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State-sponsored deforestation?

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Deforestation is often blamed on charcoal and brick producers but, after conducting an investigation into the issue in the Upper Shire, MZATI NKOLOKOSA concludes that State agencies are equally culpable.

The name remains Pantchochi.

However, the banana plants dried up after 2000.

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A road that was, until 2004, flat and passable on foot and by car is now impassable by car.

Now pedestrians have to walk in and out of a gully at Pantchochi, where, once, they walked on flat land. The gully is evidence of environmental ruin that has occurred in Chapita Village, some five kilometres to the south-west of Mangochi Turn-off in Balaka.

“I hear there were bananas here, a lot of them,” says Wyson Amidu, 21. He was born and lives in Chapita Village.

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“People say there was no gully here,” he adds.

The gully is a norm for Amidu. But for those in their 40s, such as Ken Ndanga, the gully is a stranger, a product of environmental degradation.

“This used to be a good road, passable by vehicles too,” recalls Ndanga, who grew up in Chapita Village in the 1980s.

In September this year, about 50 metres from Pantchochi, was a recently fire-cured brick kiln. There were signs of bricks produced the previous year too—and evidence of deforestation.

Evidently, trees near Pantchochi have been cut down for brick production, charcoal production or other uses. Construction experts in Malawi estimate that brick production consumes 850 metric tonnes of wood per year, according to a 2005 paper by the late architect Bernard Zingano.

For Ndanga, the gully is not the only stranger at Pantchochi. Commercial brick production is a stranger too.

“It was not like this when I was growing up in the 1980s,” Ndanga recalls.

Indeed, it was not so. Even the earth road from the M3 Zomba-Balaka Road at Chapita Bus Stage to Pantchochi is turning into a water stream. It is clear that running water invades the road when it rains.

Consequently, the road has become smaller, difficult to walk in, and in some parts, impassable to cars. In addition, the road has become a stream, a tributary into the Pantchochi gully.

Some 300 metres from Pantchochi is Chimwalire River. Nkosa, a clan of about 100 people, is in between Pantchochi and Chimwalire. The clan’s burial site is about 100 metres from Chimwalire.

There is a gully from close to the burial site into Chimwalire. The gully has reduced, and continues to reduce, the width of the road.

In addition, there is another gully in the middle of the road. But it is not that deep because people maintain the road every year.

The gullies in the area signify that there is less infiltration of water into the ground than in the past. A soil with good infiltration reduces water runoff which causes flooding. The soil in Chapita Village in Balaka is no longer allowing infiltration as was the case three decades ago. There is less recharging of underground water than in the past.

In the 1980s, even as late as 1990s, one did not have to dig a well in Chimwalire. Water was on the surface. All one did was to remove some sand and create a well, 10 centimetre deep for example, and draw water.

Now, men have to dig a well beyond the river’s bed of sand, reaching up to clay soil. There was a well two metres deep in October this year. The sand in the river was dry, unlike in the past when the sand would remain wet almost all-year round.

The last time Chimwalire had water all year round was in 1986, according to former students of Naliswe Model School.

Since then the river has become drier than each previous dry season.

Yet, the river is flooding more than ever. But once the rainy season is over, the water is gone, the river dry.

“The river banks have been bare and there has not been any effort to plant trees,” says Ndanga. The bare banks lead to siltation which ends up into the Shire River. Chimwalire is a tributary of the Shire, flowing into Malawi’s biggest river downstream of Kamuzu Barrage at Liwonde.

“The water in our rivers is not increasing vertically,” says Chikumbusko Kaonga, an associate professor of environmental science at Malawi University of Business and Applied Studies (Mubas). “The water is increasing horizontally.”

The evidence is in the widening of river channels and the breaking of river banks as is the case with Chimwalire. Some trees that were on the river bank have been washed away by flooding waters. Other trees have been uprooted, roots half in the air, half in the soil.

The river’s immediate catchment area is becoming drier than ever. Water is not penetrating into the ground. The ground is bare. Trees have been cut down without being replaced.

Chapita area and surrounding areas of Chiyendausiku, Kwitanda, Dziwe, Mitengwe, including the late Billy Chisupe’s area and Chilembwe, close to Liwonde, are bare grounds. Where once trees covered the ground, the land is bare now.

What happened to trees? The easiest answer is expansion of farm land because of population growth. Charcoal and brick production are other reasons. Yet a careful search in history shows that these may not necessarily be the main factors for deforestation.

Government agencies are guilty of deforestation as well. There was a time in the 1980s when learners from standard five to standard eight at Naliswe Model School, for example, could be asked to bring a tree every day for a month, often in May: for 400 students, for example, that would be 400 trees per day, 2,000 in a week and 8,000 in a month. June would be for students to bring grass.

“Students were asked to bring grass and trees to school but there were no arrangements to replace the trees,” Ndanga says.

Schools were not the only institutions guilty of deforestation in Balaka. People recall that in the 1980s prison inmates from Malawi Prison Services (MPS) used to cut down trees.

“Nobody could question the inmates,” says a retired civil servant who witnessed prison inmates’ deforestation activities of the 1980s.

So in some ways, it is fair to conclude that the State was an active participant in deforestation in the 1980s.

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