Zimbabwe's Environmental Paradox

Welcome to ZimbabweZimbabwe, which currently faces seemingly intractable social, political and economic problems, also has some of the worst environmental indicators in the world with ecosystems either in decline or under severe threat.

The country did institute some good environmental protection programmes in the decade following independence from British rule in 1980, markedly, Zimbabwe has about half of the world's population of black rhinoceroses, an endangered species. During that period, the government even went as far as adopting a radical policy of shooting poachers on sight in order to protect endangered animal species.

In recent years, however, Zimbabwe has experienced desertification, soil and water pollution, slash and burn agriculture resulting in soil erosion mainly caused by an unplanned land resettlement programme initated by incumbent President Robert Mugabe's government in 2000.

Yale University's 2008 environmental performance index (EPI) which ranks 149 countries according to a weighting of carbon and sulfur emissions, water purity and conservation practices, positions Zimbabwe at number 95 thus highlighting the grim state of the environment in the country.

"Zimbabwe's air is polluted by vehicle and industrial emissions, while water pollution results from mining and the use of fertilizers. Zimbabwe's cities produce 0.5 million tons of solid waste per year. The nation has been estimated to have the highest DDT concentrations in the world in its agricultural produce," states the nationencycloepdia.com.

In Zimbabwe, as in many countries in sub Saharan Africa, environmental management tends to play second fiddle to social, political and economic imperatives that ultimately result in environmental degradation. In that sense, Zimbabwe is a microcosm of environmental conditions unraveling across much of the continent.

Today, Zimbabwe is experiencing high levels of poverty, disease, political mismanagement and other significant obstacles to development that make regard for the environment the least of priorities at both government and societal levels.

High levels of poverty, particularly in the rural areas where approximately 70 percent of the population lives, make deforestation and wildlife poaching a huge environmental challenge due to increased demand for household fuel wood and food.

The rampant cutting down of trees for both fuel and agricultural purposes is perhaps the biggest problem because it negatively impacts the weather, rivers, rain and soil quality.

To make matters worse, climate change, with its disruption of rainfall patterns, has negatively affected subsistence agriculture which is the main source of livelihood and food for 80 percent of the population.

According to analysts, among the most serious of Zimbabwe's environmental problems is erosion of its agricultural lands, wildlife poaching and deforestation.

By 1992, deforestation was progressing at the rate of 70,000-100,000 hectares per year, chewing up 1.5% of the nation's forestland.

It is estimated that between 1990 and 2005, Zimbabwe lost 21 percent of its forest cover. The country has no primary forests left, and deforestation rates have increased by 16 percent since the end of the 1990s.

rhinoIn 2001, nine of the nation's mammal species and nine bird species were endangered, as well as 73 types of plants, along with Zimbabwe's endangered black rhinoceroses.

Despite this degradation, Zimbabwe has some 1,747 species of trees among its 4,500 species of higher plants. The country is also home to a number of safari animals including elephants, lions, and hippos. In total 270 species of mammals are found in Zimbabwe along with 180 reptiles and 661 birds.

As Zimbabwe seeks a way out of its political and economic morass, it is clear that solving the basic needs of the poor, particularly food security and energy needs, will play a key part to reduce problems such as deforestation and land degradation. In Zimbabwe, as in many parts of Africa, eradicating poverty is an indispensable condition to better environmental management.

But good governance is the bedrock upon which poverty is reduced and the environment better managed.

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  • Posted on Aug. 4, 2008. Listed in:

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