When Cyclone Idai hit the Chimanimani Mountains that form the border between eastern Zimbabwe and Mozambique on March 15, pelting rain and 118 miles-per-hour winds set off landslides and heavy flooding in the Zimbabwe highlands.
One of the worst such weather-related tragedies in the Southern Hemisphere, the cyclone caused catastrophic damage in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi, leaving more than 1,000 people dead and thousands more missing. In East Zimbabwe, it killed nearly 500 people and officials estimate that over 2,250 houses were washed away or damaged, leaving some 4,000 people displaced.
The loss of life and property in eastern Zimbabwe was exacerbated by heavy deforestation in the area that had removed natural forest barriers that softened the impact calamitous floods in past.
Eastern Zimbabwe’s highlands are home to some of Africa most precious evergreen and dry montane forests as well as woodlands and grasslands. Unfortunately, it is also the theater of Zimbabwe’s quickest forest destruction in decades. Much of the region’s original forests and grasslands have been razed for agriculture, and plantation forestry — timber merchants grow exotic pine and eucalyptus for domestic and international markets. Forests have also been impacted by selective logging.
But the worst onslaught on this region’s biodiversity has occurred over the past decade as a result of cartels of illegal loggers and haulers and a growing influx of settlers from the lowlands who are trying to escape economic distress and are resorting to illegal logging, burning timber forests to make way for cash crops, and alluvial gold extraction. As a result, much of eastern Zimbabwe is now largely open, its riverbanks bare, and thousands of people are now living in precariously-balanced houses on the hillsides.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Zimbabwe lost an annual average of 327,000 hectares of forests between 1990 and 2010.
Gold mining, especially, has caused extensive damage to the local environment in recent years and disrupted commercial forest operations as well. Illegal artisanal miners have been diverting rivers and streams to areas with traces of alluvial gold deposits and creating hundreds of small makeshift hydraulic mining operations that are washing out entire hillsides and devastating riparian environments. Many of these miners have set up shops on farmland and timber plantations as well.
According to a Reuters report, in Tarka Forest, a timber estate owned by Allied Timbers in Eastern Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani district, more than 600 hectares of prime timber have been damaged to make way for the illegal digs.
Lameck Muronzwa, an academic who studied disaster risk management at Free State University in South Africa, says “forest loss imposes an additional vulnerability on landscapes to floods” and “increases severity of cost to human life and property when floods occur.”
It is against this backdrop that in Chimanimani district — where thick forests used to stand, water bodies are running off onto previously dry ground, soil is thin and permeable, says Gift Dzingire, a local environmentalist.
“Here in Chimanimani, wattle tree forests that line river banks have been hacked down to pave way for settlers who are eager to ship away timber or switch to cash crops like maize.” The assault on forests has even rattled wildlife, he says. “Virtually all wild elands (antelopes) have run off to neighboring republic of Mozambique where forests are still thriving.”
As a result, he points out, the cost of the Cyclone Idai has been very high: Nearly 500 feared washed away by raging Rusitu River, the largest in Chimanimani district, and all roads accessing the district marooned off, thus keeping rescuers at arm’s length. “In the ferocious Cyclone Eline of year 2000, forests guarding rivers minimized the loss of vital road bridges and hillsides.”
The country’s timber forest-keepers are also alarmed at the rapid rate of forest destruction. “By year 2025, Zimbabwe will be facing shortage of forest timber for the coming seven years. If we do not do something quickly, there will be shortage of timber in the next seven years from now,” says Abednego Marufu, general manager of the state’s Forestry Commission Agency.
Noah Manyika, chair of Zimbabwe’s War on Poverty Campaign is candid. “The people governing us don’t care about loss of lives. The president left the country knowing that the cyclone was bearing down on us,” he says referring to President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s decision to continue with this scheduled tour of the United Arab Emirates during the natural disaster. “No warnings from his office, no plans for people in the direct path of the storm to be evacuated.”
The government, however, has rejected charges that it has watched from afar and even abetted timber cartels and miners carting off prime forests in eastern Zimbabwe.