Of growing cities, vanishing trees
ON a bright day, standing atop the rolling Nyota hills in Mazowe, even in winter, the valley still offers a vast, open and green vista that over a century ago inspired a foreign visitor to declare it an “English garden”.
“… the country near the junction of the Mazowe and Tateguru rivers, we found to be literally carpeted with a profusion of colour: Pale mauve, pink and lilac predominating through the yellow and white flowers scattered amongst them, too, and there was one gem of a rich deep red. The flowers had nothing tropical in their appearance but all looked as if they might grow in the open air in an English garden, with the climate of southern Europe.”
This is an excerpt from the memoirs of one Fredrick Selous, an emissary of the British South African Company who negotiated many treaties with African leaders, paving the way for the company’s colonial exploits in southern Africa.
Selous was describing the upper watershed district of present day Mazowe River as it appeared to him in the spring of 1889.
The land offers one of Zimbabwe’s finest sceneries — and, from the hilltop, the spectacle of verdant, luxuriant vegetation and perennial streams laced with a tropical red loam soils, trapped in extravagant hills is awesome.
Lines of trees start at the foothills, marching upward, virtually without interlude until the near summit where huge rocks stand, suddenly halting their ascend.
Along the Mazowe River lies an opaque forest with rising trees and rich undergrowth.
But the view from the hilltop is deceptive, for Mazowe is fast losing much of its eccentric green liberty to phenomenal human development.
Christon Bank, a small town nearby, is rapidly transforming into a big city as suburbs come up, eating into the virgin forests. Further afield, Harare, the giant capital city, is sprawling towards Christon Bank, with the Mazowe town closing in from the north.
From every direction, vast tracts of land are being swallowed up, ploughed under, smoothed out and replaced by residential areas, shopping malls and roadways with intermittent office and recreational parks crammed in between.
Too many trees are going down, and far too many have already gone.
The scenario is repeated around the country. Growing cities and towns mean vast hectares of farmland, barren land, forests and wetlands — the categories of land conservationists define as the green space — are fast disappearing.
And fighting a losing battle are poorly-equipped government departments.
The Forestry Commission has no authoritative voice, and the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) is like the proverbial toothless bulldog.
An army of independent conservationists has also joined the fight to halt the destruction of trees. Among them is Friends of The Environment (FOTE) whose approach might as well be the panacea to the challenges.
FOTE, a non-profit making trust, is making use of awareness campaigns to appeal to human conscience with regards to the dangers of felling trees indiscriminately.
They complement this effort by establishing nurseries across the worst affected areas. It is from these nurseries that FOTE gets its tree saplings to support its re-greening initiatives.
But without much support from the corporate sector, which is hemorrhaging, owing to the illiquid market conditions, independent conservationists, just like government, are in a quandary as to how to deal with this new phenomenon.
While this development is bringing more economic opportunities and suburban-style amenities such as shopping malls, the natural ecosystem is threatened.
Much of the land is being devoured in large swathes in outer areas whose rural past is rapidly capitulating to a suburban future. Latest figures indicate that urban centres are growing fastest in sub-Saharan Africa compared to other parts of the world.
According to the State of African Cities 2014 United Nations report, the African continent is currently in the midst of simultaneously unfolding and highly significant demographic, economic, technological, environmental, urban and socio-political transitions.
“Africa’s economic performance is promising, with booming cities supporting growing middle classes and creating sizable consumer markets,” reads part of the report.
Experts agree that the already daunting urban challenges in Africa are now being worsened by the new vulnerabilities associated with climate and environmental change and are destined to worsen as the world continues to urbanise at an unprecedented pace.
The United Nations predicts that by 2050, about 70 percent of the world population will be living in urban areas, with sub-Saharan Africa accounting for the most significant growth. Today, 54 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas.
This means by that time, cities will have consumed a major share of the planet’s resources, and given that they have been the locus of the earth’s environmental problems, there is urgent need to revisit urban development trends.
Southern African Development Community mayors for capital cities recently met in Tswane, South Africa, to discuss, among other issues the need to start thinking about green buildings, which is a proven panacea to the menace.
There is also a new and worrisome phenomenon of mega cities, which refers to cities with 10 million inhabitants or more.
At three million residents, Harare is slowly catching up with 12 mega cities in the world today. Harare is planning a massive expansion drive. Still, small towns are already numerous and growing rapidly.
Rural population is decreasing while urban populations continue to grow as people abandon villages that are fast turning into deserts and whose soils are no longer productive. At this rate, the future, surely, is less green.
And as the world rolls past the Millennium Development Goals era to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be launched in Paris, France in December, focus is shifting from wanton destruction of forests to a more sustainable means of development that embraces the need for human settlements to co-exist with the natural environment.
In the proposed 17 SDGs, two deal with sustainable cities and preservation of forests. What thus is beyond dispute is the relentless drive: Open space is disappearing, and disappearing fast.
Local government expert, Kudzai Chatiza, said while urban development cannot be slowed down, urban planners need to start devising strategies to combat massive deforestation.
“Managing urban areas has become one of the most important development challenges of our time. Our success or failure in building sustainable cities will be a major factor in the post SDGs,” he said.
In Harare, of great interest has been the disappearing open spaces and wetlands as the local authority settles people everywhere and anywhere.
Urban development consultant, Percy Toriro said: “Open space is a value in and of itself and should be preserved at all costs”.
These critics do not oppose new development, but want it to be more rational and less predatory.
The role of local governments in preserving open spaces is confused and ambiguous.
However, the director of planning in the Ministry of Local Government, Public Works and Urban Development, Nathan Nkomo, insists government has a clear policy on preservation of forests.
In its latest report, the Forestry Commission says growth of cities and towns is one of the biggest drivers of deforestation.
The report decries the growth of cities that have peripheral slums without electricity.
Power cuts experienced in cities further endanger forests as urban dwellers are forced to cut trees for energy.
“Massive electricity load shedding which saw many urban households relying more on wood for fuel in a country where 60 percent of the population already relies on wood as the main source of energy for cooking and heating purposes has had significant effects on our forests,” reads the report.
EMA director general, Mutsa Chasi, said the organisation was doing all it can to protect the environment.
“There are laws which are very clear and these laws are applied. Whenever we discover that there is illegal development happening, we have not hesitated to apply the laws,” she said.
She also noted that EMA carries regular environmental impact assessments to ensure compliance with environmental laws. The legislature is one arm that has not really been brought to the party until recently.
The parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environment, Water and Tourism late last year visited Rwanda to get an appreciation of how that country has managed to conserve its forests in line with the Africa Policy on Forest Preservation.
Chairperson of the committee, Annastacia Ndlovu, presented the report in Parliament, which encouraged government to promote implementation of forest policies.
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has assessed the impacts of climate change on human health, settlements and natural resources and warned that “the worst is yet to come if no measures are taken to curb the effects of global warming”.
While urban centres have existed and have been evolving for many centuries, the accelerated of urbanisation is a recent occurrence.
There is no firm consensus on whether this high urban growth is good or bad, inevitable or controllable, but all sides agree that the loss of the green space is permanently altering not only the country’s distinctive look, but also the quality life. firstname.lastname@example.org