Charcoal production in Dowa District is turning ugly as scores of villagers have descended on the once natural spiny Kongwe Forest- a unique ecosystem which exists in the Central Region district.
We can confirm that government efforts to protect the forest are bearing no fruits as scores of impoverished villagers keep turning to the forest for charcoal production.
A week-long investigation by Malawi News has exposed that forest department staff and chiefs around the area have become powerless as massive trade in illicit charcoal is flourishing.
The forest has become a no-gone-zone for the officials and community leaders as villagers and people from distant areas have vowed not to vacate the place.
A Malawi News team that visited the forest managed to buy bags of charcoal, sold from mud houses, which, ordinarily, one would not easily notice. It turns out that such a house can keep over 20 bags of processed charcoal.
We found scores of villagers, charcoal dealers and charcoal ovens deep in the forest, in plain sight of forest guards, who are supposed to protect the forest but have been rendered powerless by the irate villagers.
Charcoal producers, including those around the vast Kongwe Forest stretching between Dowa and Ntchisi districts, say they are driven to the environmentally-destructive trade by poverty.
Meanwhile, Minister of Forest and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo has expressed shock over the matter.
“I have heard about the plunder of Kongwe Forest and I know the pressure is a result of the refugee camp which is nearby among other things, we are looking on what we can do to stop the plunder, my ministry will do everything possible to find a long lasting solution,” she said.
Chiefs in the district, among them Group village headman Chikungu and senior group Topaizi, complained that their lives are at stake as villagers have vowed to deal with them if they insist to stop the illicit charcoal production in the forest.
“We do not have powers as chiefs to stop these people from cutting down the trees. They no longer listen to us and have vowed to torch our houses if we insist to force them out of the forest,” they claimed.
District Forestry Officer for Dowa Debora Mshali said they do not have enough manpower to control the forest.
“I have reported the matter to the relevant authorities they are aware of the problem but we are doing everything that we can,” Mshali said.
District Commissioner for Dowa Alex Mdooko said he was aware of the situation.
He said since Malawi Defence Force soldiers left the forest last year, the problem has turned nasty and his office is powerless to dislodge the irate villagers from the forest, stressing the forest needs to have armed guards round the clock.
“We have done what we could have done, we have failed, the problem is that the villagers have a readily available market which is the refugee camp, we have called for help from the Department of Forest they have assured us that shortly, armed guards will start protecting the forest,” Mdooko said.
Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa) Executive Director, Herbert Mwalukomo, said it is highly regrettable that forests are disappearing as if there is no government that has a responsibility to lead in management of forest resources.
“As a protected area, the duty of managing forest resources in Kongwe falls under the Department of Forestry. The law is very clear that no person is allowed to destroy forest produce in a protected area unless under a licence. The depletion of forest resources in Kongwe is a sign of lack of law enforcement. This cannot be allowed to continue. We are a nation governed by the rule of law and no one is above the law. Let all the culprits face the strong arm of the law,” Mwalukomo said.
Parent and Child Health Initiative (Pachi) Chief Executive Officer Charles Makwenda said the depletion of Kongwe Forest, has to also do with urbanisation and population growth.
He said the development might contribute to shortage of water supply in the district if left unchecked, which could slow the country’s desire to reach Sustainable Development Goals 13 and 15 which call for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.
Meanwhile, the collapsed natural resources management system in the country is contributing to the high rate of deforestation, which is currently pegged at 2.6 % per year, according to environmental experts.
An economic study done in 2011 by the Government of Malawi, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) estimated that unsustainable use of natural resources, which include forestry, fisheries and wildlife, is costing the country the equivalent of 5.3 % of the country’s Growth Domestic Product (GDP).