(Picture) One of the sites where trees are being burnt down for charcoal production in Rutenga

By Cuthbert Mashoko

The wanton cutting down of Mopane trees by charcoal makers plying their trade in communities surrounding Rutenga Growth Point is a cause for concern as it has proved to have dire consequences on the environment.

Apart from being agents of deforestation the selective and rampant destruction of the Mopane tree which is known for producing hard charcoal has the potential of leading to the extinction of the species.

The high cost of electricity coupled by massive load shedding has created a fortune for the charcoal makers.

Villagers in the surrounding communities and foreigners who harbor themselves in Rutenga Growth Point are now specializing in this “night business” as they play hide and seek with law enforcement agencies.

There is a ready market for charcoal in Rutenga Growth Point as residents resort to charcoal in times of power blackouts. Charcoal is also a necessity for chick rearing farmers as they use it to warm their brooder.

The demand for charcoal has also been high nationwide as evidenced by a ready market in as far as; Harare, Masvingo and Chiredzi. This has seen brokers flocking Rutenga in search of charcoal for resale.

This high demand has made charcoal making a viable business with families having to make a hard decision to sacrifice the environment to feed their stomachs.

Most of the people involved in this business are unemployed youths and women as they try to eke out a living.

A bucket of charcoal goes for R20 in Rutenga and can be sold for as much as US$5 in Harare and Masvingo.

While charcoal making seems a noble business to those involved, it has negatively impacted the environment since the process of making charcoal involves burning down the desired tree.

In most cases, it is the big trees that are targeted but many at times the fire is left unattended, leading to veld fires.

Effects of rampant cutting and burning down trees

The destruction of Mopane trees has facilitated soil erosion as soil is left bare and exposed to environmental hazards.

Not only has it aided soil erosion but it has contributed to the high levels of siltation in Mwenezi River. A situation which has reduced the water holding capacity of this key water body in usually hot district.

More so, the process of charcoal making contributes to carbon emissions in the atmosphere there by adding to depletion of the ozone layer.

The destruction of Mopane tree has also affected the life cycle of Mopane worms/ Caterpillars which are commonly known as Madora, a highly nutritious delicacy for the locals. The life cycle of the caterpillars is highly dependent on the Mopane tree as the butterflies which lay the Mopane worms eggs do so on the leaves of the Mopane trees. The hatched larva feeds on the leaves of the Mopani tree till maturity.

Mopane worms are highly rich in protein and are a favoured relish by many. The Mopane worms are a money spinning worm as they bring smiles on many in Mwenezi.

 A prepared bucket of caterpillars fetches as much as R500 on the local market. It is a pity that the destruction of the Mopani tree has equally impacted on the life cycle of Mopane worms which are slowly becoming scarce. It is against this background that the destruction of the Mopani tree is actually killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

What needs to be done?

The sooner communities around Rutenga Growth Point are engaged in environmental conservation programs, it will be better and an eye opener since information on importance of trees seem to be scarce.

This can be facilitated by engaging the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) and having sensitization, advocacy and awareness meetings.

Educating villagers on the wise use of resources and the dangers of environmental degradation has proved to be a winning formula in areas such as Gokwe where the Mafungautsi conservancy has been a success story. This is due to involvement of the community leadership and villagers on environmental conservation matters.

It is also important to note that government through the Ministry of Environment, Climate, Tourism and Hospitality Industry need to formalize the business of charcoal making through adoption of methods that are environmentally friendly so as to enable locals to benefit from their environment without compromising interests of the future generations.

This can be done through setting up of cooperatives targeting the youth and women such that they can make a living out of legal charcoal making business.

Creation of protected forests is another noble idea that can be instrumental in sustaining the lifecycle of caterpillars at the same time protecting the host Mopani tree.

In the long run this can be complimented by the opening up of a caterpillar food processing factory. Apart from caterpillars being relish, animal feeds can also be processed from them.

It will in turn open up employment, as well as turning up the economic fortunes of the industry starved Mwenezi district.