Sunday, February 2, 2014

Saving Malawi's forests from extinction

The action furnishes a scene that may pass for an object of satire. Two teenage brothers, aged 12 and 15, respectively, try to water a Muomba (Brachystegia) tree probably five times their age. The tree had suffered for years under the barbarous persecution of their father, Willard Salim Somba,’s axe, before he finally fell it down over 10 years ago.

“Our mother told us that it was our father who fell it down because the family had run out of money and wanted to sell it. To our surprise, no shoot sprouted from it all these years until last year. We don’t want it to die, we want to take care of it now,” says one of the teenagers.

It is Saturday, November 23, 2013. This is Mwingitsa Village in the area of Senior Chief Symon in Mwanza. A group of youths- about 20 in total- gather under a baobab tree close to the church in an area the locals simply call Lisungwi.

Today is the day villagers want to demonstrate their love for forests. Each one of them is holding at least two trees from the nursery, one of them being Moringa (Cham’mwamba), the life-saving tree that, in the wake of HIV and Aids, has become an easy source for nutritious food.

Symon, who is here to bear witness that the trees his subjects say they will plant are really planted, is all smiles.

“Trees are a source of life. They turn carbon dioxide into the life-giving oxygen. They are the manufacturing machine for fresh air. They hold the soil together, and help organic matter decompose. I am old enough to know that, and I encourage my subjects to plant trees,” says Symon.

Where he got all this information, nobody knows. Perhaps he has banks of all this knowledge because he is old enough.

Changing perceptions

While outsiders may think that the case has always been like this, and that the people of Neno have always loved their trees, Symon acknowledges that this has not always been the case; “it’s just that things are changing now, as people realise that charcoal burning- the main source of income for some people here- is not sustainable.”

He points at the surrounding area, now devoid of natural trees and replete with fruit trees such as mangoes, tangerines, guavas, and says that that bare land there, that farm land, once was a thriving forest.

“Our people used to hunt there. I have been fortunate enough to have been there then and now. I can see the difference. I can tell the difference. Where did all the trees go? Charcoal!” says Symon.

He blames the situation on the senselessness” of charcoal burners. He calls them “senseless” because, as he puts it, they would have helped avert the catastrophe had they only thought of “planting two trees where they fell down one”.

However, Neno District Forestry Officer Emmanuel Ngwenya says this is no time to play blame-games. He urges communities to move forward with a vision.

“We can do something, that is the main thing. We can, for example, plant trees where there are no trees. Most importantly, we can promote regeneration; that is, letting trees we once fell down recover, letting them come back to life. It is not just through planting trees that we sustain natural resources. Permitting regeneration is another method ,” says Ngwenya.

But Ngwenya is not blind to the plunder, the signs of deforestation, all around. He just wants the community members to recover from the shock, and let the forest cover recover, too.

“Of course, the rate of trees being planted and allowed to regenerate does not match the rate at which trees are felled down. But, by allowing the trees to regenerate and planting trees every planting season, we can avert the crisis, the can cover the distance. So far, community members are trying their best, and their commitment to the cause is a positive thing,” Ngwenya says.

National catastrophe

One of the factors influencing charcoal burning is poverty in the areas where trees are harvested, and lack of alternative energy sources in the urban and peri-urban areas that serve as a ready market. With the world’s population rising at an alarming rate, raising fears that, without instituting mechanisms aimed at striking a balance between growing energy needs and a booming population, energy sources will be overstretched.

Malawi is one of the countries with the lowest access to electricity, with Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi records indicating, on one hand, that only 6 percent of the national population has access to hydro-electric energy. On the other hand, a feasibility study conducted in 2012 by mobile service provider TNM, as part of its ‘TNM GSMA Green Power for Mobile’ initiative, revealed that only 7 percent of the national population has access to hydro-electric energy.

Of these, only 25 percent of urban dwellers has access while in rural Malawi, only 1 percent has access to hydro-electric energy. This unfortunate development has led to over-dependence on charcoal burning, thereby leading to deforestation in the main forest harvesting and charcoal-burning districts of Mwanza and Neno in the Southern Region of Malawi.

According to the latest State of the Environment Report for Malawi, there are at least 19 distinct vegetation communities that are recognised in Malawi, with miombo dominating. As a consequence these forests are used by the local people predominantly for fuel wood.

Reads the report in part: “The forestry resource is under threat due primarily to increasing population. This is worse in the Southern and Central regions where 90 percent of the population is concentrated while half the forest resource is in the northern region. In the Central and Southern regions there is a substantial gap between fuel wood supply and demand from customary land, the deficit being met from forest reserves. At the same time, demand for wood products, mainly fuel wood, is increasing due to increased population.”

The report estimates that about 70 percent of the demand for wood originates from urban and rural households (10 percent and 60 percent, respectively) and from tobacco and tea estates (30 percent), with land clearing for agriculture further accelerating deforestation.

As a result, the report says, extensive forests, which previously covered vast areas of the country, have, over the years, been subjected to considerable pressure from human activities.

“The Southern Region, which has the highest population densities (up to 235 per km2 in Chiradzulu district), continues to face critical wood shortages, while most wood is found in the north, where only 11 percent of the population lives. Land clearing for agriculture, coupled with high wood demands, has led to increased deforestation. Between 1972 and 1990, total forest cover declined by 41 percent, representing an average loss of 2.3 percent per annum. The heavy reliance on wood energy is threatening the sustainable exploitation of forest resources.

“Biomass energy accounts for over 90 percent of Malawi's primary energy consumption, of which 37 percent is derived from customary forests, 26 percent from forest reserves, plantations provides 11 percent and crop residues 10 percent and other sources provide the rest (sic)16 percent. Expressed in aggregate terms this represents clearing of 50000 hectares per year.”

Information sourced from the Malawi Natural Forestry Programme, a Malawi Government initiative, reveals that natural forests are largely the remainder of the miombo forests that once covered almost the whole country. These forests are on customary land under the control of local authorities. They are also in protected forest and wildlife reserves.

On threats to Malawi’s forestry reserves, the report says “The ability of the Forest Department to protect forests from fires has been greatly reduced by recent limited financial allocations from the government. Fires burn and destroy considerable amounts of the forest resource every year. In 1995 alone, over 13,000 hectares of timber plantations were destroyed by fire”.

Clearing the skies

All is not lost, however.

Wildlife and Environmental Society of Malawi executive director, Daulosi Mauambeta, says the country can recover from all this by prioritising sensitisation campaigns.

“When all is said and done, the most important thing is public awareness. This will help community members realise that by saving the forest reserves that are still intact, we can avert a lot of challenges. After all, the trees we plant today, especially the natural trees, may take between 30 to 50 years to mature,” says Mauambeta.

Mauambeta says Malawians should realise that it may take time, “may be 30 to 50 years”, to mitigate the negative impact of climate change.

“Meanwhile, we can save the forests we have by helping people realise that it is better to save what we have than plant trees when the damage has already been done,” says Mauambeta.

A stitch in time, as they say, saves nine

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