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Indiscriminate Tree Felling Attracts Desert in Tanzania

By Deodatus Mfugale, Panafrican News Agency, 2 January 2001

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania - Widespread tree felling threatens to throw a large part of Tanzania into a desert as the country loses between 130,000 and 500,000 hectares of forest a year.

On the other hand, tree planting takes place on only about 25,000 hectares of land during the same period.

This is the grim message that Vice President Omar Ali Juma sent to the nation when he launched the annual National Tree Planting Day in Dar es Salaam Monday.

He said that the gap between cutting and replacing of trees was so enormous that Tanzanians would have to step up their tree planting efforts so as to reduce desertification.

Omar cautioned that if the ongoing random tree felling is not checked, the country would eventually become a desert.

To prevent this, he advised Tanzanians to develop a habit of voluntarily planting trees instead of waiting for official campaigns or festivals.

Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Zakia Meghji revealed that at least 144 million tree seedlings were planted country-wide between 10 April 1999 and May 2000. Regrettably, only about half of these have survived.

Although both the vice president and the minister evaded mentioning this, the tree planting efforts in the country face two major problems.

One is the timing of the planting. Many people plant trees at the end of the rainy season when there is no guarantee that the trees would get enough water so as to survive.

Tanzania's National Tree Planting Day falls 1 January when the short rains have ended in many regions. It is only by chance that the tree seedlings could survive between January and March when the long rains start.

The authorities will have to educate the people to start planting tree seedlings at the beginning of the rainy seasons maximise their survival rate. Such education is lacking on the part of the ordinary Tanzanians.

This might entail introducing a different National Tree Planting day per region depending on the rainfall pattern.

Another problem which dogs the tree planting exercise is lack of follow up. Most of the tree seedlings planted are left to grow without proper care, leaving them at the mercy of the weather and livestock.

At the end of the day the effort made in tree planting is not reflected in the number of trees which have survived.

This has discouraged people especially in the rural areas who argue that because last year's trees did not grow, there is no point of planting more this time.

This is another area where a bit of education would increase participation of people in the tree planting exercise.

But on the other hand there is also the question of deforestation. The rate at which forests are disappearing is disappointing and one would rightly wonder what authorities in the Forest Department are doing to arrest the situation.

A good part of deforestation is caused by livestock keepers who migrate with their herds from their arid areas, mostly in the northern and central parts of the country, to the southern areas endowed with pasture and water.

These herds devastate large areas of vegetation, including some forest reserves, leaving bare land in their wake. This is the case in some parts of Usangu valley in Mbeya region and Morogoro region.

Usually nomadic pastoralists don't plant trees because they have no permanent settlement. Peasants have also had their share of blame for deforestation by practising shifting cultivation in the process of which fires are used to clear tracts of farm land.

Both methods destroy a lot of forests and natural vegetation giving rise to conflicts over good land between peasants and livestock keepers.

But many people blame officials from the Forestry Department for their inability to net offenders. It is an open secret that district and ward forestry officers in many parts of the country are the ones who own large charcoal businesses. They also own timber and furniture shops.

Thus instead of protecting the forests, the officials have turned into accomplices in their plunder. This has made deforestation go on unchecked.

According to Ande Malango, a district natural resources officer in Iringa region, in the Southern Highlands, women who have lost their husbands and children who have lost their parents to AIDS are responsible for environmental destruction.

These engage in the business of firewood and charcoal so as to earn a living. Malango put the number of such people at 6,000, although he could not estimate how many hectares of forests they destroy.

He could not say whether these people are advised to engage in tree planting as a means of reducing deforestation.