For the last 4 years I’ve been researching the Zambezi Teak forests of Western Zambia. Or what’s left of them. It’s a pretty depressing picture. I used Landsat satellite images from 1975 (these are the earliest images available) to measure the forests as they were in the early 1970s. It’s important to know that this is the time around which Zambezi Sawmills stopped all logging of these forests. From the satellite images the forests appeared mostly intact, although of course they have been logged intensively since the 1940s. Despite this logging activity, the size limits on logs were strictly enforced by the Zambia Forestry Department, so that even after Zambezi Sawmills finished logging an area, trees under 40cm Diameter at Breast Height (DBH) were left standing. I’ve seen trees of 25cm DBH produce seed, so trees that were left behind would have been quite capable of producing seed and the forests should have been able to recover. So why haven’t they recovered? Have a look at the first map which shows the study area – if you’re not familiar with Zambia this will orient you to where the forests occur and where the research was conducted. The map below that in colour shows the Zambezi Teak forests in green, in 1975 (left map). The red patches are degraded forests. You can see that even by 1975 there were some degraded areas. The map on the right shows the situation in 2005, thirty years later. The swathes of red show that most of the forests are now severely degraded, and in the case of the area near Sesheke in the bottom left corner, the forests have completely disappeared and are a different vegetation type.
How did this happen if Zambezi Sawmills were only cutting trees above 40cm DBH? The answer is fire. Zambezi Teak is highly susceptible to fire. Normally, in closed canopy forests, fire can’t penetrate because there is nothing to burn. But once you open the forests by logging, grass starts to grow in the open patches and fire progressively penetrates and kills trees like a cancer. Young trees don’t replace the older trees and all you have left after 30 years is the trees that were large enough to survive fire when logging ceased in the 1970s. Why is this a tale of mismanagement ? It’s simple – if the forests had been kept free of fire, they would have recovered and some areas would be viable for logging again today. The Zambian government and the Zambia Forestry Department are responsible for managing this resource and they have failed to manage effectively. They are still issuing licences for the new owners of Zambezi Sawmills to cut timber in some of the last remaining pockets of pristine Zambezi Teak forests – something I find scarcely believable. The tragic part of the story is that the resource, even in it’s degraded state, would have probably still been able to support a medium sized business (60 to 100 people) which manufactured finished products from the timber and used about 30 to 40 cubic metres of timber a month. The current strategy of Zambezi Sawmills is to extract 400 cubic metres a month of rough sawn timber for export and the forests simply can’t sustain this. I’ve been told by management that they would like to increase this to 1000 cubic metres a month. It’s utter madness. In the face of these findings from my research, how is this this allowed to continue? I’ve tried to speak to the current owners of Zambezi Sawmills and they refuse to adapt their strategy. Government, in the form of the Zambia Forestry Department have no data on timber reserves in the area and the way they calculate concession figures is archaic and outdated. It’s a failure of governance, it’s a failure of responsibility and its a failure of donor funded REDD+ programmes which are supposed to be preparing Zambia for REDD. About US$5m has been awarded to Zambia to improve Monitoring, Reporting and Verification for REDD. It definitely isn’t being spent in measuring Zambezi Teak. I know what it’s being spent on. Meetings in fancy hotels, stakeholder consultations in remote areas (the longer you spend away from the office the more you can claim in S&T when you get back) and everything but improving the capacity of the Forest Department to do their job. The Forest Department employees on the ground are disillusioned and despondent. I’ve met with most of them in the area, and they want to do their job but they are hampered by a Forestry Department which is dysfunctional. They don’t have a single working vehicle in an area which is almost the same size as Belgium!
My advice if you want to see what a mature Zambezi Teak forest looks like, is to go to Mulobezi now. They will all be gone in 5 years.