Since the beginning of this year, the Mukula tree fiasco has never stopped ringing in our ears. If it is not government announcing its ban, then it is news about trucks laden with Mukula tree being intercepted by the police at road blocks and ports of exit. Any news about the Mukula tree in the past four years when we got to know about it has not been pleasing. Many of us are beginning to wonder just what is wrong with this Mukula tree or the Green Gold as it has come to be called by the locals. Is Mukula tree a curse or blessing to Zambia?
It is important to note that the Mukula tree has raised so much dust than any other tree species because of its high demand in China. Given the population of China, you will agree with me that anything that is of high demand in China will indeed create confusion at an unprepared source, hence, the situation that our country has found itself in.
Scientifically, the Mukula tree belongs to the same family of indigenous trees like Mukwa, Rosewood, etc. It is actually among the most common trees along the Muchinga belt. The main differences with these other timber species we have are in its properties. It is believed that the heart wood or inner brown part of Mukula tree is used for making gun butts, the second layer is used for the making of furniture while the outer part is believed to contain medicinal values.
Mukula tree is not only unique to Zambia, many other countries in the South Central Africa like DR Congo, Tanzania, Angola, Malawi, and Mozambique all have the Mukula tree.
WHY IS THE MUKULA TREE A PROBLEM IN ZAMBIA?
The Mukula tree has become a nuisance in Zambia because of our deliberate failure by Government to apply our existing regulations and maximise our returns from it. One would ask how Zambia with a fully functional Forestry Department can fail to regulate the harvesting, transportation and export of Mukula tree. The key issue is that Forestry Department suffers some deficiencies. Firstly, the Forestry Department is probably one of the most understaffed Departments in the country compared to departments with similar mandates like Wildlife. In many parts of the country, you will find that only one forestry officer mans a big district or town like Petauke. Secondly, the Department is also among the most underfunded departments in the country. If we make comparisons to ZAWA which has a mandate similar to the Forestry Department, you will be shocked that most field officers under Forestry lack the basic tools such as field vehicles, harmers for marking the timber, to mention but a few, to efficiently carry out their jobs. This makes it very difficult for them to curb illegalities going on in their backyard forests.
Thirdly, over the past few years after the discovery of Mukula and other commercial timber species of high demand and value on the international market, the forestry sector has become the most compromised and corrupt sectors. Many corrupt elements locally, all the way up to high level officials, have paralysed the mandate of the Forestry Department and exported timber illegally.
From the above reasons, you will note that the problem is not the Mukula tree per se or the Chinese, but our inability to let the Forestry Department carry out its mandate without interference and pressure from corrupt officials who are involved in the illegal trading and export of the commodity.
WHAT WOULD MAKE MUKULA TREE BECOME A BLESSING TO THE COUNTRY?
Mukula tree is just a tree like any other tree except that it has a huge demand in China, a country with over 1.5 billion people. If Zambia is to maximise earnings from it, we should firstly provide adequate funding to the Forestry Department for them to hire more Forest Officers, at least three per district, and equip them with all the necessary tools to do their jobs efficiently. Secondly, the Forest officers should be left to carry out their mandate of managing forest resources according to the existing provisions in the law without interference or pressure from politicians.
Thirdly, each forest with timber of commercial value should be given out under a concession. Once all open forests are put under concession, it will become easy for the Forestry Department to manage the harvesting and conveying of the timber products from these forests. Experience in Zambia and other countries has shown that a forest without a concession is more vulnerable to illegalities than one with a concession. This is because, if one is issued with a concession, he will not allow anyone other than himself to be harvesting from that forest. In the same line, it also becomes easier for the Forestry Department to hold a concession holder accountable if illegal activities are reported to be taking place in his concession area. Illegal operators normally practise indiscriminate cutting of timber. They cut timber of all sizes without any regard and of any quantities, simply because they are not regulated by anyone. However, a concession holder is guided by the forestry act on how he should cut his timber, where he should cut from according to compartments, and how much he should cut per given time. For example, timber of less than 30 cm diameter cannot be cut according to the forest act of 2015.
Further, a concession holder follows an agreed upon pattern when cutting trees by following compartments as agreed upon by the forestry department. This is a method that is practised world over and has been proved to be a very sustainable way of managing the forests and allows for regeneration. One can only move to the next compartment after exhausting the harvest from the current compartment. Further, a concession holder is also restricted on the quantity of timber he can cut per month and annually.
SHOULD MUKULA TREE BE GUARDED 24/7, OR SHOULD IT BE ALLOWED TO BE TRADED?
If indeed we are to follow the forest act of 2015, weed out corrupt officials from putting pressure and influencing decisions at the Forest Department, increase funding to the Forestry Department, and issue concession licenses for all open forests as stated above, then Mukula will definitely become a blessing, different from the current self-concocted curse.
Guarding of the Mukula tree is not sustainable in the long run. Firstly, it is very costly for the government to sustain security wings in the forests. These people need allowances, salaries, upkeep, etc. Security wings have their specific duty of keeping peace in Zambia and not double as forest rangers, waging war against Zambians who are even legally holding concession licences. If we will keep the security wings to guard the Mukula while we are banning it for trade, the government will also lose out a lot in terms of what will be paid to sustain the security wings, and we will also lose the income that could be generated by trading it legally at open market value both locally and internationally.
The claim by some people that Mukula should be reserved for the future is flawed in many ways.
Firstly, these trees take many years to grow and mature, once they mature, if they are not cut, then their canopy cover actually shields the smaller trees from growing which may eventually die due to lack of sunlight. The Mukula tree also tends to develop boles through its heart if it is not cut at the right time, and thus eventually loses its value. Therefore, in the interest of regeneration and earning of income by rural communities, businessmen and the government, the Mukula tree like any other tree should be traded under strict regulation as provided for under the forest act of 2015.
Article by Kumbukilani Phiri