Restoring lost glory
Not so long ago, the hills and valleys in Ntchisi District were draped in a green canopy. Dense forests like Mndirasadzu and Kaombe were the pride of residents due to vegetative cover.
But the billowing of smoke from these forests spelt doom as trees disappeared into charcoal, finding their way into cities such as Lilongwe, exposing rocks that stood taller than stumps struggling to regenerate.
The situation has not improved as Ntchisi continues to struggle in curbing malpractices that are robbing it of its natural beauty, with charcoal burning remaining the major challenge.
But, as the district council is struggling to reduce charcoal burning, there is one place that has come up with an initiative to restore its vegetative cover.
It is Senior Chief Nthondo’s area, some 10 kilometres away from the Boma. As one drives on the winding roads to this place, eyes are greeted by the continuous sight of green cover of the forest.
Each village you pass through has a forest and most hills are well covered with indigenous trees, thanks to the initiative of local communities who have decided to police their forest.
“No person tampers with trees here and you can see how green the hills are,” boasts Senior Chief Nthondo while showing this reporter one of the hills called Chika, which stands a kilometre away from his headquarters.
The chief says his subordinates agreed to embark on environmental protection initiatives because they had unpleasant experiences after cutting down of trees.
The negative effects include perennial drought and hunger due to erratic rainfall patterns which resulted in poor harvests.
He says that initiatives to restore forests in the area are geared towards rolling back the glory days of bountiful harvests through good rains.
When he became Traditional Authority (T/A) in 1998, the traditional leader vowed to protect natural resources in the area by imposing strict rules.
“The first thing was to take care of the young shoots to regenerate into forests. So we formulated by-laws to govern the protection of all trees including planted ones,” says T/A Nthondo whose real name is Yobe Mpanang’ombe.
Stiffer punishments to offenders have been a secret to successful implementation of environmental protection measures in Nthondo.
For instance, if one is found cutting a tree, small or big, they are fined K25, 000 or five goats, which goes to Village Natural Resources Management Committees.
During a recent visit to Nthondo, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, Bright Msaka, was all praises and lauded the community members for their efforts in restoring forests in the area. He commended the area for managing its forests well when most areas in the country are failing to do so.
“I think people can come and learn how you are doing it here. This is very good and I am not surprised to hear that the rains have been falling adequately in the past few years,” Msaka says.
The initiatives by Nthondo communities have attracted help in terms of capacity building from organisations with similar interest, most notably Training Support for Partners (TSP).
TSP is a non-governmental organization working in Ntchisi. And provides support in capacity building to communities and institutions undertaking various development activities in all sectors.
TSP Project Coordinator, Mighty Fremu, says they provided training in forest management, which empowered people of Nthondo in the making of firebreaks to protect forests and the use of forests as epicentres of beekeeping.
“These were the areas they were interested in for sustainable forestry management,” Fremu says.
He adds that another major component was the creation of family forests, where each family was encouraged to own a woodlot known as ‘mkhanjo’ in Chichewa.
The training outcomes also encouraged committees to have a woman ambassador from each village, who goes around mobilising fellow women to lead in forest management.
Eunice Zimba from Mphedza Village is one of the ambassadors and says there has been increased women participation in forest management through this component.
“Most women are owners of individual woodlots,” Zimba says, adding that the number of women ambassadors in forest management is increasing each passing year.
“Women appreciate the importance of managing forests because they are the ones who suffer a lot because of deforestation,” Zimba says.
While Ntchisi District Council is calling for support from the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) in protecting endangered forests, Nthondo area seems to have the answer.
“It is clear that the Forestry Department lacks the capacity to protect our forests. I propose they hand over the powers to traditional leaders,” says Nthondo, adding that a sense of ownership among the people is ideal for sustainable forest management.
Assistant District Forestry Officer for Ntchisi, Gabriel Misomali, agrees with the traditional leader, saying the use of traditional leaders could be the way to go.
“It has been observed that where there is strong traditional leadership, forests are in good shape. Traditionally, chiefs own the people and have influence on how subjects behave towards natural resources,” Misomali says.
He adds that it is for this reason that the Forestry Department is working closely with chiefs to rescue natural resources in the district.
As Senior Chief Nthondo and his subjects revel in the pride of having protected community forests, other areas have a different story to tell.
Nthondo has this to say: “The solution is with the chiefs in these areas, not from forestry officials or the Malawi Defence Force.”
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