Zimbabwe Enforces Three-Week Lockdown To Tackle Coronavirus

A man walks in the streets wearing a face mask as a preventive measure agaisnt the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus on March 23, 2020, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP
A man walks in the streets wearing a face mask as a preventive measure agaisnt the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus on March 23, 2020, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP

 

Zimbabwean authorities on Monday began enforcing a three-week lockdown in its fight against the spread of coronavirus after the disease left one person dead and infected six others.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a 21-day “total” lockdown from Monday curtailing movement within the country, shutting most shops and suspending flights in and out of Zimbabwe.

Police mounted checkpoints on routes leading to Harare’s central business district, stopping cars and turning away pedestrians who had no authorisation to be in the area.

Elsewhere truckloads of metropolitan and national police armed with batons were on patrol, ordering people back to their homes.

“We don’t want to see people here on the streets. We don’t want to see people who have no business in town just loitering,” a policewoman said through a loud hailer. “Everyone to their homes.”

Her colleagues, in riot gear, dispersed people standing in small groups at the Copacabana minibus terminus, which is usually abuzz with people including foreign currency dealers.

In the township of Mbare, the usually bustling  terminus for long-distance buses was deserted with only municipal street cleaners sweeping the empty bus ranks.

A traditionally busy downtown area of Harare referred to as “The Third World” resembled a ghost town with few people on the streets. Most shops had their shutters down.

For many of the country’s 16 million people, who are already suffering a grim economic recession, the lockdown means even tougher hardship.

With unemployment rate estimated at around 90 percent, most Zimbabweans have informal jobs to eke out a living and few have substantial savings.

Some were trying to leave the city for rural villages.

“We would rather spend the 21 days at our rural home, where we don’t have to buy everything. I can’t afford to feed my family here when I am not working,” said Most Jawure.

“We have been waiting here for more than two hours but there are no buses,” Jawure told AFP while standing with his wife and daughter beside a bulging suitcase.

AFP

Zimbabwe Braces For 21-Day Coronavirus Lockdown

Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association treasurer Tapiwa Mungofa addressing the media at a press conference at Parirenyatwa Hospital where they vowed to boycott work unless the government provides adequate protective gear for medical staff to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Harare on March 26 2020. Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP

 

Zimbabweans braced Sunday for a three-week lock-down to curb the spread of the coronavirus which has killed one person so far and infected six others, and for many, the lockdown means tough times ahead.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a 21-day “total” lockdown from Monday that will curtail movement within the country, shut most shops and banks, and suspend flights in and out of Zimbabwe.

with independent sources saying the official number of infections is understated, the spread of COVID-19 could prove devastating for a country whose economy is crippled by hyperinflation and whose social health care systems are crumbling.

Poor rains have exacerbated the crisis, with half of the 15-million-strong population facing severe food shortages.

“We are not against the lockdown,” said Isaac Sayeed, who runs a stationery stall in the capital, Harare.

“But 21 days is rather too long. We already have shortages of basic foodstuffs,” he said.

The looming lockdown has triggered panic-buying and a spike in prices, adding more upward pressure to an inflation rate that currently stands at 540 per cent.

Price of cooking gas shot up almost 50 per cent overnight.

Long queues have formed in supermarkets as people rush to buy whatever they can afford.

“We are supposed to stock up enough things to last us 21 days, but most of us live on what we earn daily, so we only manage a few groceries. I can see us facing tough times ahead,” said Sayeed.

The cash-strapped government will not be able to cushion businesses against the lockdown.

“If they failed to buy ventilators for the treatment centres, where will they get the money to shore up small businesses which are in the majority?” Sayeed asked.

Sayeed said his business would take a knock, but he did not dare ignore the lockdown, which will be imposed with both police and military patrols.

The lockdown will be “a huge challenge for most people who rely on their daily earnings to survive,” said Prince Gwanza who sells books and mobile phones.

 ‘Starving in their own homes’ 

“I can foresee people starving while confined in their homes. There are few people who can afford a square meal on an average day, to expect them to stock up for three weeks in to expect the impossible,” he said.

Economist Prosper Chitambara of the Labour and Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe think-tank also warned that the impact of the lockdown would be “severe in terms of livelihoods. We are a high in the formalised economy.”

According to independent statistics, as many as 90 per cent of the employable population do not have formal jobs and many choose to emigrate.

“Most people have no access to social protection and companies are not getting the huge bailouts that those in other countries are getting.”

Trade unionist Japhet Moyo said that “most people are living from hand to mouth and some companies may not recover after this”.

“While we are aware of the disastrous effects of the lockdown on the economy, we are faced with a choice whether its better to save lives and rebuild tomorrow.”

President Mnangagwa, who took over from long-time ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017 with the backing of the military, has struggled to revive the moribund economy and curb hyperinflation.

The public healthcare system already faces shortages of basic drugs and lacks essential equipment and running water. But doctors and nurses staged a walkout last week in protest over a lack of protective clothing to care for coronavirus patients.

On Saturday, health minister Obadiah Moyo made assurances that such protective gear has been secured.

AFP

Coronavirus Forces Zimbabwe To Reintroduce Use Of US Dollar

A man walks in the streets wearing a face mask as a preventive measure agaisnt the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus on March 23, 2020, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP
A man walks in the streets wearing a face mask as a preventive measure agaisnt the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus on March 23, 2020, in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP

 

Zimbabwe has re-introduced the use of foreign currency for domestic transactions in what was seen as a bid to tap into private forex savings as the country gears up for the battle against the novel coronavirus.

In a statement the central bank governor John Mangudya said the move is part of “measures to mitigate the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the Zimbabwean society and the economy”.

The government outlawed the use of foreign currency as legal tender last June after having used a basket of currencies when hyperinflation forced the government to ditch the Zimbabwe dollar in 2009.

The US dollar became the main currency for payment of goods and services, but a shortage of greenbacks forced the government to introduce a quasi currency called the bond note which was supposed to be equal to the US dollar in 2016.

In February 2019 Zimbabwe launched currency reforms including reintroducing the local currency and banned the use of the US dollar in a bid to solve a monetary crisis.

The use of the Zimbabwe dollar as the sole legal tender led to a spike of inflation which now stands at 540 percent.

The government said it was “making it easier for the transacting public to conduct business during this difficult period by making available an option to use free funds to pay for goods and services chargeable in local currency”.

But labour economist Godfrey Kanyenze says Thursday’s move was inevitable and the government has used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to try to stabilise the economy.

“We held a tripartite negotiation forum meeting with the government some two weeks ago, and business and labour agreed the Zimbabwe dollar was doomed. The government tacitly agreed,” he told AFP.

While the statement suggests the legalisation of the use of foreign currency was temporary, Kanyenze said he believed the measure would stay in place long term.

 

AFP

Zimbabwe Doctors Join Nurses On Strike Over Lack Of Coronavirus Protection

Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association president Tawanda Zvakada (R) and association treasurer Tapiwa Mungofa (L) addressing the media during a press conference at the Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare on March 26, 2020, where they vowed to boycott work unless the government provides protective gear to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus. Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP.

 

Doctors in Zimbabwe’s public hospitals have gone on strike over lack of protective gear against the novel coronavirus, joining thousands of nurses who walked out of the wards this week, their association said Thursday.

“We have made a call for safety, to say whilst we are sorting out some things, for now let’s… withdraw our services temporarily,” Tapiwa Mungofa, treasurer of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), told reporters in Harare.

He said most of the doctors across the country’s government hospitals were not at work.

Some 15,000 hospital nurses downed tools on Wednesday over a lack of protective gear and water shortages.

The health workers walkout, “locked up” Harare Central Hospital, one of the country’s main referral hospitals for the poor and the working class.

“The nurses decided to go and stay safe at home,” Mungofa said.

The southern African country’s public health system has been in a state of near-collapse for years, but the lack of drugs and equipment has pushed the system to the brink during the coronavirus spread.

READ ALSO: COVID-19: Transmission During Pregnancy Rare But Possible, Study Reveals

The government-owned daily, The Herald, on Thursday reported Zimbabwe had taken delivery of its share of personal protective equipment donated by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma.

Mungofa said doctors will resume duty “as soon as our safety as health care workers is guaranteed, we are ready to serve the Zimbabwean population, we are ready to fight this coronavirus”.

Zimbabwe has recorded three infections and one death, since reporting its first case last Friday.

A 30-year-old broadcaster died on Monday, less than two days after he tested positive for COVID-19.

His family said the isolation facility where he died had neither the drugs nor a ventilator needed to treat his condition.

AFP

Zimbabwe VP In China For Medical Check

Workers wearing protective suits as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus pull passengers luggage at the New China International Exhibition Centre, near Beijing Capital Airport in Beijing on March 16, 2020. China tightened quarantine measures for international arrivals as the country worries about a rise in imported cases of the deadly coronavirus and anger rages online at how Europe and the United States are handling the pandemic. NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP.

 

Zimbabwe’s vice president Constantino Chiwenga was flown at the weekend to China for medical checks, an official said Tuesday.

Presidential spokesman George Charamba told AFP Chiwenga, a former army general who led President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rise to power following a brief military takeover in 2017, “flew back to China for his medical checkup”.

Chiwenga spent four months undergoing treatment in China last year and returned home in November.

Charamba said Chiwenga had suffered from fatigue in recent days explaining his absence from a function attended by top government officials at Mnangagwa’s farm.

“He was feeling a bit indisposed but he was quite cheerful when he left for China on Sunday,” he said.

Chiwenga, 64, was admitted in a South African hospital last year for a constricted oesophagus. He was later transferred to India when his condition deteriorated before being airlifted to China in July for further medical tests.

READ ALSO: France Locks Down As Global Virus Panic Spreads

His return to China comes as the Asian nation is battling to contain the coronavirus which surfaced there last December and became a pandemic.

Mnangagwa last week ordered a ban on foreign trips by government officials to avoid importing the pathogen.

Zimbabwe has not reported any cases of COVID-19 but a British tourist who recently visited Zimbabwe tested positive after he left the country, according to Health Minister Obadiah Moyo.

The country’s health system is in a state of disrepair with shortages of critical machinery and drugs and often short-staffed.

Those who can afford often seek medical treatment abroad especially neighbouring South Africa.

AFP

Zimbabwe Football Stadia Not Suitable For International Games Says CAF

File Photo

 

Zimbabwe’s stadiums have been declared unsuitable for high-profile matches by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), forcing sports authorities to seek an alternative venue for an upcoming Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Algeria.

The country’s football association (ZIFA) said Tuesday they had received a letter from Cairo-based CAF stating none of the southern African nation’s grounds met the “standards to host international matches”.

The letter was sent following a visit by CAF inspectors last November.

“CAF has made a decision to bar ZIFA from using local stadiums in all upcoming international matches,” ZIFA spokesman Xolisani Gwesela said in a statement.

“We need to put our heads together as a country to ensure that our stadiums are renovated to meet the required standards.”

Zimbabwe was due to host the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations Group H qualifier against holders Algeria next month.

The sports editor of Zimbabwe’s state-owned Herald202 newspaper Robson Sharuko has blamed inaction by the authorities.

“It’s embarrassing and, sadly, it appears there are some people who simply don’t care,” Sharuko said in an opinion piece on Wednesday.

Zimbabwe’s economy has been crippled by decades of mismanagement by former president Robert Mugabe and his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Hyperinflation has wiped out savings, cash is short and basic goods such as fuel are hard to come by.

Facilities that were once a source of pride are dilapidated and most roads are ridden with potholes.

AFP

Two Dead, 20 Trapped Underground in Zimbabwe Mine Collapse

Zimbabwe is home to vast gold and mineral reserves, including diamonds and platinum.
Zimbabwe is home to vast gold and mineral reserves, including diamonds and platinum.

 

At least two Zimbabwe miners were killed and 20 others trapped underground after a shaft collapsed in a gold mine in the centre of the country, state media and police reported on Thursday.

The incident occurred overnight at the Globe and Phoenix mine in the town of Kwekwe, around 200 kilometres (120 miles) west of Harare.

Authorities were first alerted early Thursday after the miners, who were working illegally, failed to surface at the end of their shift.

“We received the news about the unfortunate incident a few hours ago and we are running around coordinating a rescue mission,” the chair of provincial civil protection unit, Fortune Mpungu, told The Herald newspaper.

Both the police and the mines ministry later confirmed the incident.

Two miners died while one was injured and taken to hospital, police spokesman Paul Nyathi told AFP.

It was not immediately clear whether the others had been recovered.

“So far we don’t know what really happened or how many people were affected,” said the mine ministry’s permanent secretary Onesimo Moyo, adding that an inspection team had been dispatched to the area.

Mining is a major source of foreign currency for Zimbabwe.

The southern African country is home to vast gold and mineral reserves, including diamonds and platinum.

But a large share of mining is carried out in a small-scale, unregulated manner — diverting revenue from state coffers and increasing the likelihood of accidents.

Two dozen gold miners drowned in February last year after the mine shaft in which they operating flooded. The incident was caused by informal tunnelling that caused a dam wall to break.

 

AFP

Zimbabwe VP’s Wife In Court On Attempted Murder, Fraud Charges

 

The wife of Zimbabwe’s vice president was remanded in custody on Monday after appearing in court to face charges of fraud, money-laundering and attempted murder of her husband.

Marry Mubaiwa, 38, who is the wife of Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, was arrested by Zimbabwe’s anti-graft commission on Saturday.

She was initially detained on suspicion of contravening the country’s exchange control act and of fraud.

Mubaiwa appeared in a Harare court on Monday and was held pending a December 30 hearing. She did not speak at the court but her attorney told local media they would apply for bail.

READ ALSO: Pope Lifts Papal Secrecy For Sex Abuse Cases

Prosecutors said between 2018 and May this year, Mubaiwa withdrew amounts of from her foreign currency account in Zimbabwe to deposit into bank accounts in neighbouring South Africa under the pretext of paying for goods bought in that country.

She allegedly used part of the money to buy a house in the Waterkloof Golf Estate in the South African capital Pretoria and two luxury cars.

Prosecutors accuse Mubaiwa, a businesswoman and former model, of attempted murder while she accompanied her husband when he was airlifted for medical attention in South Africa.

In South Africa she allegedly took the ailing Chiwenga to a hotel, refusing to take him to hospital until his aides forced their way and took him to a clinic.

Prosecutors said “with intent to cause serious harm,” Mubaiwa went to Chiwenga’s hospital ward and asked his security aides to leave saying she wanted to have a private conversation with her husband.

Alone with the bedridden Chiwenga, Mubaiwa allegedly removed an intravenous line and a catheter from Chiwenga causing him to bleed profusely, the prosecution said.

“The accused then forced the complainant off his bed and took him by the hand and started walking out of the ward before being intercepted by the security personnel at the door,” the charge sheet for attempted murder count said.

Chiwenga, who led the ouster of long-time ruler Robert Mugabe, went to South Africa to seek emergency medical attention for an undisclosed ailment, before being transferred to a Chinese hospital from where he was discharged late November.

On his arrival he was welcomed by China’s deputy ambassador to Harare while his wife Marry was absent. There was also not a welcome ceremony held for Chiwenga at his rural home.

AFP

Babies Delivered On Floor As Zimbabwe’s Health System Wobble

Sixty-nine-year-old Esther Gwena, an untrained midwife who belongs to an Apostolic religious sect where she says she got her midwifery calling, spreads a tent sheeting on the floor for expectant mothers as she prepares herself for a long day ahead at her two-room apartment in Mbare high-density suburb in Harare, on November 21, 2019. Her house has served as a ‘maternity ward’ since nurses at Harare City Council clinics and maternity homes went on strike. Gwena says in a space of two weeks she has delivered as many as 250 children as a major health delivery crisis in Zimbabwe continues. PHOTO: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA / AFP

 

The floor is dusty, the walls filthy and the furniture decrepit, but for two weeks last month a tiny flat in a Harare township was transformed into a maternity clinic where scores of babies were born.

Its owner, 69-year-old Esther Gwena, says she helped to deliver 250 infants as Zimbabwe’s health sector tottered — a feat that earned comparisons to Florence Nightingale, the pioneer of modern nursing.

Hundreds of junior medics at state hospitals began a strike three months ago because their salaries — less than $200 a month — are not enough to live on in a country gripped by 500 percent inflation.

Nurses are only working two days a week.

Those who can’t afford private care — the majority of the 14 million people reeling under an economic crisis compounded by acute food shortages — suffer at home or seek help from people like Gwena.

Senior doctors, in a letter last week, said state hospitals had become a “death trap” and warned of a “slow genocide”.

Gwena, a widow and member of the local Apostolic Faith sect, is a self-taught midwife.

When the health services strike peaked last month, she came to the rescue.

– ‘I had to do something’ –

“A man came to me and said there were two women in advanced labour at (a nearby clinic) but the place was closed because the nurses were on strike,” she told AFP in her two-room flat in Mbare township.

She rushed there and found that one of the women had a baby which had died.

“I took the other one to my place, where I helped her. The baby survived. From that time, I knew I had to do something,” she said.

Word that she was helping deliver babies for free spread quickly.

The state-owned television ZBC described her as “a modern Zimbabwean version of Florence Nightingale” and First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa visited Gwena and donated food, detergents and blankets.

A funeral services company chipped in with a mobile water tank and pitched a tent outside to serve as a waiting room for women before they went into advanced labour.

“I helped to deliver 250 babies … (they) are alive and kicking and at home with their mothers,” Gwena said.

Two weeks later, the government asked her to stop after a nearby maternity clinic reopened.

Winnie Denhere, 35, cradled her two-day-old baby boy outside the clinic, where she had taken him for an immunisation injection.

“Everything went very well, she didn’t ask us for money,” she said, speaking of Gwena, who brought her child into the world.

– ‘Patients are dying’ –

But while some laud Gwena as a selfless do-gooder, doctors worry that she exposed herself, the mothers, the babies to infection.

“We need to do something about our facilities so no one goes to her,” Harare’s director of medical services Prosper Chonzi, said.

Medicines have been in short supply and broken machines go unrepaired.

The government has fired 448 junior doctors for striking.

Senior doctors last week also stopped work in protest over the sacking of junior colleagues.

A senior doctor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the situation has become untenable.

“There is no public health in Zimbabwe at the moment; everything has come to a standstill,” he said, adding: “Patients are dying”.

Even the scarce equipment is often not right.

“One needs gloves that fit just right when performing delicate operations, but we get old gloves that are too big,” said another doctor.

A UN special rapporteur Hilal Elver on food security last week spoke of “disturbing information” that public hospitals had exhausted food stocks, forcing them to seek humanitarian aid and that medical equipment in some cases was “no longer operational”.

In the second largest city of Bulawayo, Zimbabweans living abroad are helping in a small way by crowdfunding and sending money back home to offer health care for the vulnerable.

One such initiative is Citizwean Clinic, which opened its doors last month and attended to hundreds of patients in the first five days — providing free consultation and drugs.

“We go to the hospital these days it’s bad, there are no doctors. We heard that there were doctors here,” said hypertensive patient Elina Dzingire, 63.

“We’ve really been helped here,” she told AFP from the clinic in the city’s Cowdray Park township.

Health Minister Obadiah Moyo admitted the situation in hospitals is constrained but says the government will soon advertise the posts left vacant by the sacked doctors.

Mugabe Left $10m, Two Houses – Report

Zimbabwean Ex-President Robert Mugabe attends the 2nd Session of the South Africa-Zimbabwe binational Commission (BNC) at Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Pretoria. Phill Magakoe / AFP

 

Zimbabwe’s late former president Robert Mugabe left US$10 million, 10 cars, a farm and two houses, details of his estate released on Tuesday revealed.

The state-owned Herald newspaper said his daughter, Bona Nyepudzai Mutsahuni-Chikore, disclosed these assets to the High Court after the family had been unable to locate his will.

READ ALSO: Gabon’s Ex-Chief Of Staff Loses Ministerial Post

The $10 million (nine million euros) was in a foreign currency account with a local bank, the Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe (CBZ), the report said.

It did not identify the make or model of the 10 cars.

During his presidency, Mugabe, who styled himself as a leftwing radical, was reported to own several farms that were seized during his controversial land reforms.

Only one farm is listed on the inventory of his assets.

His other properties, according to the list given to the High Court on October 21, include two houses in posh suburbs of the capital, Harare; his rural homestead in Zvimba; a two-hectare (five-acre)farming plot in Zvimba and a five-acre orchard.

Mugabe, who ruled Zimbabwe from the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1980 until being ousted in November 2017, died on September 6 at the age of 95 in Singapore, where he had been receiving treatment for prostate cancer.

“Mrs Grace Mugabe was listed as the sole surviving spouse while Bona, Robert, Bellarmine and stepson Russel Goreraza were listed as surviving children,” The Herald reported.

Mugabe once said in jest that he would remain in power until he turned 100.

He was ousted after 37 years in power and replaced by his former deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa, whom Mugabe had fired weeks earlier.

The later years of his rule were characterised by food shortages, massive joblessness and the use of brutal force against his opponents.

Many had hoped Mnangagwa would fare better but the hardships that Zimbabweans suffered under Mugabe have returned to haunt the country.

According to the World Bank, extreme poverty is likely to affect 5.7 million Zimbabweans this year — equivalent to 34 percent of the population, after 29 percent in 2018.

Gross domestic product is likely to contract by 7.5 percent in 2019, it says.

AFP

Zimbabwe Facing ‘Man-Made’ Starvation, UN Expert Warns

 

Zimbabwe is facing “man-made” starvation with 60 percent of the people failing to meet basic food needs, a UN special envoy said on Thursday after touring the southern African country.

Hilal Elver, Special Rapporteur on the right to food, ranked Zimbabwe among the four top countries facing severe food shortages outside nations in conflict zones.

“The people of Zimbabwe are slowly getting to a point of suffering a man-made starvation,” she told a news conference in Harare, adding that eight million people would be affected by the end of the year.

“Today, Zimbabwe counts amongst the four highest food insecure states,” she said after an 11-day tour, adding that poor harvests were compounded by 490 percent hyperinflation.

“A staggering 5.5 million people are currently facing food insecurity” in rural areas due to a drought that has affected harvests, she said.

Another 2.2 million people in urban areas also faced food shortages and lacked access to minimum public services, including health and safe water.

“By the end of this year… the food security situation is expected to worsen with an estimated eight million people requiring urgent action to reduce food consumption gaps and save livelihoods,” she said, describing the numbers as “shocking”.

Zimbabwe is in the grips of an entrenched economic crisis, pervasive corruption, poverty and a crumbling health system.

The economy, crippled by decades of mismanagement under former president Robert Mugabe, has failed to rebound under Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over following a military-led coup two years ago.

“Political polarisation, economic and financial problems and erratic climatic conditions all contribute to the storm of food insecurity currently facing a country once seen as the breadbasket of Africa,” Elver said.

She warned that food insecurity heightened “the risks of civil unrest and insecurity”.

“I urgently call on the government and the international community to come together to put an end to this spiralling crisis before it morphs into a full-blown social unrest,” she said.

AFP

Zimbabwe Turns To Charcoal For Cooking As Power Outage Bites

Prudence Mkonyo, a charcoal vendor in Zimbabwe, serves a customer as she stands beside 50-kilogramme polythene bags full of charcoal piled on top of each other as she openly sells her wares at Mbare Musika Market in Harare. PHOTO: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA / AFP

Miller Chizema walked through the forest near his home and came across a pile of freshly-cut logs — a sight that spurred the 82-year-old villager to dismay and anger.

The logs were arranged in such a way that they were ready to be burnt into charcoal — a fuel that has become a substitute for Zimbabwe’s energy shortages, at a terrible cost to its forests.

“It hurts to see forests decimated like this,” said Chizema, who lives in Mhondoro Ngezi, in the centre of the country, 150 kilometres (90 miles) southwest of Harare.

Some loggers come from as far as Harare, “where we hear there is a big demand for charcoal,” he said.

“We, as elders, try to discourage the practice, but it’s all about money and survival.”

For nearly six months, Zimbabwe has been in the grip of chronic power cuts, sometimes running to 19 hours a day.

The price of cooking gas has increased more than six-fold since the start of the year, placing it beyond the reach of many.

For many lower-income urbanites, firewood and charcoal have become the go-to sources of substitute energy — and rogue logging is the result.

Zimbabwe is losing more than 330,000 hectares (815,000 acres) of forest annually, according to Abednigo Marufu, general manager of the Zimbabwe Forestry Commission.

That’s the equivalent to nearly half a million football pitches.

“Zimbabwe is losing quite a lot of trees and forests… everywhere because there is no electricity and our people need to feed themselves, they need heating in their homes,” he told AFP.

Even so, “agriculture is still the number one driver of deforestation,” he said.

A controversial land reform programme launched in 2000 saw a surge in the loss of forest cover as people cleared land for cultivation.

“Some of them started growing tobacco and cut down trees to use for curing their crop.”

The practice continues, as farmers view wood to be free compared to other options.

Dilemma

Authorities are confronted with an enforcement conundrum.

Charcoal production is outlawed in Zimbabwe but it can be imported from neighbouring Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi, with special permits.

But Marufu said no such licences had been issued for over a year, yet Zimbabwe was awash with charcoal.

“How do you then know what charcoal is imported and locally produced?” Marufu asked rhetorically.

A lot of the older indigenous mopani trees have been reduced to stumps. AFP journalists saw numerous darkened patches where the logs had been piled and burnt into charcoal in the forests at Mhondoro-Ngezi.

Best Muchenje has been the district’s forestry officer for the past two years.

“Deforestation was already bad when I came here,” he told AFP.

“But the power crisis has worsened the situation, (and) the mopani tree is a target because it is hard and produces quality charcoal.”

Mopani is one of the country’s iconic indigenous trees that easily survive hot and dry conditions.

The law allows those living in the sparsely populated villages to cut trees for personal use and not for commercial purposes.

‘Forests or humans’

But for unemployed villagers like Enia Shagini, lack of money forces them to risk being fined or even jailed for cutting down trees for charcoal.

She sells a 50-kilogram (110-pound) bag for the equivalent of less than 50 US cents (40 euro centimes).

“We have children to send to school,” said the mother of three, bemoaning a crackdown on illicit charcoal production which has widely been ignored.

In the capital, charcoal vendors at the Mbare market, just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Harare, display dozens of 50-kilo polythene bags of charcoal for sale.

Prudence Mkonyo claimed she got her charcoal from Nyamapanda, near the border with Mozambique.

“It’s difficult bringing the stuff to Harare,” she said.

“We ferry it on trucks at night but sometimes you have to deal with the police at roadblocks. You need to be prepared to pay them bribes when you get stopped.”

She sold her charcoal at the equivalent of between US$2.50 and US$3.00 a bag, but sales are slow.

People are struggling with unemployment and the country’s worst economic crisis in a decade.

“There isn’t much money going around so business is really bad. Some people are burning discarded plastic soft drink bottles for cooking.”

While the law is clear on production of charcoal, the government is in a dilemma.

“It’s a very complicated issue,” Nqobizitha Ndlovu, newly-appointed minister for the environment and climate change, told AFP.

“We acknowledge the shortage of electricity and that gas is expensive, so wood and charcoal are alternatives. So while we are worried about forests, we also worry about human beings.”

AFP