Professor Sosten Chiotha is a well-known environmentalist in Malawi. In 1973, he was first year student at Chancellor College. Some of his lessons took place in the Zomba Mountain forest Reserve which his lecturers treated as a living laboratory then.
For nearly 50 years, he has witnessed the collapse of the once glorious forest reserve. What happened? What does he attribute the collapse to? And can the situation be fixed? He spoke to Charles Mpaka in an interview held at his offices in Zomba.
Tell me how does it feel to see the devastation of the forest reserve in the mountain?
It is disheartening. I first came in contact with this forest reserve in 1973 when I was first year student of Biology and Physical Science at Chancellor College. The college was located in Blantyre then but we were visiting the mountain on regular basis for a practical appreciation of what we were learning.
It was a living laboratory then. The forest cover was very impressive. The biodiversity was rich. The interface between the reserve and the people was very healthy. It was a glorious woodland. The plantation was in very good shape and there was indigenous forest cover in the river lines. The environment was pristine.
We know how it has changed now. What do you blame this on? Who do you blame?
Governance. It is a governance issue. In those days, there was a functional, alternating timber harvesting and replanting system which was being religiously followed. The Department had structure and stamina.
And it was not that there were no fires then. There were fires. But they were treated as an emergency and putting them out was not the responsibility of the department alone. Everyone was a stakeholder, with the Department of Forestry providing leadership.
In other words, we had a very efficient system then?
Yes. For example, if you needed planks, there was a saw milling company there.
When I was building my house, I went to the factory aand gave them the number and specifications of the planks I needed. They told me to come back in two days. When I went back, everything was ready for me. That’s how efficient things were then.
So how was all this lost?
Around 1993, we started seeing strange fires in the reserve. Fires that smacked of vested interests.
From 1994 there was no demonstrable commitment by the government to invest in natural resources in the country. There was underfunding. There was also a move towards privatization of forest management. We switched from having government as the employer and key player. You have the Zilindo community in the boundary of the reserve. Most of the people in that settlement were workers in the reserve. When government retrenched them, they had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Encroachment rose.
Ultimately, we found ourselves using more trees than we could replace.
What other external factors would you say have driven the collapse of the reserve?
Of course you have issues such as population growth. This is a significant factor. Most of the residents here in those days were in government houses.
They were civil servants. The population was very small and pressure less on biomass for energy because also, there were also alternative cooking methods such as paraffin stoves. But demand for energy has been rising as population grows. Most of the settlements you see in Zomba were not there then.
So while population has been rising, alternative energy sources have not been moving. Exactly. You cannot find paraffin stoves today, can you? Let alone the paraffin itself. Electricity is unreliable so even a person who has risen up the energy ladder and would want to be using electricity has a bag or two of charcoal at the corner of the house because electricity can go off any time. Reliance on biomass is strong by all class of people. I started using gas in 2006. We were a small group of gas users for cooking then at Chancellor College. But for us to access it, we had to travel to Blantyre.
There was no gas supply in Zomba that time. We took advantage of the meetings we were having in Blantyre to access the gas. Now that also goes with income levels. In general using gas is cheap. It only costs on the initial investments such as cylinders. But many Malawians are low income earners they cannot even think of that initial investment. It is easier for them to buy K200 charcoal every day. But if you add that up, at the end of the month, you will have spent far more than a household that uses gas.
One of the reports I have read, the social and economic profile of the district, says there are also cases of conflicts between government departments.
That’s another big problem. Silo mentality. There is no integrated planning even at council level. The various departments of government are not talking to each other in their programming. We need a policy framework that prevents government departments from taking solo actions. For instance, those in agriculture should not implement anything that accelerates deforestation. We do not have that at the moment.
What impacts would you point at as arising directly from the deforestation in the mountain?
(Pointing at a collapsed section of the fence).
That happened in 2015. We never had that in the city. Today, lash floods are a frequent occurrence right in this city because of increased run-off up the mountain.
Rivers such as Likangala and Mulunguzi are flooding within minutes of heavy rains. In those days, it would take hours for you to notice any changes in the water levels in the rivers because the forests were trapping the rain, charging the water table which would then discharge the water into the streams and rivers. Today, the streams are full within minutes and the water is gone within minutes.
In your view, can the situation in the reserve be fixed?
Absolutely. Let’s sort out the governance system and fix the disintegrated development plans of the various government departments at the council, make serious investments in alternative energy and livelihood sources. Nothing is impossible.