Sunday, March 13, 2016

The tobacco paradox: Dead forests, living economy

Touted as Malawi’s green gold and top foreign exchange earner, tobacco could as well be described as a death-inducing life-line because it leaves behind a ‘forest’ of dead trees before it injects life into the country’s economy.

Every year, before opening of the Auction Floors, the country pays a heavy price in form of dead trees so that tobacco can exert that small, temporary push on the national economy.
But, realising that “nothing good can come out of destructive practices”, Evason Goliati Ganizani, from Dikhirani Village, Traditional Authority Nyoka, in Mchinji has proven to be a man living ahead of his time.

“I have realised that the practice of cutting down trees in order to construct tobacco barns has led to the depletion of the country’s forests and, although I realise that tobacco supports the livelihoods of millions of Malawians, I believe that nothing good can come out of destructive practices. I have, therefore, embraced the idea of using a ‘live barn’,” says Ganizani.

A live barn is a tobacco shed constructed using trees that have not been felled. The trees are systematically planted in stations with the aim of using them every year as a replacement for dead wood while the supporting trees continue to grow.

“I planted the blue gum trees I am using as my live barn in 2012 and I am happy that I have started using them. I am sure that, through my live barn, I will contribute towards efforts aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change while ensuring that I continue earning a living through tobacco cultivation. I am sure that, had Malawi embraced this idea in 1964 [after attaining independence from Britain], we would not be talking of forest depletion,” says Ganizani.

Ganizani, who is a member of Tayambanawo Club— a grouping of like-minded smallholder tobacco farmers that started in 2015— says, before adopting the ‘live barn’ concept, he used to cut down at least 60 trees to support tobacco leaves plucked from his one hectare piece of land.

Before embracing the idea of a live barn, Ganizani used to spend between K40, 000 and K80, 000 to purchase wood for barn use. He, however, observes that other farmers without the financial resources used to sneak into Mchinji Forest Reserve to steal trees.

While other unscrupulous tobacco farmers may continue making the occasional trip into Mchinji Forest Reserve, Ganizani says he no longer digs deeper into his pockets to purchase trees for use in his ‘dead’ barns.

Since 2012, he has been planting 30 trees on his woodlot and expresses hope that, in the next two to three years, every Tayambanawo Club member will have a live barn to cater for forest needs.

Elizabeth Masepa, 60, from Mkusa Village, Traditional Authority Mavwere in Mchinji, observes that the use of live barns can help farmers save costs.

“It is not easy to source the wood we use in barn-construction because one either has to buy the trees at an exorbitant price, or cut down trees, thereby depleting natural resources and exacerbating challenges associated with climate change. I have developed a live barn because I want to get rid of these challenges,” says Masepa.

The live barn initiative is a brain-child of Alliance One Tobacco Company and the company’s Area Field Supervisor for Mchinji District, Patrick Antonio, expresses optimism that it has become possible to delink tobacco cultivation from the practice of cutting down trees.

“Live barns can go a long way in saving the country’s trees from the axe. In fact, we make sure that farmers who are part of our Integrated Farming System— commonly known as ‘Contract Farming’— embrace the idea of having a live barn. The availability of a live barn is a pre-requisite [for us to start working with an interested tobacco farmer] and serves as collateral for those who get loans from us,” says Antonio.

Antonio adds: “We encourage farmers to plant acacia trees for the live barn because trees such as blue gum absorb too much water. We then give the farmers basal dressing fertilizer, and they apply 30 grammes per tree-planting station. This ensures that the trees grow fast. We believe that environmental conservation should be at the centre of tobacco farming in the country.”

Time bomb

Malawi’s natural resources are running out, and fast.

University of Malawi (Unima) professor of history, Wapulumuka Oliver Mulwafu, observes, in a research paper titled ‘Is The Battle on Conservation of Natural Resources in Malawi Winnable? Perspectives from Historical Knowledge’, that “Malawi is experiencing an environmental crisis”, as manifested in the deterioration of natural resources.

Mulwafu observes that the country lost 494, 000 hectares of forest cover between 1990 and 2005, a development he says necessitates a change of approach.

But that approach does not entail the deployment of Malawi Defence Force personnel to forest reserves such as Dzalanyama in Lilongwe— as has been the case recently— he warns.

“Is the use of the military an answer? We need militaristic approaches [yes, but], not necessarily [use of] the military,” says Mulwafu.

He implores policy-makers to embrace approaches that embrace the role of citizens and science in natural resources’ management.

“If the other issues are undressed, degradation of natural resources will continue,” says Mulwafu, citing weak policy and legal framework, poverty levels, and Malawi’s cradle of democracy as some of the challenges fuelling the problem.

“The cradle of democracy we have is, probably, creating problems. But democracy is not incompatible with environmental conservation,” claims Mulwafu, urging players in natural resources’ conservation to stop pointing fingers at each other and focus on exploring lasting solutions..

The adoption of the live barn concept in tobacco farming could as well be one of the lasting solutions.

Scattering ‘live barn’ seeds

It is not just Mchinji District tobacco farmers who have embraced the concept of nurturing trees that serve as a live barn, though.

In Kasungu District, the concept seems to have caught the attention of farmers like bush fire.

One of the farmers, Solomon Mwale, says he has, so far, used 758 seedlings to develop his live barn woodlot.

“The acacia trees I have been planting are growing so fast that I am sure I may be able to use them in two years’ time and say good bye to the practice of using dead barns. I have three layers of trees, depending on differences in planting years and I am happy that, shortly, I will be able to save the country’s forests. Live barns can, surely, go a long way in saving what remains of the country’s forest cover,” says Mwale.

Agriculture, Irritation and Water Development Minister, Allan Chiyembekeza, says the government welcomes the use of environmental-friendly agricultural activities, hence encourages players in the industry to adopt good farming practices.

“We all know that climate change is posing a number of challenges to agriculture. We can help deal with some of the factors that have contributed to climatic changes by developing initiatives that will ensure that we do not destroy the very environment that sustains our agriculture. The live barn concept is, surely, a welcome development,” says Chiyembekeza.

As one tree probably kisses the ground somewhere in Mchinji or Kasungu, blue gum trees in Ganizani’s live barn may be shaking against the wind, oblivious of the fact that they would have been ‘dead’ by now.

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