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Surviving on one’s own extinction

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Harry Dzowa, 50, from Machinga District has sold charcoal for over a decade. Each day, he sets up his stall along the Machinga-Zomba-Blantyre Road in order to provide for himself and his six children.

Though charcoal business is illegal, to Dzowa, the business is the only way of survival.

“This is where my bread and butter comes from; this is where I get money to pay school fees for my children,” Dzowa says, adding: “They should find better ways of controlling the unnecessary cutting down of trees in our forests rather than looking at us as criminals.”

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Government recently signed an edict empowering soldiers to arrest people found producing charcoal but usually those involved in the multimillion-dollar industry only have their charcoal and tools confiscated.

Away from Machinga, Titus Bwande, 45, from Blantyre says he will stop producing and selling charcoal when the government and money-lending institutions provide him with access to loans.

“Banks only offer loans to people who are already rich. What then do they expect us to do? We have families to feed and it is this very illegal business that keeps us going,” he said.

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Wood and charcoal are the preferred cooking and heating fuels in Malawi, even in the poorer parts of cities, and the demand is huge.

The World Bank estimated in 2001 that charcoal consumption was twice what the nation’s woodlands could sustain. Loggers illegally clear 100 square miles of forest each year just to meet the demand for charcoal, according to the statistics.

Though wood and charcoal are the preferred cooking and heating fuels in Malawi, the government has put in place several strategies to avoid deforestation.

One of the strategies is the introduction of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (Redd+).

Redd+ is a climate change mitigation solution being developed by parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that incentivises developing countries to keep their forests standing. These developing countries would receive results-based payments for results-based actions to reduce forest carbon emissions.

Malawi has been working in earnest on a national Redd+ programme – the Malawi Redd+ Programme (MRP) since 2012. Currently, the key planning document for the MRP is the Government of Malawi Redd+ Action Plan 2014 -2019.

The plan sets out targets over a five-year period – including finalising Malawi’s National Redd+ Strategy by the end of 2018 – and states that the goverment takes a “no-regrets” approach to Redd+.

This approach holds that Redd+ is an opportunity to effect positive transformational changes in the forest and natural resources management sectors that enhance and improve the quality of life of Malawi’s people, irrespective of the availability of carbon financing.

But the question that lingers among communities is: how will Redd+ work if people are hungry?

How can we expect the poor to conserve forest resources if their food security – their very survival – rests on the use or consumption of those resources?

“The problem is that we have nothing else to do,” says Robin Kwale, a wiry 33-year-old charcoal merchant who gave his side of the story while standing over the residue of the chopped-up mango tree which he was preparing for his trade.

“We have no money to raise our families. We have nowhere to run, nothing else to do. So we have to cut the trees to feed our families. We cut trees to prepare land for cultivation, charcoal making and other uses like firewood,” he says.

However, an environmental analyst Godfrey Mfiti was quoted in the local media earlier explaining that the catastrophes of deforestation affect the public and property worth millions, hence the need to have projects that can protect the environment.

“For instance, Malawi has not fully recovered from the 2015 floods; some infrastructure is yet to be rebuilt, talking of roads, bridges, just to mention a few. I am not denying the fact that Malawi is poor and some people earn a living through charcoal and firewood selling but what we should all keep in mind is that they can be another way to rescue people from poverty,” he says.

Mfiti applauds the initiatives being implemented to protect the environment, arguing that poverty should not take the country to the dishonoured future were people are to suffer the effects of artificial problems.

Under the aegis of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) global fellowship programme, a New Delhi-based public interest research and advocacy organisation is currently encouraging journalists to write more about climate change mitigation solutions.

In Africa, and Malawi in particular, Redd+ goals frequently suffer at the hands of other development aims, with agriculture, mining, energy and forestry sectors all driving deforestation.

Furthermore, a new study on deforestation and Soy production in the southern Amazon showed that over the past decade, a drop in deforestation has been matched by growth in agricultural output – seemingly a contradiction considering that one needs to cut down more trees to make room for more agriculture.

What is happening is agricultural expansion is occurring in areas that have already been deforested or degraded rather than clearing new land. In fact, between 2006 and 2010, 91 percent of Soy expansion occurred in previously cleared cattle pasture. The report notes that part of the change might be due to a massive campaign by Greenpeace pressuring Soy producers to refrain from new forest clearing.

This is great news for forests: We can feed the world’s growing population while retaining crucial forest resources. Yet the change in soybean production in the Amazon is on a huge scale: what can small-scale farmers do?

In Malawi, farmers are increasingly integrating forestry and forest resources into their crop rotations to improve productivity and yields in the face of crippling climate change.

Reuters reports that many farmers in Malawi are intercropping trees with maize to provide moisture – preserving shade for the growing corn, while others bury tree leaves in the ground to make the soil more fertile and help retain moisture at planting time.

Moreover, farmers are using leaves from fast-growing native trees as fertilisers, either by burying them for six months or by planting trees among crops and letting the leaves that fall to the ground fertilise the soil throughout the growing season. The fertiliser provided by the leaves also helps alleviate the burden of purchasing expensive chemical fertilisers, thereby increasing the farmer’s net income.

Innovative agro-forestry strategies such as this can help make already cleared agricultural land more productive and allay the opportunity costs associated with protecting forest resources. Not only do programmes like this one in Malawi support conserving forest resources (so farmers can turn leaves into fertiliser) but they also help bolster food security and improve rural livelihoods.

It should, however, be recognised that agro-forestry approaches such as this tend to be more labourious and financially resource intensive for farmers (at least in the establishment phase) and can be technically challenging.

These challenges need to be acknowledged at a policy and donor level, with Redd+ funding potentially used to address these challenges (many private Redd+ projects already use agro-forestry as their main approach). If this support is forthcoming, we could see this “win-win” scenario becoming a reality in more and more tropical-forested countries.

The earth is fast becoming unsafe for human habitation. This is no longer a subject of speculation whispered among scientists and within government circles. Ordinary people are living the reality.

Hence comes the adage again; humans’ survival is the very tool that will lead to their extinction.

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