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Where is our forest? 'Laudato sì' speaks to our experience

A very common sight in Zambia's Western Provice: Lorry laden with logs. (foto: courtesy Bishop Chinyemba) - RV

A very common sight in Zambia's Western Provice: Lorry laden with logs. (foto: courtesy Bishop Chinyemba) - RV

13/09/2015 13:30

Zambia’s Mongu Diocese Bishop, Evans Chinyemba, OMI has made a passionate appeal to the Zambian Government and to traditional leaders of the Western province to regulate the indiscriminate cutting down of trees currently taking place in his diocese.

So serious is deforestation in the Western province of Zambia that the country’s Vice President, Inonge Wina on 2 September 2015 called on the people of Western province to brace themselves for the negative effects of climate change. Speaking to Zambia’s ZNBC-TV news, Mrs. Wina said there was need “for enhanced preparations against the negative effects of climate change” in the Western province.

The privately owned Zambian Post Newspaper, on 4 September 2015, drew attention to a situation that is beginning to worry Zambians. The paper warned that, “The current massive load-shedding by ZESCO (the state power utility company) has precipitated the massive cutting down of trees for charcoal production (in the country), further compounding global warming.”

The Post newspaper’s concerns come in the wake of Zambia’s unprecedented electricity crisis since the country’s independence in 1964. In recent months, industries and households have experienced power outages sometimes lasting as long as 10 hours a day. ZESCO seems to be at a loss with what to do. The water to turn the turbines is simply not there. Zambia’s Kariba Dam is failing.

For the first time since 1963, when Lake Kariba was filled with water, the electricity generated from the world's largest man-made lake and reservoir (by volume) has dwindled from 800 megawatts to a paltry 305 megawatts. Zambians are resorting to charcoal and firewood for cooking energy. Inevitably, this means more trees being cut down. Charcoal production requires whole areas of trees to be cut down for wood.

Bishop Chinyemba is shocked and appalled by the indiscriminate logging that he encounters as he visits his mostly rural diocese of Mongu situated in Zambia’s Western province. According to Bishop Chinyemba, the Western province, sometimes also referred to as Barotseland, is currently under siege from all manner of timber traders. In a letter addressed to his diocese, Bishop Chinyemba appeals to the Zambian Government and the people of Western province to save the forests. The letter entitled, “Where is our forest?” appears in the latest issue of the diocesan bulletin, ‘Drumbeat.’

“Let us look at the issue of deforestation and the indiscriminate cutting down of trees in our diocese and the province as a whole.  In the last few months I have had travels to places like Mangango, Senanga and Kaoma and to the areas around Sitaka leading up to Lukulu. I have seen the careless cutting of our trees for timber, charcoal and poles. In the areas of Nkenga and Milumbwa of Mangango one can see how young Milombe, Mizauli and Mituya trees are being cut down for timber. In the areas of Ngundi in Senanga the story is the same. We see this also in the areas from Mangango to Sitaka and going right through the ‘Black forest’. The story continues in the forests of Lukulu. All this is for timber,” Bishop Chinyemba writes in his letter to the diocese.

Most of the trees under threat in the Western province are indigenous trees such as the Mukwa (Pterocarpus angolensis), a deciduous tree that can grow up in to 19 metres when conditions are favourable. The Mukwa tree is protected by law in Zambia but this does not stop people from cutting it down.

The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), says that Zambia’s Forests Act of 1973 states that one cannot harvest major forest products such as trees without a licence. The act nevertheless allows local communities to harvest forest products for domestic use but not for sale or export. Herein lies the loophole that is frequently exploited. Local communities or poor villagers are contracted by outside timber dealers to cut the trees for supply to international consumers, among them Chinese and Americans. Inevitably the villagers cut down more trees than they need for domestic use. It is a machine that feeds on poverty, an insatiable appetite for wood products and the money made as a result. Precisely the kind of issues Pope Francis brings out in his encyclical, Laudato sì.

In one of its editorials Zambia’s Post Newspaper once said, “The trees are being indiscriminately cut, without any system for replacing them. It takes 50 to 70 years for the Mukwa tree to mature and Western province is a semi-desert region -posing a very serious ecological and environmental danger,” the newspaper observed.

While the cutting down of trees for charcoal is bad enough, the most destructive culprits really are the big commercial timber traders who buy or cut trees for timber export mostly to China.

The International Forest Review states that although Zambia is not a major producer, it is a repository of several valuable wood species, attracting several Chinese logging companies. In Africa, Chinese companies are now both buyers and loggers of timber says the Forest Review. The short and long of it all is that, the “presence of these export-oriented companies is potentially a matter of concern in regard to rural livelihoods and the environment,” concludes the authoritative Review.

“Who gives the people who are destroying our forests licences to undertake such activities? Is the relevant (Zambian) government department involved in this and is it doing the necessary monitoring? Who is monitoring the various permissions given by the numerous (traditional) village headmen/women, Indunas, and the local chiefs in these areas? In a word, what is the role of our traditional leadership in this activity? Who are the real beneficiaries of this degradation (of our environment)? Should we continue watching this happen without raising our concerns and calling for a change of attitude towards our environment? How are the (local municipal) councils involved in this business that leaves our land naked?” These are some of the disturbing questions that Bishop Chinyemba asks in his letter.  

A United Nations (UN-REDD+) preliminary study of 2012, ranks Zambia as one of the countries with the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Other studies have shown that Zambia is among the top ten African countries experiencing significantly high rates of forest cover loss. There is reason to believe that the rate of recovery is outpaced by the rate of harvesting.

Another Zambian tree that is fast disappearing is the rare Mukula tree (Pterocarpus chrysothrix). It is actually illegal to cut down this tree in Zambia (and in most Southern African countries) but trade is flourishing in Zambia nonetheless because of a lack of clarity in legislation that protects the country’s forests. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, the Mukula tree is very popular with international traders because the Mukula’s heart wood is used for making rifle butts; the second layer is used in the timber industry for furniture, while the outer part is used for medicinal purposes. Enforcement of the law by various Zambian Government authorities has been and continues to be a serious challenge. Locals are paid a meagre 5 to 10 U$D per log.

On 10 September 2015, the Zambian Government’s eastern province permanent secretary, Chanda Kasolo told Christopher Miti of the Post Newspaper that the illegal trade of the Mukula tree had become worse in the area even with a ban in place. Kasolo proposed that a licence be introduced for the harvest of the Mukula tree. He is of the view that a blanket ban only serves to drive the illegal trade underground. Given the lack of enforcement of the current ban, in Zambia, a new licence regime would not only be be near impossible to manage but would surely spell disaster for the Mukula tree.

“There comes a time when it is correct to say enough is enough and let us start a new way of life or else we shall perish and the future generation will forever be deprived of a livelihood. This is the case with us in Mongu Diocese and other parts of the province…The real issue at hand is that our forest has been attacked and is being depleted by our local people and those from outside Barotseland,” warns Bishop Chinyemba.

Bishop Chinyemba suggests that the people of Zambia need to heed Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato sì. The Bishop says Laudato sì is speaking directly to the hearts of the people of Mongu Diocese.

“What has this encyclical got to do with us in this corner of the world? For us in Mongu Diocese, the encyclical speaks to us through what we see around us in terms of degradation of our forests. The story has been told and put across that poverty is the cause for the indiscriminate cutting of trees,” says Bishop Chinyemba. The Bishop goes on to extensively quote Laudato si to show that what Pope Francis wrote in the encyclical is actually something the people of Mongu Diocese see, live and experience.

In the end: “My appeal is that the traditional leadership, the government and the communities need to work together to address the damage being done to our forests before it is too late. Taking care of our forests now, will mean saving our lives and the lives of generations to come,” appeals Bishop Chinyemba.

The hope is that someone will hear his appeal.

(By Fr. Paul Samasumo, Vatican Radio)




13/09/2015 13:30