A young lady I gave a lift to into town the other day told me that she was going into hospital for a review of injuries she suffered as a result of being beaten up by people who were ‘stealing’ firewood from her resettlement farm. After the initial shock at another example of the kind of lawlessness that now prevails in our country – a result, I would argue, of the apparent ‘suspension ‘of the law during the shambolic fast track land reform program of the early 2000’s – I started to consider the implications of such a senseless act of violence.

The current “Energy crisis” which has seen shortages in such vital supplies as electricity and fuel has, of course resulted in an increased demand for fire wood. Forests in and around Harare (and I would guess around most major settlements) have been decimated as the residents of the Capital look for firewood not only for cooking but also for some warmth during the cold winter months. The added pressure from the tobacco growing resettled small scale farmers, who use wood from indigenous trees like the msasa, where commercial farmers would have used coal or grown fast growing trees like the eucalyptus or pine,  has only exacerbated the problem and we have seen the rapid deforestation of the outskirts of Harare. The particular farm where the woman was beaten up is a stone throw away from the rapidly expanding suburbs of Southern Harare.

The Msasa tree is a slow growing indigenous tree that probably takes hundreds of years to grow to the size of tree that we have seen being cut down to cure tobacco or for the informal brick making kilns that one sees around Harare, and of course, for firewood.

But the story of the beaten woman brought into focus some of the results of the fast track land reform program, which turned what had been freehold prime agricultural land into leasehold small scale farming land. That immediately changed the ownership structure. The land now belonged to the State rather than the individuals faming it. In Zimbabwe, that generally means ndezvehurumende, (it belongs to the government}, and therefore, it belongs to everybody. In a country where even the ownership of freehold land is not necessarily respected, how dare this woman try to stop anyone from taking wood from land that belongs to everyone?

Southern Harare. has seen some of the fastest growth in what at first looked like informal settlements but appear to have grown into fully fledged suburbs. Areas such as Southlea Park and Ushewokunze, on either side of the main highway South from Harare to Masvingo and further appear to be growing without the required services – piped water, roads and electricity – yet some of the houses being built would put some of the more established suburbs to shame! With no jobs in the area, many have resorted to informal businesses like brick making and stream bank cultivation of vegetables for the growing population. The environmental damage is clear for all to see. The area is now bereft of any trees; the Mukuvisi River, a tributary of the Manyame River, which supplies water into Harare’s two main water reservoirs before continuing on its journey North to the great Zambezi river,  is getting silted over and, of course the brick making activities leave large holes in the ground that are not only eye sores but will, in the rainy season, provide ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes.

With firewood getting scarcer, residents are forced to go further for their wood requirements and one sees women and children carrying large bundles of wood on their heads having walked long distances to gather the precious commodity. Of course once a commodity becomes precious in a country with few job prospects, there are opportunities for business and truck loads carrying large logs have become common on the highway – mostly at night for fear of the rather ineffective Environmental Management Agency (EMA), the reason for whose existence is the protection of our environment. The evidence in Harare South suggests that they are not being particularly successful at their job!

The young lady on her way to hospital, the ‘poaching’ of wood on the farms in and around Harare – which is beginning to affect even those of us who are farming some forty kilometres from the capital – are the results of the many policy aberrations that have characterised  governance in Zimbabwe.

Before independence in 1980, rural to urban migration was strictly controlled by methods that were admittedly draconian and racist, but at least there was recognition that the infrastructures of the cities could only carry so many people. After independence, the controls were removed, yet there was no effort to increase the carrying capacities of the urban areas. More houses were build and connected to the existing water, electricity and sanitation facilities; populist decisions on economic policy led to capital flight and the dearth of the manufacturing sector with the employment that comes with it, necessarily reducing the government’s revenue as fewer employees meant less personal tax and fewer companies meant less corporate tax! So those companies that did try to soldier on were taxed to death!

Add to this mix the desire by those in power to show off their positions with conspicuous spending on luxuries and unnecessary foreign trips and corruption soon became the norm as we all wanted the same things as our leaders. Money was spent on infrastructural projects that were never finished (in some cases, never started) and if they were finished, the cost was way above what it should have been – the road to the Robert Mugabe International Airport cost a lot of money and is still not finished). Projects were prioritised based on what was in it for certain individuals rather than what was good for the country, so that while our health facilities were dying, our road network was crumbling and our inner cities were decaying, we were building sports facilities that did not last – like the state of the art hockey stadium and aquatic centre built for the all Africa games and then allowed to rot; We built a new International Airport at a time when arrivals into the country were falling and many airlines were pulling out as a result – while our own national Airline continues to titter on the brink. We have built a Defense college – at a time when there are no obvious enemies besides ourselves – and even now contracts have been signed for a new parliament building (even though the existing one is doing little to justify its existence); yet our hospitals have no drugs and our doctors are probably the worst paid in the world!

Then we turned to the land. Indeed it was necessary that the distribution of land be tackled to redress the imbalances created by racial policies of the past, but even here, opportunities were missed. Instead of coming up with a sustainable policy of land distribution and conservation, corruption reared its ugly head again and land was used for patronage to reward political supporters, friends and families and punish political opponents. The result was the demise of a vibrant agricultural sector that not only employed thousands but had become a major foreign currency earner.

As one young man put it to me recently, it was as if they only thought of the people living now; as if the distribution was a one off event that did not take into account the needs of future generations. Other countries in Africa have of course benefitted from the skills that we so carelessly discarded in the name of correcting past imbalances. We on the other hand have not only lost those skills; we have created new imbalances. And a culture of lawlessness that manifests itself in so many different ways: in the way we drive; the way we treat each other; the lack of respect for private space or property; the almost complete disregard for rules of any kind. A defenseless young woman being beaten up for trying to protect her private space is a stark example of the kind of society we are becoming.

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