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Military presence and Dzalanyama forest plunder

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BY TAWENI KALUA

Imagine a Capital City, the seat of government and home to top government officials, diplomats and many more, going on dry taps for days, weeks and even months on end!

Unfortunately, this could turn out to be the reality not far from now due to wanton cutting down of trees for charcoal and firewood by a highly-sophisticated network bent at making easy money while satisfying a huge energy demand in the Capital City that has witnessed a sharp population boom over the years.

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This is being made possible because of the absence of a comprehensive and sustainable programme to combat the malpractice.

This has affected water supply through changing rainfall patterns and barrenness of the rivers, thereby accelerating evaporation.

Lilongwe has over the years enjoyed a stable water supply thanks to Lilongwe River which snakes from Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, one of the largest and oldest forest reserves in Malawi, to the western side of the Capital City.

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The picture in Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, a catchment area for Lilongwe River— which is the stream responsible for quenching the thirst of all city dwellers in and around Lilongwe— has sadly changed because of the destruction of trees in the forest.

The crime is being perpetrated by a network comprising shrewd businessmen, transporters and criminal syndicates that produce the charcoal in the forest and middlemen and small-scale charcoal peddlers who are slowly shaving the reserve bare.

This has set a dangerous time bomb ticking in terms of water supply in the city.

The tampering with Mother Nature in Dzalanyama through a pervasive and destructive charcoal business has affected rainfall patterns and made the area dry, causing a significant drop of water levels in Lilongwe River. This has affected water levels in the strategic Kamuzu dams 1 and 2.

Dzalanyama is surrounded by one of the largest agricultural production areas in Malawi for maize, groundnuts and tobacco leaf. These areas include Mitundu, Malingunde and Nsundwe, a belt that forms Lilongwe’s bread basket.

Such areas have enjoyed an annual prolonged rainfall pattern that has enabled the cultivation of a variety of crops on a massive scale all year round. The prolonged rains have also supported livestock production in Dzalanyama and Diamphwi ranches.

But all that is at risk now as most parts of the forest have been deforested and environmental degradation has been affecting water supply to the Capital City.

Illegal charcoal production inside Dzalanyama Forest Reserve would virtually turn the reserve into a no-forested terrain as almost half of the trees stocked in the forest reserve might have been harvested already in the last two decades, according to the Department of Forestry estimates made available early this year.

Forestry staff in danger

Some traditional leaders, instead of helping in reversing environmental degradation, have been in the forefront promoting charcoal production and creating fear among forestry personnel who protect the reserve.

They have gone to the extent of creating no-go zones for the officials using armed groups who have reportedly physically injured forest and police personnel in the past.

One of the forestry workers, Philimon Kamanga, says charcoal-makers and sellers have become a group that cherishes lawlessness as far environmental protection is concerned.

“They go to the extent of hacking innocent Department of Forestry workers,” he says, adding that a Department of Forestry 8-tonne truck used at Katete Forestry Station had all its windows smashed twice by charcoal retailers who are against the department’s policing mechanisms.

While the soaring demand for energy seems to be the main factor fuelling Dzalanyama’s degradation, entrepreneurs with a considerable capital have taken advantage of the demand for charcoal and now hire 10-tonne trucks to ferry hundreds of charcoal bags from areas around Dzalanyama forest to readily-available markets in different areas within Lilongwe City.

“On average, an entrepreneur who hires, for instance, a 3-tonne lorry pays K70, 000 as hire charge. The truck can carry 120 bags of charcoal which are ordered at a price of K800 per bag from the charcoal maker. The average market price for a single bag is K4, 000.00. That is, a single trip can rake in K480, 000.00, and this renders charcoal selling a considerably lucrative business,” says Kamanga.

The poverty levels in Lilongwe Rural West also turn Dzalanyama Forest into an easy income-generating source. People around the forest make easy cash by wantonly felling down trees and making charcoal ovens. They either own the ovens or some entrepreneurs employ them to do such jobs.

Those who afford to buy a bicycle after harvesting their crops easily venture into charcoal business as it is considered an asset in charcoal business for those who ferry the ‘black gold’ using a bike.

Military presence

Eearly this year, the government resolved to deploy Malawi Defence Force troops who are conducting robust patrols in support of forest personnel to protect the remaining trees.

People around Dzalanyama Forest Reserve consider this operation as an obstacle to their right to economic activity and they have since created a network of informers who alert their colleagues about the patrol routes.

While the military is doing a good job in protecting Dzalanyama from extinction, there have been criticisms from civil society organisations over government’s deployment of an organ that is doing a good job in the forest reserve. The admonishments are from unsubstantiated reports of soldiers harassing charcoal sellers while doing their work.

All over the world today, the military is an integral, recognisable force politically, socially and, to some extent, economically.

In some sections of our society, however, due to silence in legal instruments or non existence of the same, it is not generally realised that the military has a positive role to play in protecting and restoring our degraded environment.

The use of the armed forces in protecting natural resources has been a source of debate not only in Malawi, but countries such as India as well.

But Eustace D’Souza, a retired major-general of the Indian Army, justified the role of the armed forces thus:

“Traditionally, the role of the military is to defend the integrity of the country’s international borders from external aggression and to ensure internal peace. After the Second World War, two more dimensions were added: international peacekeeping and disaster relief.

“But it is an accepted fact that today the greatest threat to our blue planet is galloping environmental degradation resulting, inter alia, from the greenhouse effect, the piercing of the ozone layer, deforestation, pollution of water and land resources, acid rain and rampant consumerism. In fact, violent conflicts often stem from environmental conditions under which the more deprived people are condemned to live.”

The military have a unique non-violent and productive role to play in protecting the environment, creating security and social patterns founded on cooperation and not on confrontation.

The military, with its configuration, has the leadership, motivation, training technical skills, mobility and intercommunications to perform this new role effectively.

Clear evidence of the military’s potential in environmental conservation and protection exist in countries such as India, Nepal, Venezuela, Brazil, and the United Kingdom.

Close to our borders, Botswana is a model of how the military is an integral part in environmental protection.

Forest conservation programme

Whereas it is obvious that the military do have an important role to play in protecting the earth and its natural resources, other actors need to come in and change people’s mindsets to curb illegal charcoal production.

Malawi is a natural-resource-dependent country and exploitation of forest products will continue for some years though it must be done sustainably. This calls for the need for comprehensive programmes in all forest reserves in the country to help poor people sustainably use forest reserves while ensuring that energy needs of city dwellers are also being met.

But, as things stand, that seems not to be the case.

This calls for development communication specialists who, through interpersonal and mass communication, can encourage the locals to stop illegal charcoal production and venture into other income-generating activities.

The campaign which would involve alternative energy source providers would also need to encourage the middle class on the use of alternative sources of energy.

While there have been appeals made to support the cause for preventing Dzalanyama extinction, there is more to be done than three paragraphed stories in newspapers and on radio stations.

The media through systematic programming should support the operations in curbing Dzalanyama extinction because of its agenda setting potential. Apart from its informational utility, the media is fundamentally a source of entertainment which has the capacity to integrate, amuse and offer continuity.

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