HARARE, Nov 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the dead of night, trucks loaded with illegally logged wood weave their way past police roadblocks to a capital city shrouded in darkness.
In Mbare, a suburb that also serves as the heartland of informal trading in Harare, firewood dealers like Kudakwashe Shumba wait to buy their share of the logs before disappearing to pass them on to any number of the 5 million power-starved urban Zimbabweans.
"We get the firewood from big syndicates, coming from farming areas as far as Karoi," which lies 200 kilometres (125 miles) west of Harare, said the unemployed Shumba, 35. He re-sells the fuelwood to the poor in the townships for $1 for a bundle of five sticks.
"The economy is so bad, there are no jobs," he said. "If I do not sell firewood I will starve."
Since early October, Zimbabwean households have endured as much as 18 hours of power cuts a day, forcing many to turn to fuelwood for cooking and heating.
With fuelwood's share in the national energy mix at around 53 percent, according to data from power utility ZESA (Zimbabwe Electrical Supply Authority) Holdings, Zimbabwe's forests have already been dwindling rapidly.
But as illegal loggers step up their activity to feed the need for energy, say experts, the devastation of the nation's forests has become almost unstoppable.
DROUGHT HITS ELECTRICITY
ZESA, which supplies nearly all of the country's electricity, said at the beginning of October that its already inadequate national generation had collapsed 17 percent to 984 megawatts due to climate change-induced water shortages at its main hydroelectric power plant at Kariba, in the country's northwest.
With meteorologists forecasting poor rainfall until the end of the summer season in February, ZESA chief executive Josh Chifamba has warned that capacity at Kariba will likely decline from the current 63 percent to as low as 33 percent, or 245 MW, by January 2016.
Studies by the University of Zimbabwe show that in a country where 61 percent of citizens are not connected to the electricity grid, urban households already consume one to 4 tonnes of fuelwood per year, and rural families more than double that.
And with worsening power outages to come those numbers are likely to surge, experts say.
According to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, Zimbabwe lost 327,000 hectares of plantation forests and natural woodland on average each year between 1990 and 2010. Now there are only 15.6 million hectares remaining.
At the 6,100-hectare Lake Chivero National Park, on the outskirts of Harare, the damage illegal loggers have done is evident.
In a vast area where decades-old trees once stood there are now only countless fresh stumps. "We estimate that 36 hectares have been cut down this year alone," said Violet Makoto, spokeswoman for the Forestry Commission.
A senior employee at Kamba Caravan Park in Lake Chivero National Park, who asked to be identified only as Ben, has seen the loggers at work. He said they use a variety of tools, from hand axes to chainsaws, to mow the forest down.
Ben sees between two and four 6-tonne trucks loaded with the logs leave the forest nearly every night. "As soon as the workers at the national park knock off around 6 pm, the poachers immediately move in knowing there is no one to apprehend them," he said.
In some circumstances, fuelwood can be sold legally. For example, some smallholder farmers allocated forested land under the fast-track land reform the government launched in 2000 are allowed to sell their timber. But once at market, the line between legal and illegal timber becomes blurred.
According to Oliver Wales Smith of Environment Africa, a local non-governmental organisation, the logging syndicates work with corrupt police and officials to exploit legislative loopholes that allow them to pass off illicitly obtained fuelwood as legitimate.
The government passed a law in 2012 restricting the use, trade and movement of firewood, but with fines that rarely exceed $20 the legislation is proving a poor deterrent, experts said.
Forestry Commission spokeswoman Makoto conceded that power cuts are making it difficult to keep deforestation under control. "It has become more and more difficult to enforce legislation as the situation becomes more about livelihoods," she said by email.
And in a vicious ecological cycle, the shrinking of Zimbabwe's forests is expected to exacerbate the water shortages that are fuelling the illegal logging trade.
"Models show deforestation could result in a decline in precipitation of more than 5 percent across Zimbabwe by 2050," said Terrence Mushore, a lecturer at the Bindura University of Science Education.
The Energy Ministry said the country is not expected to produce enough non-wood power and become fully energy secure until 2020, when a number of planned power projects are due to go online.
"All we can do is encourage people to be responsible in their use of the resource," said Makoto. "And to plant more trees to ensure its sustainability." (Reporting by Jeffrey Gogo; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)
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