Addressing deforestation in Zambia: The Role of Traditional Leaders and Sustainable Solutions

By Jajah Coulibaly – ZIIMA, Zambia

Zambia is grappling with a pressing issue - the loss of an estimated 0.8% of its forests each year, translating to 250,000 to 300,000 hectares annually.

Various factors, including agricultural expansion, charcoal production, bushfires, and a lack of awareness, drive this alarming rate of deforestation. The consequences are dire, as identified by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an alliance member of the Voices for Just Climate Action (VCA) programme. Deforestation in Zambia results in the loss of biodiversity, water pollution, and soil erosion, contributing to climate change.

There is a call for action in the face of this environmental crisis. Several strategies have been proposed to combat deforestation, such as promoting sustainable agriculture, encouraging the use of alternative fuels, raising awareness, and enforcing laws and regulations. However, it is essential to consider the problem’s unique context to ensure these solutions’ sustainability.

One promising avenue for addressing deforestation in Zambia is the active involvement of traditional leaders, who serve as custodians of vast land areas, many of which have been heavily affected by deforestation. By engaging traditional leaders and gaining their support in promoting alternative livelihoods to activities like charcoal production, it’s possible to address the issue through a lens of sustainability.


His Royal Highness Chief Kaingu joins the District Commissioner, Itezhi-Tezhi District Council Chairperson, Forestry department, community head persons, councilors, and Ward Development Chairpersons in a dialogue meeting around national forestry regulations and alternative livelihoods to charcoal. Photo credit: Kondwani Thindwa.


Recent efforts by the Panos Institute Southern African (PSAF) and the Zambia Institute of Independent Media Alliance (ZIIMA) in Itezhi-tezhi District under the Voices for Just Climate Action (VCA) programme illustrate the potential of such an approach. During this initiative, key stakeholders exchanged valuable information on forest conservation, national forest regulations and policies, and the specific context of charcoal production activities in the target communities. This dialogue aimed to identify opportunities and legislation for communities to strike a balance between forest resource utilisation and the creation of community-relevant alternative livelihoods to charcoal production.


Local communities of Kaanzwa and Itumbi ward confer with His Royal Highness Chief Kaingu, the District Commissioner, Itezhi Tezhi Council Chairperson, the forestry department and civic leaders to discuss national forestry regulations and alternative livelihoods to charcoal production. Photo focus: Kondwani Thindwa.


The dialogue brought together an array of participants, including Chief Kaingu of the Ila people, the Itezhi-tezhi District Commissioner, the Itezhi-tezhi Council Chairperson, councillors of Itumbi and Kaanzwa wards, and various village headmen and women. A collective demand for solutions and alternatives characterised the discussion. Many community leaders attributed the current effects of climate change to the lack of alternative income sources and ways of living.


Itezhi Tezhi District Commissioner Teddy Namatemba shares in the discussion during a dialogue meeting on national forestry regulations and alternative livelihoods to charcoal production in Itezhi Tezhi. Photo focus: Kondwani Thindwa.


Chief Kaingu expressed his frustration, emphasising urban areas’ role in driving charcoal demand. He highlighted that, apart from electricity, charcoal remains a primary energy source for cooking in many urban households. To combat deforestation effectively, the chief emphasised the importance of addressing this demand at its source, such as in major towns like Lusaka and the Copperbelt.


His Royal Highness Chief Kaingu shares locally led initiatives around community By-Laws during a dialogue meeting around national forestry regulations and alternative livelihoods to charcoal. Photo credit: Kondwani Thindwa.


Senior headman Peter Sianyama from the District supported Chief Kaingu’s stance on reducing charcoal demand in urban areas. He noted that more than relying solely on vegetable gardening was needed due to the large populations of cattle, goats, and sheep in rural areas, which often consume the crops for human consumption.

Itezhi-tezhi Town Council chairperson Oliver Sitengu raised a pertinent question about solar boreholes installed by an institution known as COMACO. The response from the community leaders indicated that the location of these water points was often inconveniently distant from their homes, making it challenging to establish gardens for sustainable livelihoods.


Itezhi-tezhi Town Council chairperson, Oliver Sitengu, shares in the discussion during a dialogue meeting National forestry regulations and alternative livelihoods to charcoal production in Itezhi Tezhi. Photo focus: Kondwani Thindwa.


The distribution of farming inputs also emerged as a concern, with community leaders pointing out the delayed and selective distribution of essential resources. In a farming-oriented area like Itezhi-tezhi District, timely and adequate distribution of inputs is crucial for ensuring that harvests are sufficient to support families.


“It is difficult to only concentrate on farming; what can I do with two bags of fertiliser when I have six children going to school? They need to eat, they need books and clothes, and the size of my farm is very big, so I become limited when inputs are not enough. With such platforms, we are learning how we can co-create locally-led initiatives to sustain our livelihoods.” Senior Headman Sianyama.


Another consequence of deforestation highlighted by the village leaders was the scarcity of resources such as honey, which had previously served as a source of income. The decline in bee populations was attributed to the depletion of trees in the region.


“There is a need for a sustainable plan in the district; the dam, which had once provided fish for the community, was now unable to meet the needs. The ample water in the dam should be harnessed for additional income-generating activities to benefit the local population.” Senior headman Victor Mukonka


The village leaders committed to forming a committee, including Chief Kaingu, to act as a neighbourhood watch in response to these challenges. Their aim is to curb the indiscriminate cutting down of trees and ensure that sustainable livelihood practices are embraced at the household level.


Local community member of Kaanzwa shares on a locally led initiative to form a committee to act as a neighborhood watch to curb the indiscriminate cutting down of trees to sustain livelihoods practices. Photo focus: Kondwani Thindwa.


The issue of deforestation in Zambia is multifaceted, with complex drivers and consequences. To address this crisis effectively and sustainably, it is crucial to involve traditional leaders and develop solutions that consider the unique challenges faced by local communities. By addressing the symptoms and root causes, Zambia can make significant strides in its fight against deforestation and its associated negative impacts on the environment and climate. It’s a collective effort that requires the participation of various stakeholders, from traditional leaders to government bodies and NGOs, to make a lasting impact in the battle against deforestation.


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