Targeted left, right and centre, natural trees are falling to the ground in droves.
So precarious is the situation that, according to Global Forest Watch, Malawi has lost 560 hectares of tree cover, largely from fires, with 209 more hectares of tree cover getting lost due to “all other drivers of loss”.
These hectares of tree cover were lost between the years 2001 and 2021.
It shows that the year with the most tree cover loss due to fires during this period was 2017, with 90 hectares lost to fires — 0.59 percent of all tree cover loss for that year.
And the situation is getting worse.
According to the watchdog, under its Integrated Deforestation Alerts in Malawi Category, there have been 1,959 deforestation alerts reported in Malawi between September 21 and 28 2022, covering a total of 23 hectares, “of which none were high confidence alerts detected by a single system and none were alerts detected by multiple systems”.
To add salt to injury, apart from manmade problems, natural disasters are increasingly having a share of the damage, such that one of the products of natural disasters has been environmental degradation.
Consequently, Malawi continues to lose most of its natural resources, including those in protected areas, the major causes, according to the Department of Forestry, being forest invasion as people seek new pieces of land for cultivation purposes as well as charcoal production.
Take, for instance, the 510-hectare Mangochi Palm Forest Reserve, which was gazetted as a protected area in the 1980s.
Today, community members have thrown the knowledge that it is a protected area aside and are cutting down the palm trees with reckless abandon.
The reserve’s products are now under siege, as community members that were supposed to protect them have become enemies of nature.
The forest, aptly named because of the teeming numbers of palm trees, has lost most of its palm trees due to human invasion and deforestation.
When we visited the forest, we found some people mining dambo sand and ferrying it in trucks, leaving the site with huge holes that are becoming an eyesore.
In the minds of those that have descended on the place, it is nobody’s property.
District Forestry Officer for Mangochi, Leonard Kamangadazi, blamed the situation on lack of personnel to watch over the trees.
He said this is one of the factors culminating in the disappearance of palm trees, one after another.
“We currently have challenges because we lack quite a good number of personnel to work in the reserve. Because of this, we do have fires that damage various species of trees, including the palms,” he said.
Kamangadazi said the damage to the palm trees and other species of trees has been extensive.
“We have been talking to the Forestry Department headquarters, who have promised to deploy some forest guards who will assist us in protecting the reserve,” he pointed out.
Mangochi is not the only district affected. In Dedza, trees are falling by the axe in hundreds, leaving the soil bare and at the mercy of natural elements.
That is why, when one visits Chipendeko, Chongani and Lisiye hills, they will quickly realise that people have their fair share of blame when it comes to issues associated with deforestation.
Assistant Forestry Officer for Dedza District, Grace Mwale, said deforestation is to blame for the desertification of once forested areas.
She said, as has been the case with other forests, charcoal producers have been on the prowl.
The official said Lisiye Hill in Group Village Head Njolo, which used to have a thick forest, is now bare due to, among other things, deforestation through charcoal production and firewood harvesting.
“We think if there can be more guards patrolling these hills, we can achieve our goals but, in the current case, we don’t have guards to look after the trees,” Mwale said.
Sitwell Banda, District Forestry Officer for Chitipa, said the 13,764-hectare Jembya Forest Reserve, which was gazetted as a protected area in 1948, has lost 20 percent of its natural resources.
According to Banda, shifting cultivation, fires and charcoal production are among the main causes.
He said there is a need for stakeholders to come together to address the problem.
After noting the extent of the problem of natural resource depletion, National Bank of Malawi set aside K100 million to support three forest reserves in the three districts of Mangochi, Dedza and Chitipa.
Marketing and Corporate Affairs Manager for the bank, Akossa Mary Hiwa, said they came in to assist as part of their corporate social responsibility.
“We, as a partner in this ‘Adopt a Forest Project’, are happy to tour the sites and meet community members, their leaders and district forestry officers. This has given us hope that, once we start implementation, works on the ground will be carried out satisfactorily,” Hiwa said.
She said meeting with the people in the sites has given them an understanding on how the community members will help but also how they are going to benefit from the project.
William Mitembe, Chief Forestry Officer who is also Desk Officer for Adopt a Forest Project, hailed National Bank of Malawi for its dedication to the project, citing financial resources it pours into the initiative, which is meant to restore forest reserves, without any condition.
“Their support will go a long way in restoring tree cover and benefitting community members who stay around them,” he said.
Forty-seven-year-old Henry Siyame of Lupindi Village, Chitipa District, is one of the people who are going to benefit from the project. This is because he produces seedlings at his tree nursery.
He said he established the nursery in 2018, after noting that people were facing a number of challenges, largely emanating from climate change.
“My nursery has 7,000 seedlings and I am ready to produce more for those that need to buy and plant them. National Bank of Malawi officials’ visit here has given me hope that, once they start buying from me, my family will change for the better,” Siyame added.
Siyame, who also has a pine forest of 5,000 trees, has urged other people to take part in tree conservation efforts either on their land or in protected areas.
After all, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 13 implores member states to take the necessary action to combat climate change and its impacts.