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‘Go ye, cut down trees’: How butterfly forests in Balaka fell

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STRIPPED OF KNOWLEDGE—With butterfly tree gone, these children around Chikolongo will never know what the tree looked like

By Mzati Nkolokosa:

The name remains Kutsanya, after the butterfly trees that were common in the area from Mwima to Shire River in Balaka District from the early 20th Century.

The Butterfly trees, or indeed any other trees, have been cut down, except in Liwonde National Park. Kutsanya had a thick forest cover. No wonder, say people familiar with the area, the Bimbi rain making cult settled near Ulongwe, in the middle of a forest.

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Yet the whole Traditional Authority (TA) Kalembo area in Balaka is now bare — deforested. Even the area between Ulongwe and Mwima all the way to Shire, is characterised by deforestation.

This is a sad, untold story of state-sponsored deforestation. There were two periods of massive deforestation at Kutsanya. First, in the 1970s and 80s; second, in the early years of the 21st Century.

The first round of deforestation was by inmates from Malawi Prison Services (MPS) in the 1970s and 80s.

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“I saw the inmates cutting down Butterfly trees,” says a village head who grew up in late 70s and early 80s. “Sometimes two to three vehicles full of trees in a day.”

That was a lot of trees cut down every day. Local people did not know which prison was sending inmates to cut down the protected trees.

“We could not ask questions. We watched helplessly,” says the village head.

The destination of the trees remains unknown. There are two possible destinations, though. One, the trees were used as firewood at various prisons. But this is unlikely. Why were the inmates cutting down the butterfly tree only? If it were firewood, they would have been cutting down the non-protected trees.

The second explanation is that the trees were exported to some country. This possibility seems plausible. But there are questions: Who was exporting? Was it an individual or the state? It is difficult to tell, especially because back then, powerful individuals and the state were inseparable. There could be other potential destinations as well.

Over the years, from 1990 to 2004, regeneration took place. Some trees that were young in 1990s were promising to grow into big trees. And then came the second wave of deforestation that finished the trees in TA Kalembo area between Mwima and Shire River. This wave, too, was state sponsored.

Community-Based Rural Land Development Project (CBRLDP), commonly called Kudzigulira Malo Project, was implemented to address social conflicts related to unequal access to land, especially in Mulanje and Thyolo where tea estates occupy vast pieces of arable land. The Government of Malawi, with funding from the World Bank, piloted community-driven land transfer programme to land-deprived small-scale farmers.

The reasons for unequal access to land in Malawi are historical. Western commercial farmers grabbed vast pieces of land during the early years of colonial rule. In Thyolo, for example, tea estates occupy the best pieces of land, leaving Malawians in the hills of Molere and Thekerani.

“Therefore, one of the key constraints to improved smallholder productivity is the small and declining land holding sizes,” says a 2012 World Bank Report No: ICR2265.

As such, in 2002, a new National Land Policy (NLP) was adopted by the Government of Malawi to correct some of the land issues. The land redistribution project was based on voluntary land transfers between landowners (willing sellers) and the land-poor (willing buyers).

It was a well-publicised project, with community meetings in the target districts and radio and television programmes. This is the project that enabled whole communities to move from Mulanje, for example, to Mangochi.

So, the area of Group Village Head (GVH) Chikolongo within Kutsanya was identified for relocation of communities from Mangochi.

The communities or groups of families in the Kudzigulira Malo Project were called trusts. “Three trusts were allocated land in Chikolongo,” says Dickson Amini, who has lived in the area since he was born in the 1970s.

The trusts were Pemphero, Tsogolani and Mwamadi. Each trust had a chairperson, a treasurer and a secretary. Pemphero Trust had 32 families, according to Amini. The trust settled on a 70 hectare land, and each family got two hectares. A family that needed extra land got from the remaining six hectares. In addition to land, each family received K140,000 in resettlement compensation over three years.

“The relocated people cut down trees for charcoal production,” recalls Amini, with a sad look. “They cut down every tree, except the baobab tree.”

But in reality, it was not the newly resettled people only. Everyone joined in the feast of deforestation.

After three years, when the last instalment of the K140,000 was paid, some families from Pemphero Trust went back to Mangochi. Only 14 families remained. Then eight families went to Mangochi as well, six remained. Then four left. Two families remained. A year later, one family left, too.

“Now,” said Amini, “one family remains.”

It is clear, according to Amini and others in Chikolongo, that some people moved because there was money involved, K140,000 over three years. Once the money was over, the people went back to their original homes.

It seems not all members of the families of Pemphero Trust moved from their original home in Mangochi. Some remained to keep land, so their kinsmen could find a place on return.

“Members of Tsogolani Trust and Mwamadi Trust are still here,” says Amini. “But they, too, cut down butterfly trees and other trees for charcoal production. They left baobab trees only.”

Indeed baobab trees stand here and there in Chikolongo. Not butterfly trees–they are gone – expect butterfly stumps being dug up for firewood.

In summary, two state-sponsored waves of deforestation have occurred at Kutsanya in Balaka. Yet official documents blame deforestation on charcoal production and other domestic uses.

“More than 97 percent of households in Malawi rely on illegally and unsustainably sourced biomass (charcoal and firewood) for domestic cooking and heating energy,” says the National Charcoal Strategy (2017-2027).

“We are accused of deforestation,” says Amini. “But some national policies are deforestation enablers. The Kudzigulira Malo Project was one such enabler of deforestation.”

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