Invasion of forests gets worrisome

INVASION of forest reserves is common among farmers who trespass into restricted land to open up farms for food crops and cattle keepers who graze their animals on the, invariably, lush fodder. However, the presence of illegal villages in forests is an intriguing phenomenon.

We are told that already 80 per cent of the illegal villages whose fringes encroach into protected forests, game reserves and national parks have been identified and an amicable effort to solve the land dispute is underway. Others settle inside wildlife corridors.

Last year wildlife management authorities discovered that more than 80 households had been established clandestinely and illegally inside a wildlife corridor that links Tarangire to Manyara National Parks. Conservationists say the move is wrong.

A local conservationist in Babati, Mr Oleis Olekoin, says that the corridor is likely to disappear unless the invaders are relocated. Mr Olekoin urges the government to relocate all people who have invaded the wildlife corridor.

Indeed, last year invasion of conserved land especially forests was common among farmers who trespassed into restricted land to open up farms for food crops and cattle keepers who graze their animals on the, invariably, lush fodder.

About 37 per cent of Tanzania’s land is covered by conservation rules with almost 400,000 square km (155,000 square miles) of protected land contained in national parks, game and forest reserves famous for spectacular landscapes and herds of wildebeest and elephants.

The struggle for land has brought the competing needs of wildlife and humans into conflict in Tanzania, posing a threat to the tourism industry, a cornerstone of the country’s economy.

Illegal herding of cattle into national parks due to drought has placed a new strain on wildlife, endangering the lives of animals. Conservationists say the local wildebeest population has declined from two million to 1.5 million in the past decade.

Last year, the government ordered pastoralists from neighbouring Kenya and Uganda to remove thousands of cows, goats and sheep after they crossed into Tanzania’s national parks in a desperate search for water and fresh pastures.

Conservationists are concerned about the impact of farming and livestock rearing on protected sites, while pastoralists fear wildlife encroaching on their land and attacking livestock.

But illegal villages that are located in Rungwa River Reserve and Inyonga Forest Reserve, for example, are particularly difficult to tackle because the wananchi there have established permanent settlements, complete with local government offices.

It is imperative to point out here that every person has a duty to preserve the country’s natural resources, including forests, as per Article 27 (1) of the Constitution of United Republic of Tanzania. No one should settle, graze cattle or farm in reserved forests.

And, furthermore, under sections 18 (2) and 21 (1) of the Wild Conservation Act No. 5 it is prohibited to feed animals, or conduct any other human activity inside a National Park, Forest Reserve or Game Reserve, let alone establishing a permanent settlement.

In the same token, businesspeople and their cronies have continued plundering state protected reserve forests with ruthless wanton since time immemorial. However, the vandals have not gone unnoticed. Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa has moved in to stem the rot.

While most illegal axes have been laid down and the plunderers retreated into their lairs, there is a new twist and an ugly canker in this sinister tail. Whole villages have been seen flourishing deep inside protected State forests, national parks and game reserves.

Indeed, it has come to light that there are 360 illegal villages, some with permanent human settlements complete with local government leaderships deep in forest reserves in the country. Illegal villages? This is an incredible and rather shocking scenario.

The government should not tolerate seeing invaders felling trees and burning the forest to clear patches of land for agriculture, livestock rearing or setting up homes. This situation adds up to the number of prevalent conflicts over land, which keeps escalating.

The government, under close supervision from President John Magufuli, has already resolved more than 690 land conflicts out of a whopping total of 1,378. Land conflicts are a confounding scenario in this country.

In urban centres, conflicts over land pit developers against each other or the government. In rural Tanzania misunderstandings over land often see farmers square off for a fight against cattle keepers. Others trigger squabbles between investors and villagers.

Land conflicts keep escalating despite state efforts to shoot them down. Since the year 2004, for example, a total of 117 land councils have met to find solutions to 103,000 conflicts. However, farmers and cattle keepers are entitled to legal land use.

After all, we all need the presence of farmers as much as we need livestock keepers. While farmers till the land and grow food and cash crops, the cattle keepers produce the equally important cattle meat and milk. But, indeed, they should keep out of conserved forests.

Sometime last year, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa suspended four forestry officers in Rufiji District. He ordered that an indefinite suspension of unofficial forest product harvesting be imposed. The upshot was to save forest products from such devil-may-care plunder.

Yes, the unscrupulous plunder of state property had to be stemmed what come may. The premier directed that Rufiji District Commissioner Juma Njwayo collect all logs in the forest and auction them. The proceeds, naturally went into government coffers.

Mr Majaliwa, at the same time, instructed that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism should send its team of experts to Rufiji District so it makes a thorough inspection of forest harvesting licences in a quest to establish the authenticity of those documents.

Now, this was not the first time for the premier to move in to stop the plunder of forest products. A few months back, during the year under review, he called for the formation of an agency that would monitor the harvesting and selling of forest products countrywide.

He directed that all forest products be sold in competitive bidding arrangements. Again, the upshot here was to ensure that the government earns its fair share of the revenue generated from the sales of forest products.

This initiative stemmed from the stark reality that random harvesting of forest products has remained in greedy hands for too long. Consequently, the state moved in and slapped a complete ban on the diabolical practice.

The canker in this respect was the disgusting fact that while the nation’s forest reserves appeared to be vanishing, not much revenue was credited to government accounts. Much of the money was siphoned off by dishonest government officials and their cronies.

The main culprits, who had to be stopped in their tracks, were forestry officials in government as well as district councils. It is this lopsided arrangement that offered loopholes to greedy officials who, presumably, remain notorious for pocketing state revenue.

Both authorities utilized the random system of harvesting forest products and selling timber in square cubic metres. At the same time tree felling remained wanton. The premier insisted that this unacceptable arrangement had to be terminated.

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