Africa, Environment, Headlines


Mercedes Sayagues

HUAMBO, Sep 22 1999 (IPS) - Besides loss of agricultural land to landmines, one major environmental casualty of Angola’s long running civil war is deforestation.

Drive across the hinterland of Angola, within a radius of 50 kms around the provincial capitals, and one will see only a few, scattered groves of trees.

Chances are they are fruit trees, more valuable for their mangoes and papayas than as firewood. Or, the trees may belong to a mission still operational, hence respected. Or, it is a forest where the military and the government get their firewood, so no one touches it.

Otherwise, trees are cut down at shocking speed by the waves of displaced people who need firewood for cooking and heating. One million people have become displaced since the war erupted again last December. They join 1.5 million who were displaced between 1992-94.

This redistribution of population, forced to settle in large numbers in small areas, usually lacking any means of survival and income-earning, translates into accelerated damage to land and vegetation.

“All the trees along the road are gone,” says Roque Goncalves of the Angolan Ngo ADRA. He points at the road leading from Malange to Luanda, 350 kms to the east. Until this year, it was lined by 30-year-old eucalyptus. Not anymore.

When shelling began in January, Malange was swamped by 70,000 displaced people. They cut down the trees and pulled out the cassava stems from the fields. Now they are building a camp of thousands of basic huts made of straw and grass, denuding the river banks in the search for building materials.

The forests planted by the Portuguese colonial regime have been thinning since independence at 1975. But today, with these huge waves of displaced people, the forests are disappearing at alarming speed. Near Huambo, 3,000 hectares of eucalyptus were cut down in the last three years.

Provincial capitals, once surrounded by forests of eucalyptus and pine trees and groves of indigenous species, are enclosed in ever-widening circles of barren scrubland. In the central highlands, the heavy downpours of the rainy season wash out tonnes of fertile topsoil from the tree-less plains, accelerating erosion.

During the nine-month old siege of Kuito in 1993, even the ornamental trees that lined its streets were cut down for firewood. They have not been replanted.

“Angola has an acute problem of deforestation,” says Heinz Fichtmueller, an agronomist with the Red Cross in Huambo. “It’s high time to do something.”

Some may argue that feeding the starving and healing the war- wounded is a more urgent priority. But relief workers point out that kitchens in the feeding centers need fuelwood to cook meals and it is scarce.

It is not unusual for the displaced to walk at least 15 kms to find firewood. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon, long lines of women and children make their way back into the squalid camps, carrying bundles of firewood on the head. If they meet a policeman or a soldier at a checkpoint, they must leave a portion as “tax” to the security forces.

Recently, the government has confined the hundreds of thousands of displaced people to the outskirts of the besieged provincial capitals. Around Malange, Kuito and Huambo, grass and straw settlements are springing up.

Due to the scarcity and competition for these natural resources, in order to build their huts, people have to go further away, straying from well-known paths. In doing this, they risk landmines.

In September, at Kuito’s provincial hospital, out of 26 mine casualties, 10 were children under 16 who stepped on a landmine while looking for firewood, fruit and food.

While a nurse dresses his stump without giving him pain killers, Augusto Kapako, 10, howls and writhes in pain. His mother explains he was looking for firewood near Kuito in August and went beyond the paths where mines had been cleared.

Deforestation affects all of Angola, but it is worse in the war- ravaged central highlands. Although war has pretty much spared the dry southern Namibe Province, fighting has reduced the areas where pastoralists used to roam, pushing them into a corner against the sea.

Overgrazing and the loss of nomadic patterns translate into excessive pressure on the land. The wind accelerates erosion. The coastal desert is encroaching.

The great teak forests of the southern provinces are long gone. Jonas Savimbi, leader of the rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) has acknowledged in interviews that his rebel movement paid with teak and ivory for the South African military support in the late 1980s.

In the logic of a war economy, now running for 25 years, short term profit weighs more than long term sustainability, whether it is a displaced farmer cutting down a tree for firewood or an entrepreneur cutting down centenary teak in northern Cabinda.

Being Africa’s second oil producer after Nigeria, Angola need not be so dependent on fuelwood. It pumps more than 800,000 barrels a day and plans to reach two million a day in 2000.

At 0.08 (eight US cents) a litre, its petrol for cars is the cheapest on the continent. But petrol is only abundant in Luanda. Provincial capitals are starved for it.

It would be possible for Angola to provide low-cost fuel for cooking and heating, such as paraffin or kerosene, for its people. But the majority of its people are peasants who count little in the country’s energy and social welfare policies. The countryside remains mired in the last century’s technology, using hand-held hoes and firewood.

The Red Cross is doing something about the problem. It has set up tree plantations and nurseries on the outskirts of Huambo. Eventually, nearby villages will be able to get here seedlings to set up their own fuelwood lots. Right now, the priority is harvesting fuelwood for the soup kitchens, the feeding centers for malnourished children and the camps for the displaced.

Ficthmueller looks proudly at a dozen women potting black plastic bags with seedlings of fast growing fuelwood trees and slow-growing species for repopulation of indigenous species.

Their work may go almost unnoticed among Angola’s pressing needs, but it is a step in the right direction.

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