Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

Commercial Farmers' Union of Zimbabwe

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Lucrative timber industry hits hard times

Lucrative timber industry hits hard times


ABOUT a decade ago, Manicaland Province used to be a marvel, with its lush green scenic views enveloped by a seemingly endless forest cover, which epitomised a country that had fully grasped the green revolution concept.

Obey Manayiti
Own correspondent

One would hardly drive past a commercial farm without a thriving gum, pine or wattle plantation teeming with export quality timber trees.

But 14 years after the launch of the controversial land reform programme, which reversed the land ownership structure in favour of “indigenous” Zimbabweans, most plantations have lost their lustre due to either excessive, poorly managed harvesting of timber or veld fires.

Besides bringing in the much-needed foreign currency through processed timber exports, the forestry industry used to be one of the province’s largest employers.

Scenic mountains in Chimanimani, Nyanga, Mutasa and Chipinge always used to enjoy the deep shade of timber plantations. The forests also used to house innumerable species of flora and fauna which now risk extinction.

While the Eastern Highlands were known for the lush pine, gum and other exotic timber plantations, the greenery has since made way for burnt plantations and patches of maize in summer.

While the timber processing plants used to be a hive of activity, they have since been reduced to ghost factory shells with many already converted into churches, backyard schools and garages.

Some of the challenges include under capitalisation, illegal settling and harvesting of timber by some unscrupulous individuals riding on the back of politicians, illegal gold panning in the forestry area and poor investment in the sector.

The exotic timber industry was arguably one of the mainstream industries, not only in Manicaland Province, but the whole country.

Industrialists plead with government

Players in the forestry industry have pleaded with Environment, Water and Climate minister Saviour Kasukuwere to intervene and restore sanity in the industry before the country runs out of timber.

It has not been lost on government, however, that the once vibrant timber plantations and the industry they supported have been reduced to a wasteland.

It was against that backdrop that Kasukuwere last week warned those fingered in the destruction of the industry to immediately stop or risk prosecution.

“The situation is very depressing, very depressing. Whether you are coming from Nyanga or Chimanimani you will see a very depressing situation,” Kasukuwere said during a Timber Producers Federation-organised meeting in Mutare.

“It’s for our survival. This industry must survive and we must restore Manicaland to its prior position in terms of the timber industry.”

Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC) has also expressed worry over the collapse of the industry, with fewer trees being planted and mounting problems of capitalisation and outdated equipment.

Thriving timber plantations decimated by land invasions

Kasukuwere, whose Zanu PF party inspired land-hungry peasants to invade productive white–owned commercial farms and plantations at the turn of the millennium sang from a different hymn book saying the time for such “madness” was over and things now had to be done orderly.

“We will not allow anybody to allocate themselves land in the forestry area. Those days are over. If you didn’t get land during the jambanja (land invasion period) you cannot do it now. It’s too late,” he said.

Kasukuwere said it was now criminal for people to gang up and allocate themselves pieces of land in the timber forestry without using the proper legal way.
He warned that the government would unleash the police on those bent on destroying the lucrative timber industry.

“We now have a legal way of acquiring land and you cannot allocate yourself land in the timber forestry.

“You cannot just wake up in the morning and organise with two or three guys to go and take over forestry land. You are a criminal and we will talk to police about it (and) those behind it have no better way of being looked after except Chikurubi (Prison),” he said.

From as far back as 2011, a mix of illegal settlement and persistent forest fire contributed to the decimation of the once thriving timber industry.

Timber was one of the biggest and most vibrant industries in Zimbabwe, employing thousands of people in plantations, with a large number of communities depending on it as their source of livelihood.

The industry, which used to employ over 10 000 people on plantations, is still reeling under the effects of the land reform programme.

Industry crying out for recapitalisation

The country’s Timber Federation is made up of Border Timbers, Wattle Company, Mutare Board and Paper Mills (MBPM), Small Producers and Allied Timbers.

Kasukuwere said he was going to engage the Central Bank and the Finance ministry so that the forestry industry gets funding and survives.

Every year, valuable timber is lost through arson and illegal gold panning especially in the Turka Estate in Chimanaimani.

Kasukuwere claimed he was shocked that the giant MPDM had closed shop with the factory being used for non-timber related activities, and close to 2 000 workers having been laid off. The country is already reportedly importing 15 tonnes of newsprint yearly.

“What happened to Mutare Paper and Board Mills to the extent that this country is now importing paper? We talk of our economy but what is our economy if we end up creating jobs on other countries.

“What can be done to resuscitate that company? We surely need to resuscitate MBPM,” he said.

An MBPM representative, Tichaona Shonhiwa, said at the peak the company used to produce 20 tonnes of newsprint.

He said the machinery that was dismantled had been installed in 1952 and at that time it was acquired as a second hand and because of high costs of production, it was no longer viable for the company.

Small-scale timber producers pleaded with the relevant authorities to create an enabling environment to help them invest back into the sector.

Although Zimbabwe’s national timber sales volumes surged 44,5% to 267 888 cubic metres for the year ended December 2012 due to increased demand in both local and export sales, according to industry statistics, recapitalisation was required urgently.

Allied Timbers chief executive officer Joseph Kanyekanye told NewsDay then that there was need for government to capacitate the local market and revive the manufacturing industry by introducing lines of credit which had a long tenure and at an interest rate of 10%.

“Quite a lot of furniture manufacturing companies are suffering from liquidity challenges, but it’s ideal to now move towards value addition. What we also want is to have a situation to capacitate the industry,” he said.

Kanyekanye added that the Timber industry requires $450 million for everyone to operate at full capacity.

“Government must look at the possibility, to leverage mineral resources to capacitate the manufacturing sector,” Kanyekanye said.

Experts have, however, accused the government of neglecting the timber industry in Manicaland following the discovery of diamonds in Marange.

Out of a total 120 000 hectares in the 1999/2000 period, only 90 000 hectares of commercial estates remain due to persistent fires and settlements. Sawn timber production has declined by more than half to 138 000 hectares from a peak of 395 000 hectares 12 years ago while paper products manufacturing has totally vanished from a high of 60 000 tonnes per year.

With the country gets almost 100% of its timber requirements from Manicaland province, the future of the timber industry looks austere as timber production has gone down to a low of only 64% of the 1997/8 timber peak, according to the latest figures.


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