By Charles Mkoka:
“Good rains are always associated with areas where tree cover is intact. Trees provide manure through dried leaves that fall off to the ground. Once seeds are planted in the soil, dead leaves act as manure. This is important for Malawi, as an agriculture-based country. When hunger strikes, nurmerous problems are experienced because in the village, many people do not have food.
In Malawi, when we talk about being food secure, it is maize and this is possible only when we have good rains.” custodian of customary laws, Traditional Authority Masambankhunda connects the dots of a vibrant ecosystem and food security.
Forests and trees provide communities with food, fuelwood energy, fibre, medicines and an array of essential ecosystem services. They play a critical role for agricultural production as they protect soil, water and maintain fertility. The importance of forests towards improved food security such as the Dzalanyama watershed can only be sustained, if the reserve is sustainably utilised.
Dzalanyama Forest Reserve (DFR) is one vast ecological resource linked to high agriculture productivity as it plays a key role in rainfall distribution in the surrounding catchment areas of Dedza, Lilongwe and Mchinji districts. This in turn translates in sustained food security as most of the peripheral communities are largely subsistence farmers growing maize, particularly for domestic consumption.
However, Dzalanyama’s survival as a biodiversity hub that hosts diverse plants and animal species including support to agriculture productivity is highly threatened. The growing demand for wood energy related products to supply urban residents in a fast – growing capital city is piling pressure on the resource. On a daily basis hundreds of bicycles move with heaps of wood and illegally obtained bags of charcoal to serve the growing population of the city. The damage inflicted on the ecosystem has implications on the inter-connected web of life. There is great danger that perennial rivers like Diamphwe, Likuni, Katete and Lilongwe might, in the long term, turn dry water-beds.
On 18 January, 2019 joint effort of the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC), the Project for the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Dzalanyama Forest Reserve (COSMA-DFR) and Lilongwe Water Board were back at Katete Eucalyptus Plantation for the sixth time. This time the tree planting efforts to restore the watershed was conducted under the theme “Increase forest cover in Dzalanyama for transformed landscapes and improved livelihoods.”
COSMA-DFR is working with the Department of Forestry where there is now enhanced collaboration among other government departments, statutory corporations, non-governmental organisations, private sector, community-based organisations and communities to bring back the lost glory in restoring this important ecosystem.
As a representative of the local populace during the event, Masambunkhunda explained that the reserve is one of major assets that they have in his area. Dzalanyama forest is the main supplier of water for agriculture including that for domestic and industrial purposes. It is trees from the entire reserve that play an important role in acting as a conduit in the hydrological cycle.
Sustained green restoration efforts
Over the last six years there has been sustained concerted efforts led by OPC as part of the national forestry season to restore cover in DFR.
Of particular emphasis has been the survival rate of planted trees. The private sector has also taken a keen interest in this initiative with companies such as Alliance One, Limbe Leaf Tobacco, Zamm Investments, First Capital Bank, National Bank of Malawi and many others joining the tree planting activities directly or indirectly through providing financial or material support.
Chief Secretary to the Government Lloyd Muhara who has graced all the six tree planting sessions, explained that since 2015 senior government officials, private sector, individuals have come together to help restore nature to its original form in Dzalanyama.
“Lilongwe is highly populated than any other city. The water comes from Dzalanyama and flows into Lilongwe river. We need to take care of the trees planted. We should allocate one percent to tree planting and nine percent should be reserved for management. I would like to thank traditional leaders for engaging their subjects to work in the restoration of the environment,” Muhara, looking optimistic, said to stakeholders that participated in the exercise at Katete grounds inside the reserve.
Muhara emphasized the importance of managing planted trees as crucial to ensure tree survival. He encouraged civil servants to seriously manage all planted trees. He further urged traditional leaders to become custodians of forest resources within their jurisdictions, adding that local leaders should ensure protection of forests from hazards like forest fires.
Supporting policy instrument
The deterioration of common sense of the people is largely fueled by huge appetite to satisfy energy poverty in the peri-urban locations of the city. Population continues to grow and many residents are not connected to the main electricity grid forcing them to resort to alternative options such as illegal charcoal for domestic energy consumption.
On November 27, 2019 a revised energy policy of 2018 that seeks to guide the planning and implementation of programmes, projects and activities in the energy sector was launched. The aim is increasing access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, efficient and modern energy services by Malawians.
The energy policy recognizes the fact that biomass dominates the current energy mix, at 89 percent. It aims at reducing the contribution of biomass in the energy mix by promoting development and use of modern energy sources. The policy has categorised energy sources as follows: Electricity from non-renewable sources; Electricity from renewable sources; Biomass; Petroleum Fuels; Biofuels; Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG); Biogas and Natural Gas; Coal; and Electricity from Nuclear Energy.
Sayidi Banda, Public Relations Officer at the Energy Department says one of the causes of deforestation is the skyrocketing prices of alternative sources of energy like LPG.
“We lobbied for tax removal and it worked, accessibility of alternatives to charcoal and firewood of which regulatory framework has been reviewed to promote entry of distributors of LPG. The bulk of biomass like charcoal that is produced in the forest in question is consumed in townships of Lilongwe for thermal purposes as electricity has been very unreliable. So, we are hoping the removal of those taxes on LPG and solar products will help cushion the shocks on biomass.” Sayidi responded to a questionnaire adding there is low adoption of efficient and alternative technologies that could reduce demand for biomass.
Sayidi however acknowledges, that there are challenges as stipulated in the revised policy that are hindering the uptake of these alternative sources of energy. These challenges include: people’s lack of awareness and knowledge about the existence of the fuels, cultural barriers, high capital costs for equipment, and inadequate technical expertise in the design and construction of the systems.
Sustainable and legitimate charcoal
The National Charcoal Strategy 2017 – 2027 recognises and predicts that charcoal consumption will continue to be in use until in the future.
The strategy notes that more than 97 percent of Malawian households rely on illegally and unsustainably sourced biomass for domestic cooking and heating energy. This has resulted in high levels of deforestation and forest degradation, with downstream negative impacts on water availability, hydropower-generating capacity, and broadly vulnerability of Malawians to effects of climate change.
The strategy therefore presents a multi-sectoral framework and approach, focused on pillars that define opportunities to incrementally address problems of charcoal production and demand in the near, medium and long term.
In partnership with the Department of Energy, forestry experts are encouraging people to use other alternative sources of energy such as briquettes, liquefied natural gas and those with the capacity to switch to electricity use. They are also encouraging communities to engage in production of sustainable charcoal produced from sources they own with legitimate licenses issued by Forestry Department as per regulations. A modern charcoal kiln for production of sustainable charcoal has actually been developed at Katete by COSMA-DFR. The project is conducting trials of embarking on full scale sustainable charcoal production, using Eucalyptus species of trees.
Fast growing species like Eucalyptus easily coppices and provide other equal opportunities for local communities like poles for building are therefore being encouraged for planting.
Securing a bright green future
Japanese Ambassador to Malawi Satoshi Iwakiri, together with a delegation from Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), took part in the watershed restoration exercise. He lauded the ecological role trees play in ecosystem conservation to control the occurrence of natural disasters which affect millions of people leading to loss of property and lives.
“High population and wood energy demand has led to scramble of land. These are the major drivers of deforestation.” Iwakiri warned, adding that tree planting is a personal responsibility to secure the future of this country. JICA staff offer technical expertise to COSMA-DFR.
When all is said, local communities including urban residents cannot stand on higher ground to say they can survive without Dzalanyama. The importance of the reserve is being felt already as water challenges continue to be a thorny issue with interruptions and rationing now and again into play.
The reserve conservation therefore will contribute to sustained water to Lilongwe and agriculture production for food security. But more importantly, it adds to national landscape restoration plan. Of particular significance, is its importance to Africa ecosystem restoration of 100 million hectares by 2030 under the Bonn Challenge initiative.