MARGARET CHISANGA, Sioma
WESTERN Province prides itself in having a survival plan when food is scarce and rains are still far off in the horizon. This plan always involved feeding on fruit from the huge drought resistant tree known as the ‘Muzauli’.
But this tree, famous for producing hardwood timber known as Rosewood, is now under threat, as members of the Zambian Parliamentary Conservation Caucus (ZPCC) discovered recently.
The Muzauli (Rosewood) tree, whose scientific name is Guibourtia coleosperma, is a semi-deciduous, near evergreen tree that grows up to 182cm in diameter and about 24.5 metres high. Muzauli thrives in Kalahari sands. The tree flowers between December and March, giving way to beautiful and lightly scented white blossoms that attract myriad birds, insects and reptiles.
Traditionally, it is used as a source of food as well as medicine for chronic wounds. The poles and bark are good for construction, and this is what has apparently put the tree under threat.
While on a tour of agriculture conservation projects undertaken by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Sioma and Sesheke districts recently, the entourage, chaired by Luapula Province Minister Nixon Chilangwa, noticed state-of-the-art forklifts carrying huge piles of timber from further deep in the forest to a location closer to the main road. After seeing one too many times, curiosity got the better of everyone and a discussion evolved to determine where the timber was going and who had the operating licence.
This discussion unleashed a pandora’s box of swapped concessional licences, tales of foreign plated trucks transporting timber and deplorable working conditions of employees.
To get more clarity, the ZPCC decided to carry out an on-the-spot check on one of the companies where the timber was being offloaded, cut and piled in logs in readiness for transfer to China through Namibia.
The ZPCC crew followed one of the forklifts to a yard with thousands of logs piled in order of size. The stockpiled timber also served as a fence around the yard. Young men covered in dust were busy offloading the logs and piling them. None had any uniform or safety gear on. The entrance had no signpost, while a single block covered in dust saved as an office on one end of the yard with tents erected on one side of the building. There was no kitchen or ablution block in sight.
Dismounting from one of the forklifts was a Chinese operator identified as Mr Wu. Speaking through an interpreter, Mr Wu said he could not provide any papers and offered to call his superior. The superior turned out to be another Chinese who emerged from the single building in the yard, identified as Mr Dong. He said the company was named Zamwinner.
In a heated discussion with Mr Chilangwa, Mr Dong insisted he had been given all the right papers in Lusaka. But when Mr Chilangwa called the Western provincial forestry officer, Mr Simasiku, he was informed that no concessional licence had been issued to a foreign owned company.
“Honourable, according to our records, we only have six Zambians registered as concessional licence holders operating in timber. If at all he has papers, it would mean that they are either fake or he has been sold papers by one of the locals,” Mr Simasiku said.
Sensing that he was slowly digging his own grave, Mr Dong offered to go and bring his papers from the office. However, a few minutes later, he disappeared in a cloud of dust, speeding off in a Land Cruiser that had been parked behind a huge pile of logs, out of site of the entourage. His action cemented the team’s suspicion that there was something illegal in the company’s operations.
“That seals it, I am immediately suspending activities of this company until further investigations are carried and we determine who gave this company an operating licence,” Mr Chilanga said as other members of the caucus, who included Southern Province Minister, Edify Hamukale, agreed.
Employees interviewed said their salaries range from K500 to K700, while the highest paid was a forklift operator who gets K2,000 per month. They further revealed that they had no further benefits.
“We don’t know about things like medicals, education and housing. We cook our own meals, mostly surviving on nshima and cabbage. We are not offered any accommodation here so we walk back to our homes spread out in the surrounding villages,” said Monde Mukundu.
“This is really sad, this timber they are getting from our land is worth millions of Kwacha, and yet they can treat their employees to such deplorable conditions,” said Sioma member of Parliament Mbololwa Subulwa.
Apart from cheating the country out of thousands of Kwacha by not providing acceptable working conditions, it was discovered that the nation is further ripped off through buying of the timber at give-away rates. The locals interviewed said the Chinese send emissaries to offer them as little as K20 per tree.
“Some of these trees have a history attached to them; they have been in our village since we were born, the shades providing shelter to our ancestors as tradition was passed from one generation to another. It is really sad for us who grew up here to see the rate at which the trees are vanishing,” said Sioma Council secretary Edmond Mumbula.
And Sioma district commissioner Maurice Litula said he had raised the issue consistently with the forestry office after he noticed foreign plated trucks from Shangombo entering the district late in the night and leaving with piles of timber.
“There are six concessional licence holders who are allowed to cut a specific number of trees in designated areas, however, what could be obtaining is that they have since sold them to these merchants, who are not following the conditions stipulated in these licences,” he said.
Merchants have a licence allowing them to buy timber in its raw form from concessional licence holders.
The concessional license holders on the other hand, have been given areas of the forest to cut from, and they are given a specific load which they are supposed to carry.
Mr Chilangwa said if left unattended, the indiscriminate cutting of trees would result in mass deforestation in the region, further threatening food security and reversing the process of development.
As he ordered for security re-enforcements at the premises, he said all efforts would be made to ensure the precious ‘Muzauli’ tree is protected.