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National

Cursed appetite for wood fuel

Neno communities invade private forest

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BANDA—The forest is a
source of medicine

A money-hungry community that sold a 20-hectare tree-less piece of land to an individual in Neno District turns against him after he creates firebreaks and lets natural trees regenerate, encroaching in it at night and stealing resources he has worked very hard to conserve. THOMAS KACHERE writes.

Ninety seven percent of households in Malawi rely on illegally-made charcoal and firewood as sources of energy for cooking and heating.

The practice is fuelling the problem of unsustainable cutting down of natural trees, with downstream negative impacts on water availability, hydropower-generating capacity and, more broadly, vulnerability of Malawians to climate change shocks.

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Neno is one of the districts largely affected by deforestation, mainly due to the illegal production of charcoal on massive levels. Heaps of charcoal or countless bags of the same lined up along the main, dusty road bear testimony of the once flourishing natural trees that have fallen to the mighty axe.

To most villagers in Neno, especially those under Traditional Authority (T/A) Symon, once trees have been felled and depleted, the barren land can take care of itself. They, therefore, move on after satisfying their wish to clean the land of all natural trees.

In one case, however, subjects of Village Head Nkundika 3, in the area of T/A Symon, decided to do the unusual: Selling 20 hectares of forested land to a conservationist before they set their eyes on natural trees elsewhere.

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They felled all the trees through the illegal production of charcoal.

But, instead of moving on, the community members are now haunting the ‘good’ man; sneaking into the private Chavi Forest to chop trees that would fuel their charcoal production business.

This is happening despite collective efforts of government officials, non-governmental organisations, private sector players and concerned individuals to save what remains of Malawi’s forests.

One of such individuals is 55-year-old Raban Hiwaya Banda, who came to the rescue of Neno District trees by buying 20 hectares of land on which Chavi Forest trees thrive.

“I developed passion for conserving natural trees way back in 2002,” he said.

It is passion that convinced him to acquire the 20-hectare piece of land from the locals. Some of the trees had been cut down at that time.

“I started conserving the trees by making sure that those that were sprouting from roots were being protected. For instance, I was making firebreaks every year to ensure that bush fires could not decimate the trees. Over time, the trees blossomed into a thick forest.

‘‘The whole purpose of growing these trees was to create a template. I am also aware that we, in Malawi, are spending billions of Kwacha on reforestation exercises. However, I discovered that the practice of planting seedlings has not yielded much for the country. As such, this project is based on what is called regeneration, where trees which submerged in the ground are allowed to grow and all we do is to protect them.

“Apart from conserving trees, I also became a trees’ conservation advocate, disseminating messages to community members, through traditional leaders, on the need to spare natural trees that have not been destroyed so that future generations can have something to lean on,’’ Hiwaya Banda said.

He said, when people invest in trees, the trees give back.

The conservationist said, for instance, that unique indigenous trees such as Mophane and Pakasa make nitrogen deposits into the soil while Phingo and other trees are used for making curios [ziboliboli].

“What they are doing, cutting down trees in my Chavi Forest, is derailing my forest conservation efforts. I would say, until lately, the extent of deforestation was minimal because, in some cases, someone would sneak into the forest to, probably, cut one tree and go home or to find a tree for making a hoe-handle.

“However, since two weeks ago, people have been pulling down fully grown trees in my forest and this, indeed, is a wanton cutting down of trees. This shows that, when community members give away their land, they don’t appreciate the value of the land. But, when someone has taken care of it and let trees flourish, they always want to come back and say ‘this is my place’,’’ he bemoaned.

Village Head Nkundika 3 said he was saddened with reports of the wanton cutting down of trees in the forest.

He acknowledged that, after ruthlessly depleting tree resources from their land, some of his subjects, especially charcoal producers, have nowhere to go and are resorting to illegally producing charcoal in privately owned forests.

‘‘This is happening because, in the past, people of this area were selling their pieces of land after depleting natural resources such as trees. This eventually left them with no option but to end up stealing from others. Charcoal production became part of their life and there is a need for the government and other organisations to come in with alternatives so that the people can find alternative sources of money,’’ he said.

The village head hastened to say what has been happening in Chavi Forest borders on criminal trespassing, hence law enforcers were on the case.

As those involved wait for Malawi Police Service’s intervention, however, other community members who have seen the advantage of sustainable use of natural resources are hoping for a quick solution to the issue.

One of them is 56-year-old Lemuel Banda of Nkundika Village.

Banda said, earlier this year, while he was weeding in his garden, his right-hand index finger was bitten by a snake called Puff Adder.

‘‘I was weeding my maize garden and when I decided to uproot dry grass in one part of the garden, a big Puff Adder bit my finger. I felt immeasurable pain, which only subsided after I chewed some bitter leaves which a certain man sourced from Chavi Forest.

“Later, that man brought more herbs and asked me to continue taking them until they cleared the venom from my system,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Environmental Concerned Youth Association Programmes Coordinator Austine Kunsida has described the situation as unfortunate and faulted the locals for invading a private forest reserve for their personal gain.

‘‘This is very sad because we, as individuals, have a responsibility to take care of natural resources. When one comes up with a very brilliant initiative, say to protect trees, it means the country is moving forward,’’ he said.

Admore Chiumia, from Modern Cooking and Health Forest, said people were invading forests because they were looking at forests as one of their income generating activities.

‘‘Most people in villages do not have alternative ways of earning money to meet family needs. They are, probably, looking at Chavi Forest as having resources that may help them generate money,’’ he said.

Natural Resources Minister Nancy Tembo bemoaned that Malawi’s trees were being depleted faster than they could be replenished.

Worse still, according to a Natural Resources Ministry Working Paper, demand for charcoal and wood fuels will outpace supply by 2030—meaning that there simply are not enough trees in Malawi to meet the charcoal and firewood demand from Malawi’s population beyond 2030.

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