Mukula Tree Defies All Odds [column]

SUDDENLY, stories of some people being arrested for illegal timber trading and impounding trucks laden with some tree species, popped up making headlines in the news media.

Some traditional leaders have been reported to have fled the palaces after being mentioned in the illegal trade of not just an ordinary tree species but a jewel.

This rare and slow growing species is now on the verge of extinction because of indiscriminate harvesting due to its valuable properties.

The Mukula tree, whose scientific name is Pterocarpus chrysothrix, is not popular among the common species like the Pine, Neem Tree, Mukwa or Rosewood but it is believed to be most valuable due to the huge properties it has, some which are silent.

For a long time, meek attention has been paid to monitoring how the timber industry has been operating and how the country’s precious resource has been exited the border lines.

In the past, Mukwa tree was the most vulnerable trees which were being exported in most cases illegally by some traders.

But all of a sudden, the Mukula tree has popped.

It is on high demand on the international market and is being cut indiscriminately in most parts of the country by villagers who are selling it to traders who later on export the commodity.

Last month, a combined team of security agencies in Chipata intercepted a truck laden with Mukula trees enroute to neighbouring Malawi.

A truck was laden with more than 1,000 logs of the Mukula logs suspected to have been illegally cut in Vubwi District and being transported to Mchinji District in Malawi without clearance has been impounded.

Not long ago, Lands, Natural Resources, and Environmental Protection Minister, Mwansa Kapeya with his team also impounded a truck laden with Mukula logs in Rufunsa which too was destined for exports.

Another assemblage of unscrupulous people in Serenje District is engaged in the illegal trade of the Mukula tree.

The scenario is even gloomier in the Serenje case as the District Commissioner Charles Mwelwa says the besieged Mukula tree in the area is headed for extinction.

Some unknown illegal traders are paying local people to cut down the trees, which they were transporting to Lusaka to allegedly sell to suspected dealers of Asian origin.

This illegal trade has created jobs for the local people where rampant harvesting is taking place, especially Eastern and Central provinces.

The local people contracted to cut the trees by the foreigners and the big shorts are being paid between K25 and K40 per log.

According to Mr Kapeya, the Mukula tree has three layers where the heart wood or inner brown part is used for making gun buts the second one is used in the timber industry for furniture and the like, while the outer part is the one used for medicinal purposes.

“This is the more reason, if people have noticed, those trading in Mukula tree harvest everything unlike other species, where only the heart wood is taken because that is the only usable part,” Mr Kapeya said.

This, Mr Kapeya said, was what made the Mukula specie a gem because of the valuable properties it has.

The Mukuka tree, which takes more than 90 years to mature, is widely spread in all provinces of Zambia apart from Copperbelt, North Western and Western provinces.

It is distributed in the hilly and mountainous areas of the country.

The sudden soaring demand for the specie in Zambia now, has probably been triggered after the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi and Mozambique intensified security around the harvesting the tree otherwise it has been in existence for many years.

The Mukula is also distributed in these country and Angola.

According to a Forest Expert who spoke on condition of anonymity, the three neighbouring countries has stepped up security in the harvesting of Mukula thus leaving Zambia exposed and influencing the demand.

The Expert alleged that there are curtails involving senior government officials and some traditional leaders in the illegal harvesting of the tree.

The Forest Act number 39 of 1973 CAP 199 is not effective as it allows harvesting any tree apart from species that bear fruits like the Ficus, Mukuyu (Kacele species) and those involved in the conservation of water near or around the water table.

“Against such a liberal law, people are free to harvest any species even endangered ones because the law allows as they regarded as timber,” the expert said.

Initially, the Mukula tree was a small business but after discovering demand for the specie, Government looked at the legislation because the current one was not adequate.

That was when a provisional law under the revised timber license conditions and issuance procedures came into being which also has lapses.

According to the Ministry of Lands, Natural Resources and Environmental Protection’s Revised Timber Licence Conditions and Issuance Procedures (provisional), the forest concession licence is issued to persons, companies, community groups, or cooperatives that are involved in primary harvestingextraction of trees from the natural forests.

The application requirements include certificate of incorporation as a registered company for small, medium, and large scale traders.

Certificate of registration as a cooperative from the Ministry of Agriculture, certificate of registration as sole proprietor, national registration card or valid Zambian passport are other requirements.

Foreign investors are required to have a valid work permit as proof of immigration status in Zambia plus a Zambia Development Agency certificate in conformity with the ZDA Act.

Other requirements include compliance to labour laws and safety of workers, workman’s compensation certificate, and evidence of tax registration with the Zambia Revenue Authority, and evidence of employment of qualified forestry staff.

The issuance of harvesting licence is questioned and corruption is involved where an individual officer at the forestry department is allowed to deal with the issue.

Lack of man power after the forest rangers or guards who were popularly known as Kapenda Mabula were retrenched has contributed to the escalating problems in the industry.

The Kapenda Mabula’s were retrenched during the restructuring programme years back because the majority, if not all, did not have any professional qualifications.

“They did not reach grade 12, they were recruited from the villages they came from because they understood the terrain they policed,” The expert said.

It is alleged that the forestry department is one of the neglected government departments in terms of poor funding and other logistical support thus exposing the forest to exploits.

There is a critical shortage of staff in all districts where some timber traders are allowed go to harvest trees unaccompanied by forest officers.

The situation allows the trader would then harvest indiscriminately because there is no supervision.

Chief Mpanshya of the Soli people in Central province has, however, appealed to the Government to ban timber trade in his chiefdom because of the alleged confusion that has rocked his area.

He claims that that there is confusion in his chiefdom resulting from unregulated harvesting of timber, moreover the majority of his people do not even benefit.

But Bupe Kalimbe, chairperson for Timber Cooperative at Lusaka’s Buseko market says there was no need to ban timber trading as long as one has genuine documentation to support the business.

He said the cooperative has appealed to the Government to expedite the issuance of such documents so that more jobs could be created.

But Mr Kapeya said the Government is on the ground to correct the situation.

“As we speak now, we have intensified security on the ground to ensure that the Mukula species is protected. I invite everyone including you journalists to join in the protection of this cream of our country,” Mr Kapeya said.

He said the Forestry Bill would be presented to parliament during the next session so that the forest could be managed sustainably.

On the shortage of staff, Mr Kapeya said he would engage the Secretary to Cabinet on the possibility of employing forest guards although the job recruitment exercise in Government is on hold.

He said this is a special case where the Government needs to act swiftly to avoid losing money through illegal timber dealings because the current law is also weak.

“This is an urgent matter, I have to talk to the Secretary to the Cabinet to see how best we can recruit some people to beef up the lean staff in the department,” Mr Kapeya said.

Mr Kapeya said stakeholders meetings are also going on to see how best the forest could be policed against illegal activities.

So this is a wake-up call for the Forestry Department in all the districts to put up stringent measures to curb the illegal trade of this type of tree before it is too late.

It is abundantly clear that the country is being deprived of its natural resource in the form of raw material which has mainly been exiting through our borders in the eastern direction.

The bells tolling in the Eastern and Central provinces of Zambia should send warning shots to other provinces on the need to tighten the security and ensure that Zambia’s forests are protected.

Going by the recent happenings, it is very clear that these illegal traders are openly carrying out their activity with much ease.

There is clearly a weak monitoring mechanism which is leading to the promotion of illegal trade in the sector.

The Forestry department is the custodian of Zambia’s timber or forests and it knows which areas are endowed with what type of trees and the amount of security required to safe guard the trees.

It is, therefore, important that the Forestry Department together with the Zambia Police and other law enforcement agencies to mount road blocks in areas where the timber is being illegally cut in order to curb the vice.

Patrols in the forests should also intensify and all those found wanting should be brought to book.

Once the right checks are put in place, the illegal traders who have taken aantage of the loopholes will tone down and use the right channels to procure the commodity.

Ultimately, the Zambian people will get a fair share of their wealth through taxes which can later be directed towards improving other social amenities.

Source : The Times of Zambia

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