Women don’t chop down trees, it’s the men with axes, sawmills


ON January 3, this year, we published a photograph of women carrying home, rather happily, some healthy harvest of firewood from Zanzibar’s Kiwengwa-Pongwe Forest Reserve.

This set me thinking, not just because I’d seen this photograph, but as I’ve always had occasion to question: Are our women folk the cause of deforestation, as is often alluded to, that heavy reliance on firewood for domestic heating and cooking were denuding the landscape beyond the confines of relative urban comfort.

We men are adept at pushing blame; for starters, we read that the very first male ancestor, Adam, showed precious little remorse for disobeying God’s first law not to ‘eat of the forbidden’ fruit; instead, he had no shame in apportioning the whole blame to ‘this woman you gave me’ as if the Lord had made a terrible mistake being so gracious to a lonely man like Adam was at the time.

In doing so, Adam seems to have rubbed his ‘irresponsible’ alibi unto all men who followed his self-denial, for we learn, God had then made man and woman unto one body. Today’s menfolk aren’t any different from Adam, the original blame shifter, if there were any such species – other than men, we insist – to rival our hapless arguments about the causes of deforestation.

Even then, those of us who argue for improved cook stoves as a way to stem the onslaught on forests come closer to the point – because it’s the men, in the first place, who are responsible for industryscale harvest of trees, and that includes the trees we chop down for charcoal-making!

I’ve always argued, and I do hereby repeat it today, a woman collecting twigs with which to cook the family meal cannot possibly be held responsible for the massive denudation we’ve witnessed unfolding across the land recently; in places like Shinyanga region, for instance, as well as for the rest of the Lake Zone, it was the sustained profit-making cotton industry and massive monocultures in their wake that turned the landscape into the dustbowls we see today.

In the article we quote above, deforestation is being defined as a “removal of forest or stand of trees when the land is thereafter converted to a non-forest use such as farms” or urban use as human settlements or commercial hubs.

The process behind deforestation is pretty well-known, given advances in environmental and other sciences; it’s reasons behind such destruction and the blame-game that beat human reasoning. Across the Sahel, for instance, massive monocultures in peanut farming that gave rise to massive desiccation of the land; but the crunch came, it’s the peasant cattle herders who got all the blame for turning the land into desert.

Granted, large herds have a tendency to amplify the ugly side of desert-making, or desertification, which takes many years to manifest into a crisis; and it’s a crisis whose lessons we find most difficult to learn from because often easy answers at hand: when the backyard or neighbourhood forests deplete, we blame the women; and when grazing lands become scarce, we blame the cattle herders.

The cycle of blame doesn’t stop there. When donors run out of steam for their own failed development proj- The Barbaid pastoralists, like their West African opposite numbers, the Tuaregs, had since been dislodged from lands they once named according to traditional land-use forms ects, they blame the locals, or recipient Third World nations, for “lack of foresight” in implementing their own ‘donorfunded’ projects.

At a very personal level, I’ve never reconciled, or probably ever will forgive, myself for extolling as a ‘success story’ what was later to turn out as a massive disaster. I have in mind the Hanang Wheat Project of the early 1970s, funded by the Canadian government of the time – which also trouble disposing of its useless (back in Canada) chisel tillers which, they then found a ready “dumpsite” at a farming site they were going to fund in Tanzania.

For donkeys’ years in those salad days, the local press sang praise upon praise about how marvelous the project was ‘putting bread’ on our tables– from home-grown wheat from the foot of Mount Hanang of the present Manyara Region.

But in reality, the huge machines that came to Hanang, with their production having been phased out back home, were ill-suited to a fragile environment that was at Hanang. Within a short period, therefore, those ‘monster’ machines opened up gulleys running down the gently sloping wheat farms; instead of more bread, we had a huge harvest of dust and highly eroded farmlands.

The Barbaid pastoralists, like their West African opposite numbers, the Tuaregs, had since been dislodged from lands they once named according to traditional landuse forms. We’re not bemoaning the past; just a modest reminder that our lessons in past failures provide good counsel for future planning. In our kind of planet, the ecology must be allowed to speak.

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