Burma Valley is a rich banana farming area as well as a vibrant tourist destination east of the city of Mutare which is practically under siege.
The rich valley, synonymous with the best bananas in the country, has been invaded by illegal settlers.
Banana farming in Burma Valley dates back to the 1940s and up to now, bananas remain the most lucrative business venture in the area, with farmers realising lucrative returns.
And the vast banana farms from Matanuska Farm to Crake Farm, which almost cover the valley, give the area the aura of an equatorial rain forest.
The area offers numerous tourist attractions ranging from scenic mountains to cascading waterfalls.
However, illegal settlers have now choked the Nyamakari River to the west of the valley and Nyamataka River to east. The illegal activities along these two river banks have now affected operations at some farms in the valley that depend on water from the rivers for irrigation.
A recent tour of the area organised by the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) revealed that illegal settlers were indiscriminately cutting down and burning trees to clear the land for crop production.
The Burma Valley road, which used to be marked by scenic views, is now different, with the once beautiful landscape now replaced by a mass of burnt forests.
A few kilometres into the valley is Nyachowa Falls, situated a few metres off the main road and was once popular with tourists.
At the topside of the majestic falls, illegal settlers have set up small vegetable gardens, diverting water to irrigate their crops.
Years back at these falls, there used to be a local villager who used to dive into the cascading waters from the top as a way of entertaining visitors. This tradition has long died due to human interference.
“There is a lot of siltation here and as you can see the pool is no longer deep due to stream bank cultivation,” said EMA’s Manicaland manager Kingston Chitotombe.
“After illegal settlers invaded the area in search of fertile lands, the situation here has been a pathetic story and we have to introduce robust measures to rehabilitate this area. The community needs to be educated on the dangers of negatively interfering with the environment.
“All other interested stakeholders such as the ministry of local government and lands should corroborate with us to change the situation here,” said Chitotombe.
Driving further into Burma Valley, the once thick forest becomes bare and as illegal settlers have cut down trees to put their dwelling structures in the middle of the forest. After cutting down trees they burn them to clear the land.
In most cases, they fail to contain the fire resulting in veld fires which will eventually burn up the forest. Even a big hectarage of immature gum trees in the Howth Farm have been burnt.
In Chikubvu village, syndicates of people from surrounding areas have also contributed to the demise of the once vibrant tourist destination.
The invaders are always on the lookout for policing vehicles of EMA and at the sight of EMA officials or the police, they vanish into their new banana plantations. But the invaders are also daring as they can even attack those who try to arrest them.
“The situation here is very serious. We often come here in the hope of educating or arresting offenders but we will find none. How then can we educate the community on the dangers of unfriendly environmental engagements?” said Chitotombe.
“We need combined effort from the Ministry of Local Government. Without their support the whole purpose on rehabilitating the forest will be nil.”
Officials from Mutare district administrator’s office and the Ministry of Lands have expressed concern over the situation.
“This is just stubbornness on the part of the community. They just want fertile land but they know this is not allowed. A taskforce will be here very soon to clean up this mess because we are killing our own natural resource which we should guard jealously,” said Brighton Mangoma from the DA’s office.
Traditional leaders are also parcelling out the land to locals and some are reportedly taking bribes from the prospective land owners. In 2006 and 2007, armed police officers burnt down the squatters’ homes but within days the illegal settlers were back, constructing even bigger structures.
Even the A1 and 2 farmers in the valley have been fingered as causing siltation and deforestation.
“What the community and tourists who frequent this majestic area need to be educated about is to preserve this natural resource as soon as possible to avoid the desertification process that we are experiencing here. There is a change of weather here which resembles desertification and if we fail to keep our God-given resource, generations to come will not forgive us,” added Chitotombe.
Mutare District’s Ward 7 councillor Itai Katsaruware said the issue was very complicated and needed to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.
“The problem of illegal settlers here is a cause of concern. They have destroyed the forest and efforts to remove them have proved fruitless over the years.
“What we are working towards as a lands committee is a move which is supported by all government arms to deal with this matter once and for all,” he said.