Rivers and streams have dried up. Birds of all manner of species are no longer winging from one tree bough to another.
“It is a sad situation for us. Wild animals such as hares and antelopes are no longer there,” Senior Chief Malemia says of Matandwe Forest Reserve, which is feeling a destructive share of human activities.
Stretching across a 26-hectare expanse, the reserve was dense with various natural tree species which have now been destroyed by charcoal producers, timber millers and households in search of farmland.
They have annihilated a larger section of the forest which used to host wild animals escaping dry spells from nearby Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve, both gazetted in the 1920s.
Matandwe Forest cuts across dozens of villages in senior chiefs Malemia and Tengani and Traditional Authority Mbenje in Malawi’s southernmost district of Nsanje.
The reserve is largely locally protected.
“It is difficult for the rangers to provide optimal security because the reserve is just too big. There are only two forest rangers against the required number of 28,” Malemia says.
He was among traditional leaders in the district who recently invited Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo to appreciate their efforts and challenges in conserving the fast disappearing reserve.
The local ruler sees more damage being exacted on the district’s natural resources apart from illicit flooring of trees.
Huge heaps of plastic gently sloping into streams flowing from the reserve’s high ground are clogging the swift flow of water and causing substantive damage to crop fields.
“Coupled with the cleared catchment areas, there are fears the flooding will be catastrophic one day,” Malemia says.
He has seen livestock such as cattle and goats dying after ingesting plastics dumped in places where they graze.
His biggest worry is that the Shire River—which is a lifeline for hundreds of households in Nsanje—might one day bear the devastating brunt of the destruction taking place in its tributaries’ catchment areas.
“A lot of sediment is finding its way into the Shire River. We are also worried that raging rainwater may destroy us one day,” Malemia complains.
The destroyers of the forest reserve have all the luxury to exact the damage at will as the forestry office in the district does not have sufficient equipment for conducting patrols which would prevent the mutilation.
The two forest rangers manning the massive reserve are not sufficiently equipped to counter charcoal producers and timber millers who are often heavily armed.
“Those decimating our reserve come from as far as Blantyre and Lilongwe after successfully finishing trees elsewhere,” Senior Chief Tengani says.
The reserve’s hardwood, once highly sought in Asia, is disappearing at an alarming rate and the chief wonders whether the reserve will be there in his lifetime.
His hopes lie in the work of local forest management committees which are going after those found illegally cutting a swathe through the reserve.
“These committees, with our help, are doing a commendable job. The only challenge is that the criminals in the reserve are sometimes heavily armed and often bolt after being apprehended because forestry officials take long to arrive where the crimes are being committed due to transport challenges,” Tengani says.
As billows of smoke surge above hilltops and wooded stretches, members of the local committees rush there only to face hostility from the charcoal producers.
“The truth is that only an increase in the number of forest rangers will protect our disappearing reserve,” the traditional leader states.
He insists providing incentives such as business loans to community members that are slowing Matandwe Forest’s depletion would temper the damage.
“It is sad that the vegetation that our parents so much took care of is now being destroyed by unpatriotic people who come from elsewhere. Few people in this district use charcoal for cooking,” Tengani explains.
Regeneration efforts in the reserve are facing a crisis too.
Destroyers on the loose do not have much to scare them off and even charge the deals are too lucrative to be abandoned at the threat of locals trying to protect what they own.
The locals themselves re banking their hopes on Tembo, who appears to be pushing an aggressive crusade against those ruining the environment.
The minister insists she will do all she can to ensure gazetted forest reserves are protected.
“There is a concern that our forestry department in Nsanje is significantly understaffed. We are addressing that. There is a plan to recruit 300 forest rangers and there is training of more forestry assistants and Nsanje will surely benefit from this,” Tembo says.
She admits everyone has to change the way of doing things and take environmental protection as their responsibility.
For instance, says Tembo, if everyone accepted that using charcoal is destructive, they would opt for alternatives, such as liquefied petroleum gas, which are being popularised by the government.
“Even the issue of plastics can be dealt with if consumers stopped buying them. Markets are what boost some of these illegal acts,” Tembo says.
She also glorifies the works of a local committee helping in conserving Matandwe Forest Reserve which gets herbal tubers from banks of streams flowing down the reserve and use their time in the venture to ward off destructive forces.
As the tubers, which could possibly be exported to other countries for making medicines, shrink on the banks, the locals are bringing them to fields in their homesteads.
“I am impressed with the conservation efforts that these people are engaged in. We will not leave them alone,” Tembo says, in a seemingly assertive tone that the chiefs who invited her to the Shire Valley district claim was missing in the past.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje