By Andrew Mambondiyani (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
CHIMANIMANI, Zimbabwe - From the mountaintop at Skyline in the Chimanimani district of eastern Zimbabwe, a mosaic of scorched trees and timber can be seen stretching for miles on end.
Lit by a wave of illegal settlers, the fires regularly rage through the pine and eucalyptus plantations of Manicaland province, destroying vast swathes of timber at enormous cost.
Darlington Duwa, CEO of the Timber Producers Federation which represents local plantation companies, said it was difficult to know exactly how many settlers had moved into the area but an estimated 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) of land are known to be illegally occupied.
"Most of the timber plantations (in Manicaland) are occupied (by illegal settlers)," Duwa said
Also visible from the mountaintop are scatterings of crude, grass thatched huts built by the settlers in and around the timber plantations.
Manicaland produces the bulk of Zimbabwe's exotic timber requirements, but the industry is being undermined by illegal settlers, say plantation representatives.
"It is no exaggeration that unless the situation is addressed, the future of the timber industry in Manicaland is bleak," Duwa said.
Many of the settlers moved onto the plantations during the country's chaotic land reform programme which saw President Robert Mugabe expropriate millions of hectares of land owned by white farmers for redistribution to black citizens.
The illegal settlers do not have proof of ownership or land titles but remain defiant, arguing they were given the green light to settle on the plantations by the government itself.
"We are not going anywhere," Tawanda Chikukwa, an illegal settler in a local timber plantation told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "These timber companies stole the land from our forefathers. We are reclaiming it".
Plantations owned by some of the biggest timber companies in the country have been affected, including Allied Timbers Zimbabwe, Border Timbers and Wattle Company.
While the government announced late last year all illegally settled people must leave the plantations they have occupied, there has been no official move to evict people, Duwa said.
He added that in the majority of illegally settled areas, traditional community leaders themselves do not support the occupations.
Local timber experts say apart from economic losses, illegal settling of the plantations affects local forest management practices, from planting and harvesting to fire protection. Poaching of wildlife is also a problem.
"There is (also the) loss of employment opportunities as companies downsize in line with reduced timber resources and timber shortages. This results in the country resorting to the importation of timber," Duwa said.
The federation estimates that last year alone, the industry lost about 3,000 hectares of planted trees of various ages and this has become an annual occurrence.
"At this rate, the industry is bound to suffer irreversible damage" Duwa said.
RISK DAMPENS INVESTMENT
Experts warn that while the timber industry needs government financial incentives to expand and grow, the risk posed by illegal settlers makes investment unattractive.
Mandi Chimene, Minister for Manicaland Provincial Affairs, said that in Chimanimani alone, illegal settlers were responsible for the "wanton" destruction of trees over nearly 5,000 hectares.
The Ministry of Lands and Rural Resettlement has served more than 3,000 illegal settlers in six districts with notices of eviction.
"Squatters are a menace and it is unfortunate that some politicians and traditional leaders to some extent, are to blame," Chimene said.
The system of application for traditional land claims was also complicating the issue, she said, as local chiefs argued the land was historically theirs.
"While plantation companies are getting eviction orders from the courts, the challenge is that a different group invades the very same piece of land, and the cycle continues like that," Chimene said.
The solution, she said, lies with bringing together all groups - from government and plantation companies to local politicians and traditional leaders - to agree on acceptable uses for the land, find alternative plots for those displaced and to forge compromises with competing groups.
But time is running out, said Duwa.
"The issue of illegal settlers is taking too long to address. The time when the nation will solely rely on timber imports is fast approaching, let us all join our hands to prevent this from happening," he said.
(Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani, Editing by Paola Totaro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)