Poor Vendors in Swaziland Worried by ‘Flora Protection Law’

2009-12-09 15:03

For close to three decades, Jeremiah Mkhonta has earned a living by

selling firewood by the roadside.

It’s not exactly lucrative: the father of 15

often goes for a fortnight without even selling a single four dollar bundle of


But slow business is not what is bothering this ex-miner right now.

He lives in fear that one day soon, he and his peers across the country, could

be arrested.

”I’ve learnt from the radio and from some of my customers that the

Minister of Tourism and Environment said that we’ll get arrested for selling

firewood,” Mkhonta told IPS.

Through the Flora Protection Act, 2001, the Minister of Tourism and

Environment, Macford Sibandze, has threatened to take legal action against

people found to be cutting down trees for commercial gain, including firewood


”Although this law addresses issues of protected plants, we’re also

targeting those people cutting live trees and those harvesting in large

quantities,” said Sibandze.

Although he observed that firewood vendors are cutting down trees

on a very small scale, he said the action is necessary to prevent the practice

from spreading.

Sibandze said the crackdown is part of Swaziland’s contribution to

the response to climate change.

African countries are said to be contributing 18

percent of greenhouse gas emissions mainly through deforestation.

”Inasmuch as we understand that the trees are a part of a

livelihood for many people who are poor, we also have to ensure that we harvest

the natural resources in a sustainable manner,” said Sibandze.

“This applies

across the board - whether you’re poor or not.”

Although Mkhonta has a limited understanding of what climate change

is all about, he said ordinary Swazis have suffered a lot through climate change

in the form of prolonged drought, but government still wants to subject them

into further poverty.

”They say the drought which has stopped us from cultivating was

caused by climate change. Now we have to stop earning a living because of the

same climate change,” said a visibly confused Mkhonta.

He said he makes hardly enough a month to put food on the table.

Two thirds of the Swazi population lives below the poverty line of less than a

dollar a day.

Close to 300,000 people survive on food aid.

Sibandze’s argument that he’s seeking to protect living forest from

destruction down does not hold up, at least not for Mphumuzi Magwagwa another

firewood vendor at Ngogola.

Magwagwa said they use indigenous knowledge to

ensure that they conserve the environment.

”We know the trees that belong to the King (protected

indigenous plants) which we don’t touch. Only dry trees that prevent grass

from growing are cut and sold as firewood,” said Magwagwa.

He said it is a pity that while government is using the law to

drive them out of business, it is not providing any alternatives so that they

could continue earning a living.

”I’m a father of three, a widower, unemployed and I’ve never been

to school,” said Magwagwa.

“I can tell you now, if I’m stopped from selling this

firewood, the only choice I’d have is to steal.”

Magwagwa’s assessment of his chances of finding another job ring

true against Swaziland’s unemployment rate of 28 percent, the majority of whom

are in rural areas.

Thuli Makama, the director for Yonge Nawe Environmental Group,

argues that what government has to appreciate is that the fundamental principle

of environmental management is to sustain human beings.

”Poverty levels are very high and people are exploiting one

environmental resource or another just to earn a living,” said Makama.

Makama who knows the firewood vendors well says they are not just

irresponsible people but a group with a code of conduct which they adhere


”The problem with our laws, like in most African countries, is that

they’re always targeting the small men,” said Makama.

“We can’t be frying

sardines when we have sharks.”

Makama is basing her argument on the fact that big industries in

the country such as SAPPI Usuthu - due to close down at the end of the month -

have not been taken to task over pollution.

The paper milling industry has been

heavily criticised by environmentalists for releasing toxic effluent into

Usushwana River which runs across Matsapha Industrial Site, leaving downstream

communities with no water to drink.

”For years we’ve been trying to get government to give these issues

affecting poor communities priority but nothing has been done,” said Makama.

“It’s interesting to see the very same government being aggressive towards

enforcing the law towards poor people.”

Across the road from the private farm owned by Tibiyo Taka Ngwane,

a royal company held in trust of the Swazi nation, where the vendors gather

their firewood, a Cape Town-based company is making charcoal but government is

not bothering the owner.

Tibiyo Taka Ngwane gave the vendors permission to gather firewood

from the farm while a permit was granted to the South African company to cut

trees and make charcoal which they supply to the Kingdom and in South


Makama, who will be part of the civil society presence in

Copenhagen, said the role of non-governmental organisations in the conference is

to try to present the views and protect the rights of people like Mkhonta and

Magagwa as a plan to arrest climate change is decided upon.


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