Save for the snaky noise of perspiring leaves and trees outside Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi (Wesm) offices in Limbe, this bright January morning, the scene is silent and still. This must be peace, real peace by all purposes and intents.
But for Daulosi Mauambeta, Wesm executive director, the perceived tranquil environment has a deep surface inside, a surface more deadly in effect than military weapons. People in Malawi have not paused at this stage to draw breath, regroup and count the costs of civilization, he believes.
Global warming does not seem to have shaken our faith in reason; that humans are increasingly losing contact with nature, destroying their very environment and continue to plunder natural resources seems to bear no mark at all- and this angers Mauambeta so much.
“People must now take control of the situation, put in place remedies to reverse the present predicament. This we can do by taking care of our environment, and owning up to the mistakes so that tomorrow we shall not be blamed by posterity,” said Mauambeta.
His convictions are evidence-based: it is undisputable that many civilizations have left treeless lands, deserts, famines and catastrophe in their wake- and where forests once frourished, only the smoke of bare land exists. The tropical forests continue to be eaten away by the forces of man, while the Ozone layer remains a naked blanket struggling to dress itself up. All these reflect a natural system approaching collapse, a risk now global in nature.
The Wesm director feels that Malawians may not have learned from the lessons of history- that canvas on which each generation writes its contribution to the world. The problem could be that people only pick out the positives from the continued cycle of the rise and fall of civilizations, forgetting that it all is a see-saw of stability and change; of egalitarian societies and hierarchies; democracy and autocracy; socialism and capitalism; patriarchy and feminine values; spiritual and war; peace and war; environmental destruction and rehabilitation.
Says Mauambeta: “The problem lies very much in the fear to acknowledge the negative sides. If you tell someone who uses charcoal, for example, that that is detrimental to trees and the environment, that most of the people who are burning charcoal have no tree management plans, meaning that the trees they are felling down are being lost forever, they will choose to burry their head in the sand and count the number of trees that are remaining. We shy away from looking at the negative side.”
That is not the only problem in Malawi though, says Mauambeta.The spirit of “cheap-everything” is the one killing us. “Malawians are so much used to free, sometimes cheap, things. This has spilled over to the systems of nature that nobody pays for what they utilize”, a practice environmentalists have come to blame for many of the country’s ills against biodiversity.
Shocking examples abound.
Fishing in the country’s public waters is almost done for free. Fishermen pay very little in license fees, but are not licensed for each catch, as is the case in other advanced countries. Then, there is literary no quota system for each license issued. Many community members also catch fish without making any monetary contribution- which makes fishing absolutely free.
The cost has been so huge for Malawi that the Fisheries Department, World Fish Centre, and Wesm statistics indicate that (fish) production is now down by 20, 000 tons a year, this from the country’s record peak reached in 1972. Our beloved Chambo has not been slow to catch the drift of the sudden, down turn that production has slowed down to 10, 000 tons per year, up from over 14, 000 tons two decades ago.
Malawi has four lakes, apart from Lake Malawi. These are Malombe, Chiuta, Chilwa and Kazuni. In Lake Malombe, one of the smallest water bodies, for instance, total fish production has declined from 10, 000 tons annually- as recorded from 1980 to 1989- to 2000-3000 in the late 1090s.
But this, as Mauambeta bemoaned, has not taught us anything. He points to Mbuna, a fish species endemic to Lake Malawi: Between 40, 000 and 50, 000 fish, valued at US$300,000 (approximately K42 million), are exported annually for the aquarium trade touted for fetching high prices for exporters.
Malawi benefits nothing very little, if anything, in license fees and other costs. The spirit of “cheap-everything” seems to have really connived with our reluctance to learn from the past that we have let the status quo be, the price of which negligence stands to be paid by our posterity.
The charcoal trade
The country’s forests are paying the price of not being able to stand up and defend themselves. A big chant is being depleted to massive charcoal and firewood production. Wesm statistics indicate that K5.7 billion is generally annually in this “illegal trade”, representing K0.5 per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (what we get when we account for all the products and services we export annually to other countries). Yet, those who are plundering forest reserves and natural resources pay nothing for it, the destruction they are keeping in store for unborn Malawians. There is no tax, no license, no quota system- just destruction, and a nation that looks hands akimbo.
Illegal timber trafficking, especially of hard wood and cedar, has been rampant, partly due to prevalent conceptions that these resources are free goods. It is only in Chikangawa forest, and other selected places, where traders get licenses to extract timber; everywhere, it seems free for all. One of the areas where timber is used extensively is in tobacco farming, which accounts for 60 per cent of our foreign exchange earnings. While growers are advised to plant their own trees, some use indigenous forests unscrupulously.
There is nothing like proper taxing of indigenous forests used for firewood to reflect the value of such resources.
Sand and quarry mining
This is another area in dire need of control and fees’ application. Sand and quarry mining, as well as brick and terrazzo production are being done without government control. There is absolutely no public revenue generated from these activities through taxation and market fees, a development that spirit of “free-everything”, as said Mauambeta.
These are but standing examples of that deep-rooted “everything is for free” attitude, one that continues to manifest into our general failure to treat natural resources as goods and products of economic value.
Mauambeta said before we venture full force into the Lake (Malawi), and the small other salty lakes, policymakers have to deal, and finish, with the land. Charcoal burning has to be controlled through appropriate taxes and market fees.
The taxes on electrical equipment have to be scraped, so that many Malawians may have cheap access to it. More importantly, charcoal burners have to be schooled on the necessity of having tree plans, the essence of which is to replace what they have fell down forever, that the rain may not shy away from the land.
“More importantly, we want the replanted trees to continue churning out the air of life; that all of us may continue to live without health implications. We know that sun rays are said to bring about increased chances of having cancer; but this begins with the environment. If we take care of it following agreed protocols, like the Montreal, the Ozone layer may heal, and cancer cases be minimized. It all lies in our hands, the environment,” said Mauambeta.
Christopher Mwambene, executive director for the Coordination Unit for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (Cure), agrees. Control and taxation are the much needed spanners to managing what remains of what we have lost, environmentally.
Mwambene said it was time charcoal dealers paid up for their economic gains and environmental destruction.
“These people earn so much from zero (without contributing anything in monetary value to government). But we all pay for their actions. All over, on land or see or lake, people are earning a living for themselves without considering the price of their activities, yet we all pay up for that,” said Mwambene.
He is of the view that all regulation, control, supervision and oversight should begin from the land, and spread to the waters- and across the waters because some countries may learn from our experiences as has happened with such government initiatives at the Malawi Social Action Fund (Masaf).
Officials from Tanzania came, a couple of years ago, to pick a leaf from the Masaf tree so they could plant the stem back home. Success is the reward they got from that trip because, now, other countries like Ghana have sent officials to learn from them, and not Malawi. A story of how success can be exported, and not the rewards, the gains.
Mwambene doesn’t speak from the sky. He knows that Malawi and Tanzania share the same lake, though different parts of the lake. The people of the two countries have many things in common, in terms of the lake and not language; increasing the chances that they may be the first to learn from our success stories in the way we control environmental degradation.
“It all begins in the mind. A change in mind set could be a good beginning; when we realize that the natural resources we have been endowed with are not for free, but have a price. Sometimes a big price. How much goes into curing sun-related diseases? How much agony do we pay for the loss of many valuable species? How much do we pay in medicinal costs, yet, not so long ago, we used to have traditional medicine in handy? It all shows, that what we may treat so cheaply as our natural resources has a cost,” said Mwambene.
He blames the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) for not doing its bid; taxing those who thrive in the free, and the cheap. At 16.5 per cent, he feels that MRA could be walking with a fat cheque by now, and rid the country of that donor-dependency syndrome which others are taking advantage of.
He was referring to sentiments from Chikumbutso Saiti Bande, a long-time charcoal burner from the area of Traditional Authority Symon in Neno. In his defense of the charcoal trade, Saiti-Bande argued that government could not freely accuse people in his business of thriving on free things because “even the government itself is a beggar, it thrives on free things. How much does it contribute towards the national budget? It is donors who provide over half of it, and this is not because government can not manage to raise that much- it is because it is using to begging and getting free things”.
The charcoal seller added that it would be difficult for him, and others, to stop the practice due to lack of alternative means of raising income. According to him, revolving funds like the Malawi Rural Development Fund benefit a few and take time to reach the intended targets. Meanwhile, claimed he, they do everything possible to raise funding for their families.
But Mwambene maintains that it was time to pay up, before we could pay no more when things become irreparable. That time is now, he warns, or else there never may be time like now.
Tough task ahead- considering that the revenue authority has quashed any suggestions to the effect of blame. MRA Public Relations Manager Steven Kapoloma, while acknowledging monetary sense in taxing charcoal and other natural products, said the authority only taxed what was in the law.
“Any means of raising revenue is always welcome because it helps us raise the much needed revenue, necessary in the provision of public services. The short of it, however, is that we only tax what is specified in the law: things like refrigerators, sugar, vehicles, and others that are clearly mentioned in the law. When we look into that law, governing customs and taxes, there is nothing like charcoal being mentioned, let alone taxable. We are tied on that,” said Kapoloma.
This is a first-gear failure in bringing successful laws of the land to the waters; an ironic failure in that it still succeeds, but only in promoting the wanton cutting down of trees, and a trade that thrives on destruction.
“This does not translate into failure,” chips in Rashid Gaffar, deputy minister for Land and Natural Resources. He says government will do all it can to ensure that those who have to pay, pay up. Government will also spearhead efforts aimed at bringing back what we have lost, and this will be achieved by maintaining what we already have- the indigenous trees we currently have in national parks, game reserves, and in communities. It all hinges on awareness-raising, for people to know and appreciate that the trees they have, the game are their own economic resources and impact on their own lives in a strange way,” said Gaffar.
That is why government has put in place various policies for that purpose.
All these call for accountability, responsibility, ownership on part of every Malawian.
“You steal from the land, you steal from yourselves. Degradation of natural resources simply places a death sentence on our children, and is a manifestation of lack of love. Let us love ourselves by taking care of natural resources,” he added.
The death of a single tree should begin to be felt like the loss of a personal friend. Then, the current situation may not be doomed to end in disaster, after all.