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Forest encroachment is detrimental

THE problem of encroachment on other people’s property such as residential plots, farms, and others has been perennial for many years in Zambia. This has been going on despite the far-reaching consequences of the illegality. In many parts of the country, people just wake up in the morning and start erecting structures on pieces of land that do not belong to them. When authorities move in to demolish such structures, the illegal developers cry the loudest. The worst scenario is where people reach the extent of encroaching on protected forest resources, build houses and start living there claiming that they inherited the land from their ancestors. When people encroach and settle in protected forests, their activities cause serious harm to the environment. Therefore, North-Western Province principal forestry officer Maxwell Phiri’s warning that any structures that will be built in the national forest in Solwezi will be demolished should be taken seriously by encroachers. This is because national forest 110 is still a gazetted area hence it is protected by law and any human activity that takes place there is criminal. “That area has not been de-gazetted and it is still a forest. Those encroachers are there illegally, no matter how many years they have been there. It is illegal to squat in a gazetted forest,” he said. Mr Phiri’s warning has the legal backing and people who have settled or want to settle in forest 110 should vacate because the law will visit them if they ignore the timely caution. Encroaching on forests disturbs natural habitats. When people convert habitats into other land uses, they fragment and separate mammal populations. Encroachment of forest lands and conversion to other uses is one of the prime drivers of forest fragmentation. Forest land intrusion is the major threat to biodiversity because it not only causes the habitat’s loss of species but also results in more devastating effects through fragmentation. When such a thing happens, it increases the likelihood of local animal population extinctions and eventual species extinction. Shrinking of the forests causes wide-reaching problems such as soil erosion, fewer crops, flooding, water cycle disruption, greenhouse gas emissions, changes in climatic conditions, and loss of biodiversity. Sadly, this is what has been happening in Zambia. Forest reserves have undergone drastic changes over the years due to encroachment by human activities like agriculture, cutting down of trees for charcoal production, and even settlements. This has led to deforestation of most protected areas, including Mwekera National Forest in Kitwe on the Copperbelt. Deforestation rates are significant in Zambia, with around 300,000 hectares of forest cover lost every single year.
Wood extraction, agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, and fires are the main drivers of deforestation and forest degradation. Population pressure and poverty are some of the central factors that stimulate forestland encroachment in Zambia. Forests provide new areas for agriculture and a range of subsistence products. With increasing population, more families search for land for agriculture or look for fuel wood or timber. Encroaching on forest lands has several disadvantages. It adversely impacts on the functions and values of natural areas, such as a decline in water quality, loss of aquatic and terrestrial habitats, disruption of equilibrium conditions, loss of flood attenuation, or reduction of ecological processes. It is, therefore, in the best interest of all well-meaning Zambians to abide by laws that prohibit any sort of human activity or settlement in protected forests. Forests have innumerable benefits to both human and animal life.