Heaps of rocks on sides of major roads in Neno District denote a people’s frantic quest for survival, as ALICK PONJE writes.
It is a cold Thursday evening and the dust that swirls over sparse shrubs and heaps of rocks along the road to Neno briefly blurs our sight as the vehicle we are travelling in heaves through grating bumps and humps.
Bags and stacks of charcoal which used to stand on the sides of this red-earth road, clogging up footpaths, are few now.
In place of them are huge heaps of rocks fetched from distant hills which are now bare and baldly exposed to gullies.
Austin Petro stares at his heaps of rocks for a while as cars pass by, hoping that he will not end the day with no tambala in his pocket.
He then shifts his eyes to the patchy fog on the hills where he fetches the rocks, wondering whether the business he has been pushed into will stand the test of time.
“Trees are gone, and, as such, we have to search for alternatives. Charcoal is difficult to produce these days,” the 38-year-old father of three states as he lifts up a heavy rock which he expects to crash into quarry stones.
From his spot, in a sparsely populated hilly village in the district’s northern side, he sees an average of 20 cars daily.
That number meant a lot just two years ago when he was deep into charcoal business. He would cart home up to K20,000 on a good day.
“That was a lot of money. It was easy to live a comfortable life with my children going to school without any problem,” Petro says as he dusts his worn-out patent shoes.
Now, the spot he has gathered the rocks is surrounded by a few trees, dry grass and dying stumps—remnants of acts that have left a large part of this thinly populated area bare.
“Neno is our victim and of others from far-flung places like Blantyre,” says Jenipher Jimu, who abandoned her charcoal business after numerous messages on the devastating effects of wanton cutting down of trees had finally sunk in.
She does not have the energy to lift huge rocks from nearby hills to the roadside for construction companies that are searching for the materials.
“I am now into farming even though it is being affected by erratic weather patterns,” she says.
She marvels at her solider contemporaries like Petro who, having been pushed to a business whose sustainability remains uncertain, are still able to partly supplement their income.
“When I was in the charcoal business, I used to make good money. Now, trees are few and fields which were fertile and wet are now parched,” Jimu says.
She commiserates with residents in other parts of the district who continue producing and ferrying huge chunks of charcoal to Blantyre.
If she would turn back the hands of time, Jimu says, she would protect the dense forests that surrounded her modest homestead using any means necessary.
“It does not work to only look at present survival without considering what will happen in the future. We cut down trees and the impacts are here for us,” she complains, a distant look registering in her eyes.
It is a sentiment echoed by Petro, who states that, despite that he is able to fend for his family from his rocks business, the rocks will not be there forever.
“I have to find sustainable means of survival. Rocks are not renewable and, when they are all gone, we will have to turn elsewhere,” he says, not really sure where to turn to.
Their traditional leaders have instructed every villager to plant trees to replace those that were felled “during the time of ignorance”.
But, it will take ages for the bare hills and valleys in this district of slightly over 138,000 people, the fourth lowest in the country, to be covered in green again.
The arid soils are making the regeneration process even more difficult.
“The weather is getting worse. This is not how it was five years ago. We, with little to rely on, are the worst hit,” Petro says, feeling his pair of trousers’ patched pocket.
Environmentalist George Sitima believes Neno has to fight to retain the trees that remain in some parts of the south-eastern Malawi district to avert “the looming catastrophe”.
“Nature has a way of fighting back. In fact, it is not only in Neno where we see effects of unsustainable cutting down of trees. Floods and storms that hit Malawi at the beginning of the year affected several other districts,” Sitima says.
His expeditions to various parts of the country have fortified his fears that the natural disasters that have ravaged Malawi in recent times will not relent any time soon.
Fields which were once teeming with dense forests are now bare. Rivers are drying up, leaving behind huge heaps of sand.
Crops are failing to make it to their full potential and Sitima sees, in his mind’s eye, a future generation of pasty-faced citizens who are bearing the brunt of what they never initiated.
“There will be an increase in cases of food insecurity and water. The devastation will also mean our little resources will continue being channelled towards disaster interventions,” he warns.
For poor countries like Malawi, the conservationist is further worried that there will be massive loss of biodiversity.
“Now is the time to rethink our future. We must triple our efforts to conserve natural resources. Much damage has already been done but, still, we cannot sit back and resign to fate,” Sitima sums up.