On arrival in their new settlements in Mangochi and Machinga districts between 2004 and 2011, the first action most Kudzigulira Malo project beneficiaries did was to cut a few trees from the forests they found – to erect shelters to start their new lives.
This was a normal thing; but, in hindsight, it would symbolise the impact this project would have on forests in the two districts.
Today, forests in and around the estates where the people settled — woodlands which teemed with natural trees when this reporter visited the sites between 2012 and 2015 — are now degraded to the last shrubs.
The destruction lies black and white in Hansard pages because on March 1, 2018, Member of Parliament for Mangochi Mkungulu, Aisha Mambo Adams, raised it in the house.
She said the hills in her area had been stripped of their forest beauty by “our colleagues from Mulanje and Thyolo through the Kudzigulira Malo project.”
“These people, Mr Speaker, Sir, have cut down all the trees and killed all animals. If there are any animals left in these hills, then they are human beings with axes in their hands ready to cut down the remaining small trees,” she said.
Mambo’s statement might have been exaggerative, possibly prejudiced at worst. But she raised a valid point about the role the Kudzigulira Malo programme has played – directly and indirectly – in deforestation in the two districts.
Between 2004 and 2011, the Ministry of Lands, with $37 million financial support from the World Bank, implemented the Community-Based Rural Land Development Project (CRLDP), popularly known as Kudzigulira Malo.
The project relocated 15,142 families from the land-constrained Thyolo and Mulanje districts to estates which government had purchased in Mangochi, Machinga, Balaka and Ntcheu.
Ninety percent of these people settled in Machinga and Mangochi, records show.
Mixed tales of life
Evaluation reports from the World Bank and the government give accounts of the positive impact the project had on people’s lives, especially regarding improved harvest and farm-based incomes.
However, alternative assessments equally document social and economic hardships the people have suffered due to lack of support with their farming and unavailability of social services.
This is Florence Mogoya’s story too.
A member of Kuma Trust in Traditional Authority Chowe in Mangochi, she moved from Thyolo in 2009. She told Malawi News in November last year that life has been hard for them.
“Honestly, things have been tough in the larger part of our stay here. No health centres, no water, no markets and no schools for our young children. Many of us returned home,” she said.
In all the six trusts which we visited in October and November last year — Bweya, Liwonde and Nakadanga in Machinga and Lulanga, Mgwirizano and Chisangalalo in Mangochi — there were tales and visible evidence of tough life.
To earn income, some of the beneficiaries took up charcoal production, the leading cause of deforestation in Malawi.
Petro Joseph, a member of Mgwirizano Trust which is located 13 kilometres away off the Mangochi-Monkey Bay road, arrived in the area in 2008. He started charcoal production four years later.
“We got the land yes, about 2 hectares each, but we were cut out of any support for us to be productive and make money. So we took up charcoal production,” he said.
Project documents from the World Bank, Ministry of Lands and PriceWaterHouseCoopers we have accessed are scanty on any specific forest management plan within the project.
The World Bank’s ‘Implementation Completion and Result Report’ dated March 30, 2012 said “risks linked to the acquisition of farms that could encroach or be too close to protected areas, national parks, wetlands and other sensitive areas were identified”.
It said implementation of the project adhered to “strict environmental and social safeguards”.
Conflict over forests
But the report did highlight one of the factors that would contribute to destruction of the forests.
“There were also disputes between the beneficiary groups and estate owners whereby some estate owners came back to claim part of the land or some trees on the already paid for land,” it said.
Sowani Saidi, chairperson of all the trusts in the region, admitted these conflicts.
“These were feisty and went on for years. The previous estate owners had money and would bring machines. There was nothing we could do,” he said.
Conflicts between the new and the original communities also drove the deforestation. Original communities invaded forests in the settled areas, arguing they would not lose both the land and the forests to “foreigners”.
“For us here, that’s the main reason why you see all this bare now,” Saidi said, pointing at a hill overlooking Bweya Trust, which he also chairs, in Traditional Authority Chikweo in Machinga.
Free reign on resources
In all the trusts, members said they were not aware of any forest management activity that was part of the project.
Malawi’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) guidelines call for integration of EIA requirements naturally within a project cycle. The integration is meant to provide environmental information at key stages of the project cycle so that, where necessary, harm can be avoided or minimised.
District Forestry Officer for Mangochi, Leonard Kamangadadzi, said the Kudzigulira Malo project essentially gave the beneficiaries a free reign on the forests.
“It was like the people owned everything they found where they settled,” he said.
In Machinga, District Forestry Officer, Harry Chalira, said he was not in the district at the time the project was implemented.
“But when I came, I visited some trusts. I found some of them had no people but the forests were gone. Whether it is them who cleared the forests or surrounding communities, I don’t know.
“What I can also say is that the project came within the time of the growing challenge of district forestry offices being treated as rejects in terms of government programmes, financing and staffing for them to effectively enforce the law,” Chalira said.
All charcoal producers we interviewed said throughout the time they engaged in illegal charcoal production, rarely was there any significant law enforcement from the authorities.
Counting the cost
In their study published in the South African Journal of Agricultural Extension in 2015, experts at the University of Pretoria feared that inadequate forestry extension services would have serious environmental implication on the major activity of the beneficiaries: farming.
They said lack of knowledge of the benefits of conserving natural forestry would result in massive deforestation in the resettled areas, bringing problems of erosion and soil degradation.
This is evident in the gullies and soil bleached of its fertility in the sites. And people are paying the price.
Estere Simeon in Nakadanga Trust in Machinga said their land used to be fertile and moist all year round when they arrived in 2007. Now it is a dry landscape that no longer provides enough harvest.
“We now have to put in a lot of fertiliser which is also difficult for us. So most of us are relying on piece work to get money to buy food,” she said.
For two weeks, even with several reminders and promises to reply, spokesperson for the Ministry of Lands, Enoch Chingoni, kept saying he was consulting officials that led the project.
As we went to press on Thursday, there was still no response.
Restoring degraded landscape
Ramzy Kanaan, Chief of Party for the USAID and UKaid co-funded Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests (MCHF) activity, said moving large numbers of people to a new area would naturally increase demand for resources, including wood for cooking and heating energy, for construction and clearing of forest for agricultural land.
Kanaan said as the relocated population continued to grow, one would expect the pressure for land, forests and water to increase.
In turn, he said, there would be additional pressures on the education and healthcare systems, and more generally on the economy.
To avert the tide, he suggested interventions such as agricultural intensification and livelihood diversification, integrated development planning, improved law enforcement and family planning which could help to make better use of available resources, today and in the future.
He added: “The extent of illegal activity in the natural resources sector appears to me to be growing.
“In part this is tied to the growing population, but more generally I suspect illegal activity has grown historically because there has been little concerted effort to regulate and enforce—and to hold people accountable.”
Kanaan said that Malawi has taken steps to strengthen the forestry and wildlife laws in recent years, and that there have been considerable gains in regulation and enforcement in both sectors.
That said, Kanaan went on to say, “if these laws are not enforced consistently, and not enforced equally across the population regardless of status, rank or economic standing, then even the best laws can be rendered useless, and lose the ability to serve as tools to guide development.”
For Mambo all she longs for is a return of better beautiful days.
“Mr Speaker, Sir, the people of Mangochi Nkungulu and I would want the beauty of Mangochi Nkungulu to return to the way we used to see when I was young,” she said in 2018.
She asked the government to support the people in the trusts to allow the trees to regenerate.