The 54 000 hectare Viphya Plantations popularly known as Chikangawa
Forest was frequently in the news in the past year largely because of the destruction the forest suffered. Fires and illegal cutting down of trees were the order of the day.
Battles between government and Timber Millers Union over the forest raged on. Government terminated the 15 year concession for the millers because they had breached the agreement. According to government, the union had already wiped out the 10 000 hectares they were given under the agreement within two years. The agreement was from 2012.
Government had no choice but to involve Malawi Defence Force soldiers to smoke out the millers from the forest. The operation resulted in uncontrollable fires that razed down a large part of the forest. There was finger pointing with the millers accusing the soldiers of setting fire to the forest and on the other hand, Raiply Malawi Limited and government accusing the millers of setting the fire in anger. The victim was the forest.
Government justified the chasing of the millers from the forest citing their failure to replant and also pay K640 million to government for timber they had already cut and milled.
“They have wiped out the 10 000 hectares just under two years. They never paid royalties to government. They did not replant, prune, weed or make buffer zones to control fires. They did not honour the agreement. We feel the contract is not beneficial to government. They are not paying to government K640 million. Who can accept that from such individuals. By 8th September they will have to vacate the plantation,” said Sangwani Phiri, Public Relations Officer for the
Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining.
Timber Millers Union (TMU) President Paul Mthambazale while admitting that his members may have breached the contract in some areas, accused the current Democratic Progressive Party government of not showing interest to work with the union.
“The current government has never had interest to call us or visit us to hear our problems and together map way forward. All ministers that have been at that ministry have not shown interest in us. But they go to Raiply. There are four concessions in the plantation and it is only ours belonging to the locals and which is being chased away. They should have called us. Leaders in this country should love their children,” said Mthambazale.
As the fight raged on between government and TMU, another stakeholder, Raiply Malawi Limited which was given a 20 000 hectare concession, cried foul over the depletion of the forest despite allocating K250 million every year to protect ad conserve the forest. Raiply also wondered whether the involvement of the Malawi Police Service was bearing any fruit because the forest was always under attack.
Raiply Malawi Limited Chief Executive Officer Thomas Oomen described his company’s efforts to protect the forest which belongs to government as a waste because the communities continue to set the forest on fire every year despite the social services they get.
“Every year, we spend K250 million to protect the forest from fires and encroachment. We replanted 500 hectares and spent K100 million.
Last year we planted 164 hectares on government side but all that part has been burnt. Despite all our efforts to protect the forest on our side and government side, people continue starting fires and doing illegal activities in the forest. We are just wasting our money because efforts to engage several stakeholders in the fight are not bearing fruits,” said Oomen.
In 2014 Raiply signed an agreement with the police and community policing forums in the surrounding villages to protect the forest. In 2015, another agreement was also signed among Raiply, forestry department and community policing forums but despite those agreements, 357 hectares were burnt on Raiply side while 945 hectares on government side in 2015 alone.
Senior Chief Kabunduli had a response to Oomen’s questions. Kabunduli said illegal activities would continue in the forest because some police and forestry officers are involved in the activities. He wondered why illegal wood transported on the road from the forest passes through all road blocks in the country which are manned by police and forestry officers. Kabunduli also hinted that some forestry workers are involved in illegal activities in the forest by among others employing labourers to saw timber for them.
“That is why whenever there is a sweeping exercise, such labourers are always alerted and police or the soldiers do not find them in their shacks,” said Kabunduli calling for the suspension of all forestry activities first to review contracts for all those involved in the forest as part of the solution to the problems.
Government fails to control fires Viphya Plantations are under threat. They are prone to fires.
Government does not have the capacity to control the fires. Fire terrorized the forest for two weeks in the past year without government controlling it.
Communities surrounding Mazamba and Nthungwa forests saw the fire destroying the forest and they could not do anything either.
Contractors government had hired to make fire breaks had not done so because of government’s delay to pay them.
Viphya Plantations Manager, Custom Nyirenda, said many small trees on government and Raiply sides were burnt.
“Frankly speaking we do not have enough work force to deal with fires.
Apart from that transport is a problem. We were supposed to deploy our few workers to the affected areas but the only car which we normally use is down and parked at a garage. We sent a water bowser but that cannot be enough to deal with the fire situation now. However, we are trying our best to stop the fires and we believe in some few days, everything will be fine,” said Nyirenda.
Govt ignores forest calendar
Government is to blame itself for fires that terrorize the Viphya Plantation Forest. Government is very aware of what it is supposed to do to stop the fires but laxity is reigning high.
One of the major solutions to the fires is to conduct weeding twice in the year, a thing which government ignored many years as disclosed by
Chairperson for the Association for Viphya Rehabilitation Enock Soko.
Government’s failure to stick to the forest calendar is another problem that gives chance to fires.
Soko said conducting weeding in the forest which was done in the past is a major solution to fires. He said government’s failure to stick to the forest calendar which usually starts in August also fuels fires.
He further suggested to government to contract his association members to also remain in the forest specifically to fight fires.
“In the past, weeding was done twice from March, April May and June and secondly July, August, September. Fire terrorizes the forest in
October but with weeding, it was put under control easily. That is not the case nowadays,” said Soko.
Because the calendar is not followed, the forest is usually deserted and when there is fire there is nobody to control it.
Soko’s association has 53 members who are on government contracts to manage the forest by raising seedlings, planting and weeding them.
Ministry spokesperson Sangwani Phiri said lack of funds was compromising the ministry’s efforts to put things in order in the forest. But he was quick to add that the ministry was not sleeping on the job but looking for funds from various donors for the plantation activities.
Phiri said it was the ministry’s desire to weed the forest twice per year as was the case in the past.
“We shall go back to that calendar,” he said.
As motorists drive through the forest from Lilongwe to Mzuzu, they are greeted by warm temperatures and bare ground as the forest is going towards complete depletion. In the past, rain and fog would greet motorists and Mzuzu City was always cold. The forest is going.
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