Every year, Malawi launches its Tree Planting Season. Unfortunately, the main focus has been on reforestation and afforestation, making people believe that trees cannot flourish on their own without the involvement of people. But, as THOMAS KACHERE writes, Group Village Head Malika’s subjects in Chiradzulu District are proving the government wrong by working wonders on Matokola Hill, where trees grow freely without being accosted by humans.
There is one loophole with initiatives such as reforestation— which is the process of planting trees in a forest where the number of trees has been decreasing— and afforestation, which involves the sowing of trees and seeds in an area where there were no trees before: The problem is that targets can be made, changed, made and changed again.
A good example is the 2021-22 National Forestry Season. When the initiative was launched last year, the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources announced that 60 million trees would be planted.
However, less than a month into the programme, Director of Forestry Clement Chilima announced that the target had been reduced to 40 million, citing the poor tree survival rate in Malawi.
“The tree survival rate at the moment is at between 65 and 70 percent. As such, reducing the number of trees to be planted during the 2021- 22 National Forestry Season will have no negative impact on the reforestation drive in the country.
“To the contrary, the move will help Malawi increase planted trees’ chances of survival. I plead with those that have planted trees, as well as those that planted trees last National Forestry Season, to take care of them,” he said.
Ironically, natural resource conservation advocate Maloto Chimkombero commended the government for making the decision.
“The truth is that the country has been planting 60 million trees each national forestry season but it has been failing to take care of the trees. I believe that the issue of poor survival rate of tress was coming in because we did not have sound strategies of ensuring that planted trees survive.
“With the latest development, I believe that the tree survival rate will, this season, be higher than previously. The problem we, as Malawians, have been facing is that tree-planting is regarded as a one-day project. Once people plant trees, they don’t monitor and evaluate progress,” Chimkombero said.
Malawi’s target is to restore 4.5 million hectares of degraded landscapes by 2030.
Funny enough, when the government announced the decision in December 2021, there was laughter in Group Village Head Malika’s area in Chiradzulu District, where his subjects have been applying a different type of tree conservation method.
The people practice what they call forest conservation method.
This is a method where community members let trees and other types of vegetation flourish in an area that used to have them aplenty. The aim is to let plant life recover and flourish on its own, without any human intervention such as afforestation and reforestation.
“When we noted the impacts of natural resources degradation which came as a result of wanton cutting down of trees, the practice of cultivating in steep slopes such as mountainous areas and along river banks, we, people from Group Village Head Malika in Chiradzulu District, decided to act in a way that would do us good,” says Dickson Green of Lukongolo Village.
That is how, in 2016, people in Malika and surrounding villages decided to start protecting tree off-shoots (mphukira) so that they could mature and transform the area into a natural forest.
“We did that after observing that people were lacking firewood, grass for thatching houses. They were also bearing the brunt of soil erosion due to the loss of vegetative over. We then created committees that would be responsible for safeguarding the tree off-shoots. People from five villages embraced the initiative,” he says.
Green says, after community members observed that the off-shoots were not enough to enable them to realise their dream of nurturing and forest, they started developing seedlings in tree nurseries.
The seedlings were being nurtured planted on Matokola Hill, along river banks and in nurseries developed in community members’ houses.
Today, there is a forest of natural trees replete with fruit trees and a green carpet underneath.
“The trees have grown tall and have branches all over. We, therefore, allow people to collect dry branches from the forest for free but they are barred from carrying pangas when entering the forest.
“We have also been encouraging community members to be planting trees around their houses so that they can benefit from the shed and tree products such as dry branches, which are used as firewood,” he says.
Kamloni Glinjala, a volunteer from Lukongolo Village, says what they have done should serve as a lesson to the government that one-cap-fits-all approaches do not always work.
“When people follow the method we are following, I do not think they can be reviewing tree-planting targets or worrying about tree survival rates because, when you provide a friendly environment to trees that are growing, they pretty take care of themselves,” he says.
He, however, expresses worry that, because people from other villages have noticed that the forest is flourishing, they invade the forest at night to steal trees.
They also set trees ablaze sometimes as they search for mice and other small creatures that have found a haven in the forest.
“We have been catching people destroying trees in our forest. Those that are caught stealing trees from the forest are taken to task by the chief and they are told to pay a fine of three chickens or ordered to create fire breaks. Some are even taken to court depending on the gravity of the offence,’’ Ginjala says.
Glinjala appeals to well- wishers to assist them with gadgets such as torches, helmets and boots for them to be able to effectively patrol the area around the now-forested hill.
Efinesi Hassan is one of the people benefitting from the forest as she collects dry branches of trees for use as firewood.
“Through this forest, we also get fresh air, fire-wood and fruits. The elderly and widows are also assisted with wood for house-thatching for free,” she says.
Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy Executive Director Herbert Mwalukomo commends the people for their positive efforts in natural resource management.
“What these people are doing only shows that they appreciate the role of natural trees in their lives. We have few examples of initiatives like these in the country. With forest cover, the impacts of soil erosion and natural disasters such as Tropical Storm Ana can be less.
“These community members should be supported,” he says.
In 2010, Malawi had 1.39 million hectares of natural forest, covering over 12 percent of its land area.
Sustainable Development Goal number 13 encourages countries to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.