Who will stand for the environment in Zimbabwe?

Environment | By Nyasha Mupaso, Microbiologist | 03 October 2015

The level of environmental degradation that has occurred in Zimbabwe is so disturbing; the year 2000 was the beginning of it all, the land reform has done serious damage to the nation in general and the environment in particular. Deforestation is largely driven by high demand for firewood arising from incessant power cuts as most urban dwellers now use firewood for cooking as well as tobacco farmers who use firewood to cure tobacco. Veld fires are on an increase every year. There is no longer any discipline on most farms. 

The damage on the ecosystem is huge but I will mostly focus on the effects on Non Wood Forest Products (NWFP) which include game animals, nuts, seeds, berries, mushrooms, oils, medicinal plants, peat, forage, honey, insects and many others. These are things we require on a daily basis but take little thought of when destroying forests and grasslands. As a mushroom farmer I will zero in on mushrooms. 

Besides the cutting down of trees there has been an increase in veld fires which also have serious repercussion on the environment. Wild mushroom harvesting helps in the alleviation of poverty, malnutrition and food challenges faced by the nation. A lot of harvesting of this rich NWFP resource from the wild is common mostly in rural areas where the mushroom is sold on road sides and urban areas to generate income. Instead of farming some of our new farmers are making more money selling firewood than from their farming activities, consequently forests are suffering. Another challenge is lot of harvesting is happening in our plantations yet there is little or no planting happening. Already the country has started importing timber from South Afrika; a sign that something has gone wrong in our forests.

The sad reality on the ground is that yields of wild mushrooms are going down each year because of veld fires and cutting down of trees. These fires in turn cause temperatures to rise thereby killing the fungi in the soil and on trees. Slowly the fungus is being killed off until a time we will not have any left. Dead leaves reside on the ground surface, grass and animal dung provide food to the fungi and in turn the fungi when matured gives us mushrooms. The burning of this forest also leaves the soil susceptible to erosion since most of the fungi resides in the top layer of the soil which is heated by burning and when rain comes it washes the top soil away together with the fungi. Consequently the mushroom population is depleting.

Some mushrooms do not grow in the soil but on the trees thus cutting down of trees is resulting in reduction of wild mushrooms. There are mushrooms in the wild that are classified as mycorrizhae; these mushrooms only grow on or close to certain trees and without trees they will never grow. 

These mushrooms rely on the trees and the trees rely on these mushrooms because they make the roots easily absorb moisture and nutrients and improve soil structure thus creating a symbiotic relationship; one without the other cannot grow well. Thus a lot of collateral damage is being done to
our NWFP.

The Environment Management Agency (EMA) need to do more to slow down and eventually stop this environmental damage. EMA can do all it can but without the Government playing its role this trend will continue. The Ministries responsible for the environment, agriculture, tourism and energy must swing into action. Sadly our Government is in hibernation with little effort put on such issues. Simple things like fire guards will go a long way, but the government and its agencies have a long way to go in resolving these challenges so that we have sustainable harvesting in
our forests. 

As environmentalists, we will not stop highlighting these issues. Those involved in wild mushroom trading are directly affected but the challenge will also be felt by those into mushroom farming. The grass that is burnt year in year out can be sustainably harvested for mushroom growing substrate by those into organic mushroom growing. Research into those species is affected as some species are now hard to find and some have gone into extinction. We cannot afford to be silent and then take action when we are living in a desert. The time is now and it takes you and me, since it will affect our children. Just think of the aforementioned NWFP and picture how much damage veld fires do for instance to honey and the bees, eggs and young animals.

When God created mushroom, it had its role in the ecosystem the good news for us is that we can reclaim lost forest using mushrooms using a concept known as mycoremediation. This is a topic for some day but the beauty is mushrooms can be used to reclaim the environment that we have damaged. If the damage can be stopped now the burden can be reduced. We need to take initiatives like the national tree planting day seriously and play our role. Huge incomes are earned through the NWFP where we also get medicine from various herbs; very few people are aware that mushrooms are used in traditional medicine practice particularly ganoderma lucidum which is classified as a medicinal mushroom. 

At one point Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said “Our people are growing tobacco and want to make money out of it but on the down side we have seen massive deforestation leading to desertification in some areas. We are saying to them, ‘use coal or we will stop tobacco production”. That was a welcome statement for most environmental activists. 

Sadly little or no action has been taken and the damage continues. It’s been three years now since we first embarked on an effort to “green” our mushroom farm.  We are doing this by using green energy.  We are now advocating for use of green energy on mushroom farms. Solar and biogas are presenting huge potential. There is a long way to go but until all mushroom growers relying on firewood move to green, progress remains elusive.  This is the message I hope will reach the responsible authorities to act so that we start slowing down the environmental destruction then move on to completely stop the damage.

The government must quickly act on this by putting incentives that motivate the populace to stop using firewood.  Whilst rural electrification was a good move, it was unfortunately not backed by enough power generation.  The government must move quickly to invest in electricity generation. Reducing duty on solar and gas as well as gas related products will go a long way in slowing the damage.  While a strong legislation and empowering the policing agencies is required there is need to educate the populace on environmental issues and give support for the use and adoption of clean energy.  

Biogas and solar are viable options which can be used in rural as well as urban settings. When forests are destroyed, the atmosphere, water bodies and the water table are all affected. Many wonderful species of plants and animals have been lost, and many others remain endangered. Plants absorb Carbon Dioxide CO2 (a greenhouse gas) from the atmosphere and uses it to produce food (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins that make up trees). In return, it gives off Oxygen. Destroying the forests mean CO2 will remain in the atmosphere and in addition, destroyed vegetation will give off more CO2 stored in them as they decompose. This will alter the climate of that region. Deforestation can also be seen as removal of forests leading to several imbalances ecologically and environmentally. Zimbabwe being one of the poorest countries in the world can create value from NWFP which contribute to food security, alleviation of malnutrition and poverty, provide medicines and many other day to day necessities. It’s time we take action and stand for
the environment.

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