Villagers and leaders living near Ngumburuni Forest Reserve in Rufiji District, Coast Region say a syndicate constituting business tycoons have been conducting illegal logging, threatening the existence of the forest.
A survey by the Guardian in the forest which occupies more than 5,100 hectares revealed massive deforestation, with marks of tyres of the vehicles used to ferry the logs. The villagers said the logs are ferried during the night.
In an interview, the villagers and leaders said the syndicate operated with the backing of some few unfaithful district officials in the department of forestry and policemen to facilitate the illegal activity.
The forest boasts several rare animals, various tree species suitable for construction and rivers which are drying up.
Saidi Abdulla Likwata Chairman of Muyuyu village which is near the forest, said during the night, they always see vehicles loaded with logs suspected to be owned by business tycoons and when they report the matter, the district authorities never take action, leading them to believe that the officials could be colluding with the illegal loggers.
Even when they report or arrest illegal loggers, there are usually no legal measures taken against them. Sometimes the district officials or policemen would come and take away the suspect and no further legal measures would be instituted.
“Failure to act on our reports discourages villagers and our patrol team and at times, the illegal loggers threaten to kill our guards who usually carry inferior weapons,” he said.
For her part, Amina Ali Mapande Special Seats Councillor for Kikale division, said the pace at which the forest is been depleted is shocking and if the situation is left to continue, the forest may disappear in the near future.
She said between 2006 and 2007, the villagers impounded a vehicle ferrying illegal logs and informed the police, who took away the suspect, pretended to interrogate him, then set him free. The villagers were not given any feedback on what had happened.
She said efforts by the villagers to set up entrance gates, had not helped as the tycoons opened up several other “panya routes” through which they ferried the logs.
“We fail in our efforts because we don’t have weapons and communications equipment. Even if you arrest them no support comes from the district authorities,” she complained.
She said, as a result of the illegal activity, rain patterns in the area have changed. In the past the rains used to start in October, but in recent years, they start in January and sometimes February.
Suleiman Mfaume who is Ruaruke A village chairman said apart from increased illegal loggers, in recent years, charcoal makers have also invaded the forest in large numbers due to lack of alternative source of income among many people.
For their part, Jumanne Kwangaya and Juma Mkwanywe who are leaders and members of Community Forest Conservation Network of Tanzania, (MJUMITA) in the area, said there was need for the government in collaboration with non-governmental organisations to launch small income generating projects among the surrounding communities to rescue the forest.
When contacted for comments, Gaudence Tarimo who is the Rufiji District Forest Officer, said he was not a spokesperson on the matter, adding that clarification could be given by District Executive Director (DED) Nassoro Mwingira.
When called on his mobile phone for the past two days, the DED has been saying that he is in a meeting, and therefore cannot make any comment.
But in a telephone interview, Mwantumu Mahiza who is the Coast Regional Commissioner who said she was not aware of the problem, urged the villagers and the village leaders to put in writing all the allegations including names of district officials who are alleged to collude with the tycoons and send them to her for further measures.
“I don’t know anything about the issue. It is you telling me now. I urge the villagers and their leaders to come to my office with evidence and names of district officials accused of facilitating invasion of the forest reserve by businessmen and I will take legal measures against them,” she said.
She directed the newly appointed district commissioner for Rufiji district to work on the problem as soon as possible saying it should be given first priority.