Zimbabwe’s indigenous forests are disappearing at an unprecedented rate. Thousands of new tobacco farmers say they have to use wood to cure their crop because they cannot afford coal mined in western Zimbabwe.
The forests were in relatively good shape, compared to some other countries in the region like Zambia, for example, where many forests were lost to charcoal production. But, in the last three years, Zimbabwe’s natural resource experts and the government estimate that more than 300,000 hectares of indigenous forests are now destroyed annually by new, mostly small-scale tobacco farmers, who use wood to cure the leaves.
Zimbabwe is the world’s third largest producer of tobacco - an export industry that is attracting many. Four years ago there were about 3,500 small-scale tobacco farmers. This season there are at least 47,000 of them.
Thomas Chitate, 35, began growing tobacco 200 km north of Harare five years ago on land seized since 2000 from white commercial farmers.
He says prices for his crop at the annual tobacco auctions this year varied enormously from a high of $4 per kg at the start of the selling season to a quarter that price weeks later for the same quality tobacco.
“At the moment there are quite a number of challenges that we are facing as tobacco farmers that can stop us from using coal and continue using firewood," said Chitate. "One of the major problems that we are facing is that the prices we are selling our tobacco at per kg is not that favorable for us to go and use coal.”
He also says using coal fired tobacco barns requires fans driven by electricity and Zimbabwe is chronically short of electrical power.
The government, tobacco companies and natural resources experts have reacted to the sudden decline in Zimbabwe’s indigenous forests.
Chitate and other new tobacco farmers say they are receiving free seeds of the Australian Eucalyptus, or gum trees as they are known in Zimbabwe, to plant to replace the forests they are chopping down.
“So what they do is advise you to mix the tobacco seed and gum seed in the same can, so you sow them at once, so they will be growing together, and when you transplant tobacco you are also transplanting gum tree plants,” he said.
Gum trees, agriculturalists say, need much more water than indigenous trees - like the Msasa- but are better than nothing. Chitate says he and many thousands of new farmers have learned much in the last few years.
“Farmers they are hardworking," he said. "When we started growing tobacco four to five years back we had no knowledge of how to grow the plant. But now we are even experts.
"I remember when I started growing tobacco I was being given seed by white commercial farmers because we couldn’t know how to produce seed," continued Chitate. "Now we can produce seeds on our own. We can even cure the leaves on our own. Our major worry is the price. If the price improves, we can use coal.”
Many of the large-scale tobacco producers who produce Zimbabwe’s famous top quality leaf are struggling financially and industry analysts predict Zimbabwe will soon be like Brazil where most tobacco is produced by small-scale or peasant farmers.
Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission is now legally requiring all tobacco farmers to set aside land to woodlots in the hopes of reversing the damage to the country’s natural forests.