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Soldiers cashing in on Chikangawa

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A leaked Department of Forestry report has revealed that the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) military operation aimed at restoring sanity in Viphya Plantations in the Northern Region has instead turned into a money-generating initiative for some senior soldiers.

The soldiers are alleged to be conniving with some forestry officials to illegally harvest trees and aid illegal loggers.

The report, compiled by Aubrey Banda, Forester at Lusangazi forest Station in the Department of Forestry, sharply contradicts MDF claims that the soldiers are not involved in any illegal transactions in the once mighty forest.

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In November 2016, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Bright Msaka told the media at the time that reports were rife that forestry officials were involved in illegal dealings in the forest, adding that investigations had been instituted to get to the bottom of the matter.

“We have received the reports and we are investigating them. We will not behave like an angry bull galling at everybody in its way because not everybody is at fault,” Msaka said.

Though MDF bosses have distanced themselves from the claims, the report alleges that the soldiers, in collaboration with Owen Mwambira, a Forestry Department official, allegedly solicit money from illegal loggers as a condition for them to be given a chance to process timber.

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The report further indicates that some senior MDF staff have their own timber processing equipment and that the timber is ferried out of the plantations on tracks that are left to ply scot-free in the forest.

It further indicates that, in an effort to cover up, the men and women in uniform deliberately frustrate and intimidate the joint patrol team comprising scouts and patrol officers from the Forestry Department, Raiply Malawi and Timber Millers Cooperative Union.

“On day two of our operation [May 20] MDF soldiers led by Lt. Makombe barred my team from entering and conducting patrols inside [the forest]. I was surprised because before the operation, the soldiers were briefed [about our mission] by the Plantation Manager [Martin Chipokosa].

“After some arguments, my team insisted and went inside. I used the other route with some team patrolmen. I was very surprised to find that just after some 200 to 500 metres, there were many illegal sawyers sawing freely a kilometre away from the MDF camp,” Banda says in the report.

He said the patrol team that day arrested 18 illegal sawyers, some of whom alleged their boss pay Lieutenant Makombe and Owen Mwambira in older to operate and that some of the soldiers are also involved in timber sawing business.

“I met Lieutenant Makombe to understand why my team was being barred from entering the plantations for patrols. In reply, he said what he wanted was that I must tell him wherever we are going for operations,” reads part of the report.

He said some MDF officers have been mentioned as some of the people involved in illegal timber sawing.

But when contacted, MDF spokesperson Wilned Chawinga said those behind the letter are part of a well-crafted scheme campaigning for removal of the soldiers from the forest.

He said names of Lieutenant Makombe and a Kawaye, another MDF soldier, have surfaced before but those names were cleared after investigations.

“The truth is that MDF carried out investigations on the said people and their names were cleared. All this is coming to tarnish the image of the MDF,” Chawinga said.

On allegations that some soldiers were working with forestry officials to saw timber, Chawinga said some of the illegal loggers, some of whom occupy big positions in different organisations in Malawi, use cash in their quest to influence the removal of the MDF from the forest.

“Others might even be working as if they are part of patrol teams while, in fact, they are behind illegal logging [activities],” he alleged.

When contacted, Chipokosa expressed ignorance on the matter, saying he was out of office.

He, however, said reports of disagreements were not new as there have been cases where there have been disagreements between patrol teams in the forest and that such matters were treated as normal.

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