By ZiMining Special Correspondent
Globally, forest ecosystems are being wiped out at a rate of approximately 25 million acres annually. Zimbabwe is grappling with a staggering annual forest loss of 330 000 hectares attributable to various factors. While the term ‘deforestation’ has been generally accepted as referring to the cutting down/removal or wide clearing of trees from an area where they previously existed, technically however deforestation is broader as looks at total land use change from forestry to other activities. Deforestation happens due to many reasons, but with the broader definition in mind, land expansion for agriculture and settlement and MINING feature as the major drivers of deforestation in Zimbabwe as they entail total removal of trees and forests and complete land use change. Zimbabwe is a mineral rich country with up to 40 different minerals and over 800 operating mines. Mining in Zimbabwe makes up 5% of the country`s GDP as well as providing 4.5% of employment to the population. Although agricultural activities and wood extraction have always been identified as major drivers of deforestation and forest degradation in terms of spatial coverage, degradation caused by mining tend to have long term effects on flora and fauna.
The small scale mining sector is an important contributor to employment creation. The demand for minerals has greatly increased in recent years which has led to the adoption of many mining forms such as pits, shafts, alluvial and open shafts. Alluvial mining is the most detrimental to forest resources since it initially clears the entire vegetation cover of the chosen area before top oil is removed. With the growing demand for foreign currency in the country, governing bodies seem to have turned a blind eye on the level of destruction that mining is inflicting on forest resources.
The General Manager of the Forestry Commission of Zimbabwe, which is the regulatory authority on forestry matters in the country, Mr Abedinigo Marufu says while mining is acknowledged as a major contributor to the country’s gross domestic product, there is need to come up with policy reforms that allows for the co-existence of both the forestry sector and mining.
“Mining is an environmentally disruptive activity and has bad effects on the ecology of forests and other subsequent environmental challenges. Most of the companies and individuals clear all vegetation destroying wildlife habitats therefore changing the face of forests which on their own are important economic and ecological assets. All mines are temporary structures, although they can remain active for many years at some point in time, they will run out of minerals and cease operations. Responsible owners would rehabilitate through backfilling the underground mines but this is rarely the case since the process is expensive. Failure to backfill the mine leads to a problem of subsidence which occurs when abandoned mines collapse. This makes it almost impossible for forest managers to re-establish a healthy ecosystem in the area and often render it useless for many years to come ” said the FCZ General Manager.
Manicaland Province which has a vast investment in commercial forestry is facing many challenges related to mining. According to the Provincial Forestry Extension Manager Mr Phillip Tom, “the current mining laws are placing vast plantations at the mercy of prospecting miners including unlicensed artisanal miners who have no capacity whatsoever to rehabilitate after mining activities”.
The Chief Executive officer of the Timber Producers Federation, Mr Darlington Duwa, adds that, “ While the mining sector is the biggest contributor to Zimbabwe’s exports and national economy as measured by gross domestic product (GDP), mining in forestry areas has serious impacts on the forest sector. These include land degradation, diversion of water courses, and pollution of water sources affecting the quality of water for downstream communities. Furthermore illegal miners often cause fires that have in the past burnt large areas of forests affecting the viability and sustainability of the timber industry. Forestry operations are also affected as mining competes with forestry for labour. In wildlife areas, mining results in habitat destruction thus affecting biodiversity which also affects the tourism industry as wildlife is the major attraction for tourists.
The Forest Act [Chapter 19:05] makes provision for the regulation of mining activities. It stipulates the setting up state forests and for the protection of private forests, trees and forests produce. The Act provides for the establishment of a Mining Timber Permit board which controls the cutting down and taking of timber for mining purposes. This clearly shows the importance of co-existence of mining and forestry through legal reforms by the government but while the legislation exists, it appears that there is limited engagement between the two parties.
Mining companies usually overlook the importance of replenishing the environment but this is the only way to achieve environmental sustainability in mining. There is need to balance benefits from mining natural resources and the cost on other natural resources. Mining should not prejudice other sustainable land uses. It is in the interest of the country to create a healthy beneficial balance between mining and other natural resources. This can only be made possible if the two industries co-exist and support each other.