Global Perspective

July 10, 2006 Vol. 4, No. 6

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Marko Phiri is a freelance writer from Zimbabwe.



The environment a casualty of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis

By Marko Phiri

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BULAWAYO , Zimbabwe -- The smoke that billows above Bulawayo’s densely populated suburbs is a constant reminder that Zimbabwe’s foreign currency crunch and recession -- now in its seventh year -- continues to sap life from this country and its peoples (See NCR, March 31). And the smoke is an unheeded reminder that the environment is also a casualty in this economic catastrophe.

Zimbabwe owes billions of U.S. dollars to its neighbors that supply it with electricity. That is money the government-owned utility doesn’t have. To reduce electricity consumption, the cash-strapped utility has imposed a strategy it calls “load shedding.” What that means to ordinary Zimbabwe’s is daily, prolonged power cuts.

Despite government pledges that industrial areas and centers of commerce would be spared the power cuts, even in mid-day the Central Business District of Bulawayo, the nation’s second largest city, comes to a stand-still because of load shedding.

As the electricity crisis has become more acute, gas and paraffin, the most popular fuels for cooking, have all but disappeared from commercial service stations. When available, the price is beyond the needs of most Zimbabweans. Petrol has long been available only through the black market.

As a last alternative, people have turned to firewood to cook their meals. Hence the clouds of smoke that hang over Zimbabwe’s cities.

Two decades ago, this southern African state -- formerly Rhodesia -- was the breadbasket of the region. Even in 1980 at the end of its war of liberation, the new Zimbabwe was relatively prosperous.

Robert Mugabe had led the nation against the British colonists and then presided over a nation of promise as prime minister. He was celebrated within Zimbabwe and across Africa as a statesman in the mold of Tanzania's late Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela, his South African neighbor.

But by 2000, Mugabe’s political power was dissipating, and he sacrificed the country’s economy to maintain his power.

He began confiscating white-owned commercial farms, the country’s economic lifeline, and resettling on them people he called landless peasants. The landless peasants were, in fact, veterans of the war for liberation. He gave them land to keep their loyalty.

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Today the same veterans Mugabe used to unleash terror on the farms and his political opposition are being pushed out of the farms to make way for officials and friends of the ruling Zanu-PF party. In early July, Joseph Musika, one of the two vice presidents, expressed regret at how the land reform program had been carried out. He said the government had given land to people without the technical know how to feed the nation.

The collapse of the commercial farming industry has devastated the economy. Foreign currency reserves were depleted. Unemployment soared above 70 percent. Today economists and labor activists put it at almost 90 percent.

Sixty-something year old Susan Chisale stoops to feed wood into a stove in the morning. Preparing food for her extended family, she said this reminds her of her childhood at her rural home, though she complains she still has to pay her monthly electricity bill to the power utility.

“But what can we do,” she sighs as smoke assaults her eyes.

Chisale is one among millions of Zimbabweans who have turned to burning wood for their daily fuel needs, but Portia Mdumbu of Environment 2000, an environment watchdog here, said this has been at a huge cost to the environment.

Mdumbu said trees in urban areas are fast disappearing as they are cut to feed the cook fires of city dwellers.

Others have found opportunity in the crisis. Titus Mlotshwa hauls firewood into Bulawayo from the countryside and sells it outside a neighborhood beer hall. He never lacks for customers, and demand seems to be growing, he said. But he is beginning to worry about his supply.

Mlotshwa said he buys wood from the residents of a farm occupied by war veterans. They tell him, he said, that the number of trees on the farm is dwindling fast.

Mdumbu said that the conservation of natural resources has been a consistent message of environmentalists and other groups concerned about ecology, but people aren’t receptive to the message when daily survival is a struggle. This has become especially clear in the electricity crisis.

Her sentiments were echoed by Bulawayo City Council spokesman Pathisa Nyathi. The council has by-laws that seek to protect the environment, he said, but enforcing them has become difficult because of the continuing power crisis.

Meanwhile, as deforestation threatens to leave large tracts of earth unprotected across the country, the Ministry of Environment is silent.

Each year on the first Saturday in December, the country observes National Tree Planting Day, and the national Forestry Commission proclaims that trees are life. For the rest of the year, the trees are on their own.

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