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Zimbabwe Forests Under Threat While Cambodia Censors Logging Report

The Mukuvisi Woodland is popular among Harare schoolchildren who visit to observe wildlife.
by Fanuel Jongwe
Harare (AFP) June 06, 2007
Israel Thebe points in despair to dozens of fresh stumps that have appeared overnight in the heart of Mukuvisi Woodlands, on the outskirts of Harare. "It takes a good 50 years for a tree to grow fully," said the forestry manager. "This took place in just one night." Mukuvisi has long been a popular destination for day trips by schoolchildren from the Zimbabwean capital who are able to catch a glimpse of wildlife such as giraffe, zebra and several antelope species on their doorstep.

The woodlands however have also seen a recent upsurge in night-time visitors -- axe-wielding poachers who make a bee-line for its forests in order to feed the demand for firewood in a country where power cuts have become perennial.

Even though the authorities try to put a halt to the scalping, Thebe fears it is a losing battle as people become desperate to keep warm during winter.

"We have had to hire night guards specifically to look at that but the wood poachers always find ways to evade detection. Give it another two years and most of this forest will be gone," he said.

Even the saplings are not spared as the poachers strip the bark from the tender shrubs to weave into rope to tie bundles of stolen firewood.

Residents from Harare's townships unfazed by prospects of arrest for breaching forestry laws, are often seen carrying bundles of firewood or pushing cartfuls of chopped wood from neighbouring farms.

Their sense of impunity is not surprising given that anyone convicted of cutting down trees protected under the forestry act pays a fine of 2,500 Zimbabwean dollars -- the equivalent of five US cents at black market rates.

The economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, where the annual rate of inflation stands at over 3,000 percent, has impacted on every aspect of daily life.

But while the affect on issues such as life expectancy and employment have been well-documented, the environmental impact is only just beginning to be felt.

Zimbabwe currently imports 40 percent of its power needs: 100 megawatts a month from the Democratic Republic of Congo, 200 megawatts from Mozambique and up to 450 and 300 megawatts from South Africa and Zambia respectively.

But imports are expected to stop this year due to an anticipated power deficit across southern Africa resulting from increased demand, leaving many residents with no alternative other than wood fires to cook and stay warm.

The demand for wood is good news for some.

Agnes Mutero, dwarfed by a pile of firewood at her stall in Harare's main marketplace in Mbare, admits she is doing a roaring business.

"For me the power cuts mean more business," said Mutero who sells a small bundle of firewood for 20,000 Zimbabwean dollars (80 US dollars, 60 euros).

"If I get arrested I always pay a fine and come back to work. I cannot let my family starve when I can feed by selling firewood."

Environmentalists however say everyone will end up paying the price of such short-term opportunism.

"Firewood poaching is a real threat to our natural forests," warned Fiona Munyepfu, a project officer with the watchdog Environment Africa.

"One just needs to go a few kilometres outside Harare to see the extent of the destruction which is being exacerbated by the electricity cuts."

According to Luckymore Kondo, a resident of Mbare, said the power cuts leave consumers with little alternative even though he is well aware and concerned about the long-term dangers of the rampant tree cutting.

"Most of the time we use firewood for cooking just like people in the villages yet we pay our full bills at the end of the month," Kondo complained.

"I wonder what will be left of the forests if the electricity problems persist. Something just needs to be done to stop this."

Zimbabwe's once-model economy has been on a downturn for the past five years, characterised by four-digit inflation and shortages of foreign currency and basic foodstuffs such as the staple cornmeal and cooking oil.

Manufacturers sometimes switch to diesel-powered generators to keep their machines running but the option is not a viable one in a country saddled with chronic fuel shortages.

Zimbabwe's power utility last month launched a plan to cut power supply to selected residential areas for up to 10 hours each day until August to meet higher demand from wheat farmers.

earlier related report
Environment group slams Cambodia ban on logging report
Phnom Penh (AFP) June 6 - Cambodia's ban on a report accusing the country's political elite of illegally plundering the kingdom's forests was denounced as "senseless censorship" Wednesday by the study's authors.

The London-based watchdog Global Witness, which released the report June 1, also condemned threats of violence against its staff that were made by Prime Minister Hun Sen's brother.

The report, a damning indictment of corruption in Cambodia, alleged that the country's most powerful illegal logging syndicate, the Seng Keang Company, is controlled by people related to Hun Sen.

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Chan Sarun and Forest Administration director Ty Sokhun were also fingered for their alleged role in robbing the country of tens of millions of dollars in natural resources.

The report enraged government officials, who called it "fiction," and prompted the information ministry to ban it from the country Sunday.

"This is senseless censorship," said Global Witness Director Simon Taylor in a statement.

"Attempts to suppress this report will not make the facts that it presents disappear. We would very much like to know the legal basis for this decision," he added.

While the government has ordered its own forest monitoring unit to investigate the Global Witness allegations, some officials continue to react angrily.

The premier's brother, provincial governor Hun Neng, is reportedly annoyed by allegations against his wife and son and was quoted in local press Tuesday as saying: "If they (Global Witness staff) come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken."

Taylor called the threat against his staff "entirely unacceptable."

"Such crude intimidation by a senior public official says little for the government's commitment to upholding human rights and freedom of expression," he said.

The row comes just days before the June 19-20 annual meeting of Cambodia's foreign donors, whose pledges make up at least half of the impoverished country's national budget.

Donors have repeatedly said they are frustrated over Cambodia's lack of reform, particularly the government's apparent unwillingness to tackle rampant corruption.

Global Witness has urged more action from the international community to force Cambodia's government towards accountability.

"The reaction to this report raises a serious question for Cambodia's international donors," Taylor said.

"Is the government sincere in its pledges to strengthen governance and the rule of law, or is it simply paying lip service to these ideals to secure aid and international respectability?" he added.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Kampala (AFP) May 26, 2007
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