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Zimbabwe’s timber industry is under threat from seasonal fires, which has become a predictable annual menace with thousands of forestry jobs lost as a result of the arson particularly in the Eastern Highlands.In recent years, the areas under forest plantations have significantly declined due to the mushrooming of illegal settlers who are allegedly causing uncontrolled veld fires as they try to clear land for farming.

Since 2001, about 36 000 hectares have been lost due to illegal settlements and fires, Timber Producers Association chairman Mr Joseph Kanyekanye said last week.

As a result, about 10 000 people have lost jobs.

Mr Kanyekanye was briefing Environment, Water and Climate Minister Saviour Kasukuwere who visited the Chimanimani plantations and timber processing facilities owned by Allied Timbers last week Thursday.

“If this continues at the current trend, there will be no industry to talk about in the near future,” said Mr Kanyekanye.

“The settlers were migrating from as far as Shurugwi, Hwange, Masvingo and Buhera,” he added.

“Once they settle, they burn fires to clear land for farming and this end up destroying plantations.”

Some of the settlers previously worked for forestry and timber companies, but left the employment due to poor remuneration.

Mr Kanyekanye said engagements have previously been held with authorities but no solution was found.

Even the legal route has also failed to bring sanity.

“Unless something is done, the country may start importing timber in the next few years,” said Mr Kanyekanye.

Mr Joshua Sacco, who owns a gumtree plantation, said Government should find alternative land for the illegal settlers to arrest the problem.

“If an alternative land can be found for them, timber producers will fund their relocation,” said Mr Kanyekanye.

Minister Saviour Kasukuwere said he would implore Minister of State for Manicaland Province to look into the matter.

“In the recent past, the forest plantations area has dwindled owing to mushrooming of illegal settlements in these forest plantations,” said Minister Kasukuwere.

“This challenge has also been accompanied by uncontrolled fires, which destroy vast tracts of forest plantations as settlers try to clear land for agricultural purposes. Mining activities in the forests plantations are also causing massive land degradation.

“If we do not arrest this issue, we may continue to lose forest plantation areas. This will bring its own challenges in the future where shortage of timber in the country will result in huge importations.”

However, some settlers have blamed “disgruntled” former employees for starting fires as way of “sabotage”.

“They always blame us for the fires but we believe the relations between some of the companies and workers are in bad state. We have heard about people dismissed unfairly and we believe this is where the hostility is coming from,” said one settler.

Minister Kasukuwere said Government would address the challenges facing the sector to restore viability.

Later, Minister Kasukuwere commissioned a US$1 million sawmill acquired by Allied Timbers at Gwendingwe as part of the group’s modernisation programme.

The new sawmill produces 4 000 cubic metres of sawn timber per month, almost double capacity of the old machine. It also reduces operating costs by 42 percent.

Gwendingwe mill should be turning over US$1 million per month when the mill is fully operational, said Mr Kanyekanye. In the medium-term, Allied intends to replace the other four old mills to achieve production efficiencies. Allied directly employs 1 400 people and has milling capacity of 120 000 cubic metres per year.

Currently, the company is milling about 70 000 cubic metres per year.

The company is looking forward to grow its plantation at a rate of 1 500 hectare per year starting this year and gradually increase to 3 000 hectare.

In the region, Allied is exporting to South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. It has also started exporting to Zambia.

Source : The Herald

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