Zimbabwe is forested. Among these, 5.1% qualify as primary biodiverse and carbon-dense forests. Presently, Zimbabwe boasts roughly 130,000 hectares of planted or exotic trees.

Key players in the sector include Allied Timbers, Border Timbers, Wattle Company, Hunyani Forests, Mutare Board and Paper Mills, and various out-grower schemes for the tobacco industry. Constraints hinge on technology, finance, knowledge and skills.

RHODESIAN FORESTRY

The Rhodesian (Rhodesia is the former name of Zimbabwe) timber industry originated in 1908 with industrial growth exploiting indigenous hardwood forests in western Matabeleland. Demand increased for railway sleepers, construction and mining timber, and furniture manufacturing.

The predominant woodland types in Zimbabwe are miombo, mopane, teak, acacia and terminalia/combretum. With their slow growth rate of up to 150 years, indigenous trees could not meet the rapid demand. Consequently, by 1910, fast-growing pines and eucalyptus species from Australia were introduced.

By 1920, farmers had planted 1,200 hectares. In 1923, the Forestry Commission, initially the forest division of the Department of Agriculture, started planting trees in Mtao Forest near Mvuma.

Several plantations sprang up between Fort Victoria (Masvingo) and Salisbury (Harare) and between Gwelo (Gweru) and Heaney. In 1926, the Forestry Commission initiated large-scale pine plantations at Stapleford Forest.

The 1930s and 40s saw a continuation of this afforestation trend, with the introduction of wattle in the eastern districts. The Wattle Company was founded in 1945 to augment the wattle extract industry.

By 1950, the parastal Forestry Commission and private entities had planted 25,000 hectares of wattle. Between 1950 and 1960, plantation forestry escalated, totalling 83,000ha by 1960, comprising 37,000ha pines, 28,000ha wattle, and 18,000ha eucalyptus trees. The forestry and sawmilling industry was worth $US50 million.

RESEARCH AND TRAINING

Although forestry research in Zimbabwe has evolved since the 1930s, formal research only started in 1948. The Forestry Commission under the Ministry of Environment, Climate, and Natural Resources, has a dedicated research and training division based in Harare.

Its services include tree breeding, seed sales, mapping and inventory, silviculture, and agro-forestry. The tree improvement programme aims to genetically improve pines and eucalyptus for saw timber and utility poles. Private forestry companies collaborate with the Forestry Commission to set up trials and seed collection.

The country has tertiary institutions that offer diploma and degree courses in forestry and wood technology. These include the Zimbabwe College of Forestry (ZFC), Forest Industries Training Centre (FITC), Bindura University and the National University of Science and Technology.

The ZCF and FITC, under the Forestry Commission, offer forestry and wood technology programmes. Since its inception in 1946 at Mtao Plantation, ZFC has produced over 2000 qualified foresters.

FITC was established in 1990 and has graduated over 1000 wood technologists and saw doctors. Most saw doctors have migrated to South Africa, where more work opportunities are available, and there is a shortage of qualified saw doctors.

SAWMILLS

About eight industrial “formal” sawmills are owned by companies like Allied Timbers, Border Timbers, and the Wattle Company. There is a proliferation of small private bush mills supplying wet-off-saw timber for the lower end of the market.

Darlington Duwa, the CEO of the Timber Producers Federation, says it isn’t easy to estimate the annual production of lumber. Some large sawmills are operating below 30% capacity with various challenges, including a shortage of mature standing timber for saw logs and outdated processing technologies.

The state-owned enterprise, Allied Timbers, has recently invested in rebuilding and equipping two of its sawmills with the latest sawmilling technology. Border Timbers has invested in renewable energy (solar) to power one of its main sawmills in the Chimanimani area.

WOOD PROCESSING PLANTS

There are four industrial-size pole treatment plants and a few smaller plants. Barriers to entry include expensive chemicals and complying with health, safety, environmental and legal requirements. There are also veneer and plywood producers, charcoal producers, board manufacturers and paper and product manufacturers.

SMALL GROWERS

The Zimbabwean forestry industry does not have a vibrant commercial small-scale timber growers’ sector. The rural farmers established many of the eucalyptus wood lots dotted across the country with the help of the Forestry Commission’s afforestation programme since 1983. The objective was to develop fuelwood plots for farmers to curb deforestation of natural forests.

In 2010, the Tobacco Industry Board and major role players working with small-scale tobacco farmers began establishing eucalyptus woodlots of between five and 20 hectares to create a sustainable fuel source for tobacco curing. To date, the ongoing project has established about 20,000 hectares.

INDUSTRY CHALLENGES

The Timber Producers Federation (TPF) represents forestry plantation companies, wood treatment plants, and sawmilling companies in Zimbabwe. It says the forestry industry is grappling with various challenges.

These include drought, wildfires, land invasions, brain drain, baboon damage, conflicting national legislation, erosion, river siltation, and the destruction of forest-based livelihoods. Natural forests and woodlands are the major source of fuelwood for rural and low-income urban households, contributing significantly to deforestation.

A significant challenge is conflicting national legislation, such as the Mines and Minerals Act versus the Forest Act, where special mining grants in gazetted forests like Tarka and Maswera have led to conflict.

The Traditional and Local Leadership Act has also allowed settlements in gazetted forests and plantations, leading to land occupations in Chikukwa, Ngoma, Muusha, and Mutambara.

The consequences of these policy inconsistencies include land invasions, runaway wildfires, illegal harvesting and poaching, land clearing for grazing and agriculture, river siltation due to gold panning and increasing temporary unplanted (TU) areas.

SKILL AND BRAIN DRAIN

The industry has also lost many skilled and talented foresters and wood technologists to neighbouring countries and elsewhere. General labour is difficult to source and retain. The minimum wage for farm labour is continuously diminished by high inflation, leaving little for essentials and daily basic needs in poverty-stricken rural villages.

Source: WoodBiz Magazine – April 2024 (page 37 – 38)

 

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