By Musyani Siame
Over time, Zambia’s national forest reserves have undergone tremendous changes as a result of encroachment coupled with the impacts of climate change. Since time immemorial, people have always illegally settled in national forest reserves and as they do so, they are referred to as illegal settlers and the illegal activity is known as forest encroachment. People encroach in national forest reserves for various reasons which include establishment of settlements, farming and charcoal production and most important, to improve livelihoods through the collection and sale of non-wood forests products. However, the main driver of all this is simply poverty. Encroachment in the national forest reserves of the country has highly contributed to deforestation while impeding on the sole purpose of protected forest areas.
National forest reserves were created to protect tree species, water sources and produce forest resources. The Forest Act No. 4 of 2015 clearly provides that ‘All the land comprised in a National Forest shall be used for (a) the protection of forest resources of national importance; (b) the conservation of ecosystems and biological diversity and sustainable utilization of forest resources; (d) and the management of water catchments areas and head waters. Therefore, the purpose of national forests is twofold, in an ideal situation, national forests were created for the production and protection of trees as well as the environment, any other function exceeding the above mentioned is regarded as an offence. A realistic situation on the ground is however saddening.
All national forests across the country have been encroached to some extent. People have illegally shared the portions of land within forest reserves, built houses and created farms. Most of illegal settlers have been living in these protected areas for a long time and they believe its theirs as it is home. The question is how did the situation get there?
The truth of the matter is that forest encroachment is so high in the country and no one seems to bother or question it. As long as nothing is being done to stop and reverse encroachment in national forests, the situation shall reach a point of no return. It shall be very difficult for government to evict people who have encroached in national forests. These people have created families and villages and have become well connected such that the current forest law is weak to make them move out of the protected areas. Some of the illegal settlers were born there and the encroached areas have become their home they know. Now, the situation has dovetailed from being an environmental issue to a more complex and complicated social problem. Its little about trees but human lives.
By law, all the illegal settlers who have encroached the protected forests need to be displaced but inasmuch as I am concerned, government has no available alternatives to their livelihoods. Further, government has no resettlement plan for these illegal settlers. And since there is no resettlement plan, there is no way these people will tend to move out of the protected forests. Currently, the Forest Department has no capacity to move these illegal settlers from encroached areas. You might be wondering why I have said so? Here are some issues;
In the first place, Forest Department under the Ministry of Green Economy is faced with so many crosscutting challenges than any other departments in any government ministry. The Forest Department has for a very long time been faced with too many challenges to the extent where it even fails to execute its basic duties of enforcing the forest law offenders especially the illegal settlers. For example, thedepartment does not have a legal affairs office. I am talking about the department which is present in all the districts country wide and mandated to arrest and take to courts of law the offenders of forest law. It is very sad that there is no office to deal with issues of legal matters pertaining to forest law in the department. This means that the department does not have capacity to handle cases in courts of law against the offenders of the forest law. Other than this, there is no advice regarding legal matters within the department so, most of the legal issues especially encroachment issues go unresolved. There is need for serious reforms for legal matters of the department.
Secondly, the successive governments which have passed from the MMD era to the PF administration did not show any political will to uplift the operations of the Forest Department in order to safe guard national forests. I can only hope that the UPND government shall be able to see this gap and come to realization of how former governments underrated Forest Department and see it become incapacitated.
The government through the Ministry of Green Economy must identify the operational gaps of Forest Department so that it can be viable to controlling encroachment in the national forests. This is doable as problems of the department are already apparent and do not need stakeholder consultations. Thirdly, Forest Department has the mandate to enforce the forest law by preventing encroachment in the national forests. However, there is always lack of capacity to enforce the law through financial constraints.
The Department has always cited lack of funds for forest operations as being among the most disadvantaging factors leading to encroachments in the national forests. The department in all the district offices have no money for running operations. There are no operational vehicles and there is always no fuel to use in the vehicles to conduct forest patrols and inspections. So, the department cannot conduct forest patrols and inspections in the forest reserves to check for encroachment, deforestation activities and other vices which are not allowed. This is indeed a big downfall.
Fourthly, the department is very much understaffed. It lacks human resource ranging from forest guards to forest rangers to forest officers and others who are supposed to be enforcing the law when dealing with forest encroachment in national forest reserves. The department is limping because there are few officers to implement its functions and carry out the duties. Most if not all the District Forest Department stations across the country are understaffed. Government has not been massively employing forest officers since 2002 yet increasing forest graduates are out there waiting to be employed. The department has been segregated and underrated so much. While the new dawn government offered to employ teachers and health workers, it is in everybody’s interest that foresters can also be considered as important in achieving sustainable economic growth.
More importantly, the Forest Department has very limited and small organization structure for the staff to work effectively and efficiently. The organization structure of the Forest Department is not wide enough. It does not allow enough number of forest officers and forest guards to be absorbed in the system yet they are the ones supposed to be on the ground to enforce the law. many stakeholders have been making submissions and recommendations to have the Forest Department undergo restructuring through parliament but to no avail. Very few positives have come out of the issue yet too many bottlenecks. Selfish interests of some individuals at high level and political interference are among the factors. The new dawn government have the opportunity to restructure Forest Department so that it can be able to execute its duties diligently in an effective and efficient way and help stop encroachment in forests reserves.
Moreover, the limited organization structure is very old and cannot work in the modern times. Some ranks in the organization structure are not well supported by law. for example, the rank of the District ForestOfficer in the organization is just an administrative convenience but not gazette. The salary scales are still complicated and are not in conformity with the organization structure.
Furthermore, the national forests lands have been transformed overtime. The challenges have changed and demands of the forests management have become different yet the department and its structure have remained the same. Also, this is posing a negative effect on funding of forest projects to Forest Department by NGOs and funders. They keep avoiding funding Forest Department for forest related projects simply because the organization structure is very limited to execute projects and mainly accounting for the funds. So, the department keep losing out on essential forestry related projects. Therefore, as long as the organization structure of the department remains unadjusted, there shall be no effective implementation of forest law and policy hence, encroachment shall not be stopped or controlled.
Lastly, there are no statistics to show the current encroachment levels in forest reserves. The word of the day is that encroachment is high in national forests but there are no inventory figures. The little data is scant and limited. So, Forest Department need to conduct inventory of all national forests to know the actual levels of encroachment country wide. This can mark the beginning of planning to reverse forest encroachment by the Minister of Green Economy. If you do not know how much portions of national forests have been encroached, you cannot even begin to talk about combating encroachment because you have no information to base your encroachment plan on.
Of course there is Integrated Land-use Assessment document supported by FAO which take stock of all the country’s forests. However, in my view and that of few others, the document has some scientific challenges regarding methods and accuracy of the data. Some stakeholders feel it does not hold the true representation of the results. Nevertheless, that debate is for another day. The point I am trying to stress is that there must be a new forest inventory for all the national forest in the country so as to show the current levels of encroachment and where they are located. This will help the Forest Department and the Minister of Green Economy to know what to do with the situation and how to reverse it.
Thus, there is high need to remap national forests because some portions of the areas are already illegally established. Forest law can do little to resettle the people from the encroached areas the forest reserves. To solve the problem in an amicable way, it will only take the president to de-gazette the encroached portions and let the people live there. This being said, some forest areas will be lost and others gained hence the need to remap and redefine the boundaries of nation forest reserves. The current Forest Actgives power to the President who may, by statutory instrument, declare any area of land within theRepublic to be a National Forest and may, in like manner, declare that any National Forest shall cease tobe a National Forest or that the boundaries of any National Forest shall be altered or extended.
This is hard to digest but it’s the truth. There is need to redefine the boundaries of the national forestsand remap them to get the true value of current stock of national forests and the encroachment levels.This is when the department can now plan better for combating encroachment in national forestsreserves. this can only take the will of this new dawn government to ensure that the forest department isempowered with all the resources it need to stop national forest encroachment and I believe it can be done as I dwell in so much faith in the Minister of Green Economy.