Malawi. Can the army save the forests from deforestation?

The Department of Forestry under the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining estimates that the country ’s annual deforestation rate is at 2.8%, the highest in Southern Africa.

These statistics are alarming by any forestry management standards and it appears there is no end in sight to the deforestation in the country which faces persistent droughts and floods each year. The rate of deforestation almost doubled soon after the country attained the multiparty system of government in 1994. During the 1994 General Elections campaign politicians especially those who were in the opposition then told people to vote for them into office in exchange for land which they said was ‘lying idle for so long’.
The lands that were referred to were the forestry protected areas which were no go zones during the 31-year-old single party rule under the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Today there are many political parties with a lot of freedoms but freedoms without responsibilities.
“But soon after the 1994 elections people thought that they were free to do anything they wanted and that is why they invaded the government protected forests and started farming and even building houses in them,” said Traditional Authority Kachindamoto of Dedza in a recent interview.

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Kachindamoto, a local traditional chief who controls part of Dedza district in the Central region of the country said his subjects are now aware that no politician is allowed to cut down trees from his area without “seeking approval” from the authorities. She said such individuals when found risk being jailed or pay a fine.
As a result of this political change many people took matters into their own hands. They set up charcoal and firewood business right within the forests.
Politicians also joined the bandwagon. Timber business flourished within some of the forests reserves. Illegal logging has been the order of the day. “Politicians in this country have contributed greatly to the forestry destruction and it will take time for the forests areas to recover,” said Wellings Simwela, former Deputy Director of the Department of Forestry.
But now government has admitted that it has failed to protect the country’s forest reserves. Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, Bright Msaka has admitted that the Department of Forestry with its forestry guard has failed to protect the forests from degradation. “It is because of this reason that government has decided to deploy the army in the forest reserve to ensure that nobody gets into the forest illegally,” said Msaka after touring the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital.
The 98,000 ha Dzalanyama Forest Reserve was gazetted in 1922 to protect wildlife and water catchment areas. Lilongwe River, which supplies water to over a million residents in the city, comes from the Dzalanyama Forest. But with the deforestation that is taking place in there, the river is on the verge of extinction and the result is that it will cause water crisis for the city.

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This explains why the Malawi Government has begun deploying the Malawi Defense Force into Dzalanyama Forest to protect the catchment areas and wildlife. “This is just the starting point. More soldiers will be deployed in other forests areas but we are currently training our forestry guards who will be deployed in all the forest reserves throughout the country armed with guns,” said Msaka.The soldiers are currently manning the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve but they are not enough to cover this vast area. In other parts of the reserves illegal charcoal and firewood producers are having a free time burning wood for charcoal.The reserve is also littered with charcoal kilns or ovens all over for everybody to see including the Forestry Guards who have the responsibility of protecting the reserve. Each day people move out of the forest in files with lots of charcoal or firewood on their bicycles.“This is very an acceptable. As government we need to do something,” said Msaka after seining a caravan of people moving out of the forest with bicycles loaded with charcoal and firewood which have been removed illegally.The people who are destroying the forest are not even worried about the presence of the army. To them it is business as usual.“Yes, we hear the forest is being guarded by the army but we haven’t seen them here,” said Thokozani Kumanda, a 35, year old charcoal seller who has been in the business for the past three months.

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Ebasi Sakisoni aged 45 and a father of seven children, had a bicycle loaded with firewood and he said he has been in the business for a month. He is aware that the forest which used to have lots of wildlife is now empty because of deforestation. He said firewood is good business if “you have not met forestry guards because they confiscate the wood or charcoal.”With regards to the army he said he hasn’t seen them but indicated that the deployment of the army will not help save the Dzalanyama Forest in particular and other forests in general.
Forestry officers said communities chased away all forestry guards from Dzalanyama because they wanted to be freely destroying the natural resources. The Department of Forestry blames charcoal and firewood producers for the deforestation.
Annual biomass loss in Dzalanyama Forest Reserve caused by charcoal production for domestic use in Lilongwe, Dedza, and Mchinji districts is around 439,000 tons, according to the Department of Forestry. The Department also estimates that 80% of charcoal consumed in the capital city comes from Dzalanyama.
Almost half of the forest has been destroyed since multiparty system of government was introduced in 1994. Since then it is not only Dzalanyama whose ecosystem has been destroyed but other forests reserves in the country are on the verge of extinction.On the turn of events on Dzalanyama, Government has announced that it is seeking local, international private and public companies, institutions and other organizations to engage in long term concession agreement for “restocking and management of the whole Dzalanyama Forest Reserve”.
The aim of this concession is to ensure that water catchment areas, wildlife and other natural resources are protected in the reserve. What government is doing is a clear admission that it has failed to protect its protected forests in the country.

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 Natural resources management in this country has failed and failed miserably. Most reports points at politics, rising cost of electricity and poverty as the main cause of deforestation. Corruption in the sector is high. Politicians and their associates have been blamed for illegal logging and for allowing communities to farm in the forests in exchange for political votes.
Poverty in Malawi is hovering around 50.7%, according to the report, State of Food Insecurity In the World, 2014, published by World Food Program, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and Food and Agricultural Organisation. But Minister Msaka said he doesn’t believe that poverty could be the reason why people go into the forest and destroy trees.“Before they went into the forests, were they rich? No, I don’t believe this has anything to do with poverty,” he said.

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Electricity use in Malawi is beyond the reach of millions of people and those who are connected to the national grid are struggling with huge electricity tariffs. An estimated 12% of 16 million Malawians are connected to the hydro-electric power.
The collapsed natural resources management system in the country is also contributing to the high rate of deforestation, according to environmental experts. Even the deployment of the army in Dzalanyama may not serve the forest from being wiped out if what is currently happening in there is something to go by Mr. Daulos Mauambeta an environment expert and former director of Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi said the government is involving the army in the fight against deforestation because “it has realized that it is losing the battle against forest conservation through the normal enforcement system.” He, however, said there was nothing wrong in Government deploying the army to protect the forest. He said the use of the army is backed by the Forestry Policy and this he said is aimed at bringing in sanity within the forestry establishment.Government is still waning the public that it will revoke the Forestry Act 1997 against anyone found in the forest reserve cultivating, cutting or doing any other activity in the reserves.This kind of warning, however, may not hold if the people who are producing the charcoal are left free. Confiscating charcoal from buyers in towns or at roadblocks is not saving the country’s forests because the trees have already been cut.Msaka admits, “We need to deal with the producers of charcoal. Confiscating will not save the forests because by the time you confiscate the charcoal the trees have already been destroyed.”An Economic Study done in 2011 by the Government of Malawi with financial support from United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that unsustainable use of natural resources which include forestry, fisheries and wildlife, is costing this country a lot and the cost is equivalent to giving up 5.3% of the country’s growth domestic product (GDP).The estimated economic costs of excess fuelwood for firewood and charcoal in the major urban catchments are at MK6.1 billion (US$42 million) each year. With this loss in mind government should not take a Laissez-faire approach to the protection of the environment. Let those who have broken the law face it without looking at how many votes one will get come the next elections. People’s mindset need to change not only for Dzalanyama but for all other forests as well.

Raphael Mweninguwe



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