By Ray Matikinye
ALMOST five years after initiating a chaotic land reform programme, Zimbabwe is gradually awakening to the reality that the programme has disfigured the landscape through lack of proper land
management, planning and natural resource conservation among new landowners.
During the often-violent land seizures in 2000 characterised by stampedes to acquire land at the behest of a harried ruling Zanu PF party to enhance its election chances, peasants grabbed any piece of land available regardless of its agricultural value, leaving the countryside deeply gnarled.
When indigenous trees were burnt to clear arable patches, fires blazed unattended even after the tree had fallen leaving vast swathes of scorched veld as a sad reminder. In numerous cases the settlers preoccupied themselves with selling firewood on the roadside for a living instead of engaging in productive agriculture.
Only where photographic evidence was taken of an erstwhile pristine forest before it was chopped down, burnt and destroyed is it possible to comprehend what the now deforested land looked like before. Only then is it possible to grasp the devastation of wildlife as well as the ecosystem that relied on the forest.
Virgin forests have vanished, replaced by patches of cleared land and pole-and-mud huts dotted haphazardly on the landscape creating fears of land degradation and desertification.
But environmental and conservation experts have begun calling on resettled farmers to plant more trees as a contribution to global efforts to rebuild the ozone layer that is being depleted by toxic emissions.
Acting assistant general manager of the Forestry Company of Zimbabwe, Abednigo Marufu, says resettled farmers should now plant more trees from which they could get fruits, fencing poles and firewood.
“Resettled farmers should plant tress as much as they can to reduce temperature changes that cause environment hazards such as droughts and diseases,” he says, adding that they should establish small plantations to replace the trees they cut for building houses and for firewood.
Recent studies indicate that temperatures in Zimbabwe are rising as a result of the depletion of the ozone layer, endangering all life forms on earth, Marufu says. The depletion of the ozone layer has brought about an increase in the incidence of droughts throughout the world.
Experts say post-Independence resettlement schemes missed a plum opportunity to place on the land a new category of proud and independent small-scale farmers who could, in time, lead the revival and sustainability of agriculture.
“All it needed was to select suitably qualified men and women and give them the opportunity to establish themselves as competent individual farmers on viable units of land, the size and capabilities of which are determined by the agro-ecological region in which they are situated,” notes renowned conservationist Keith Harvey.
Harvey adds: “That would have stimulated individual enterprise and thereby promoted high levels of production and expansion as well as engendering pride of possession and a sense of permanency and patriotism.”
But the destruction of the trees, plants, shrubs and grass in order to clear land for cultivation as more land is opened for settlement has continued despite government pleas for new settlers to observe strict conservation practices. Land degradation has worsened an already desperate situation in the communal lands.
Phillip Manyaza of the Natural Resources Board says deforestation causes land degradation and ultimately destruction of the aesthetic value of the landscape. He cites areas such as rural Murehwa, Zvimba, Chivi and Zvishavane as examples where deep gullies have so disfigured the landscape that urgent steps need to be taken to reverse the trend.
A much-vaunted Environmental Management Act promulgated two years ago has done little to discourage rampant deforestation in newly settled lands.
Go to Mwenezi district in Masvingo province for example and marvel at how settlement on land unsuitable for cropping presages disastrous consequences. Other areas countrywide have not fared any better either.
The local people who knew these harsh conditions firsthand were initially unwilling to take up government’s offers of free land but were eventually lured there by the prospect of satisfying their hunger for free meat. They arrived with their dogs, nets and spears, and have used boundary fencing for snares, ending up doing an incredibly efficient job of decimating the wildlife population.
Poaching is regarded in many rural communities here as a craft and wildlife numbers have dwindled also due to lack of access to its traditional water and grazing sources. For example, baboon troops are competing for their natural foods in the bush with the starving settlers and are now so deprived that they are invading homesteads to raid for any type of food they can.
Due to the known water shortage in the Mwenezi district, the settlers first settled around the cattle water points, pans, dams and sites where water was pumped for the wildlife, thus effectively cutting off game from their natural drinking points. Many wildlife species have died due to thirst in this dry area where they have relied on pumped water for survival for decades.
Technocrats and senior government officials privately admit that dryland crops have a very low success rate when grown in this area, yet they will not say anything against the present disastrous programme. The success rate for dryland maize in the district is about one in six years. They also admit and agree that the A1 settlement scheme in this low-rainfall area will not work and that it is totally unsustainable in its present form.
But nobody in authority seems brave enough to stand up and face the politicians and tell them that.
The settlers’ livestock that now rely on the major rivers for water supply threaten to cause massive riverbank destruction as well as gully formation from the continual trekking to the rivers.
Marginal and erratic rainfall in rural Mwenezi does not suit the growth of dryland crops such as maize and the clearing of agricultural lands is set to result in further massive erosion, especially where there is uncontrolled riverbank cultivation.
Reluctance to take corrective action by the government can be likened to the proverbial fiddling while Rome burns. The state appears to be picking its teeth while disaster unfolds right before its eyes.