Chiefs, police and forestry officers in Neno and Ntcheu districts are among the main beneficiaries of charcoal that also ends up in the two districts as well as Blantyre, Chiradzulu, Mwanza, Zomba, Balaka and Chikwawa, among other districts.
Contrary to expectation that punitive measures would also slow down charcoal production, cutting down of trees for charcoal in Neno and Mwanza has soared due to rising demand of the commodity in the outlying districts as a result of the current electricity crisis.
Posing as a charcoal buyer, a Weekend Nation reporter recently camped in village headman Kabwayibwayi’s area in Traditional Authority (T/A) Makwangwala in Ntcheu.
“The headman has a lot of land, I want to assure you that you will do the business,” the chief’s wife said when we inquired about a wood forest for charcoal as she led us to the chief.
The chief himself—Kabwayibwayi—was more reassuring. “Don’t worry. I have enough trees. But you have to pay chankhalango.
“All these people here are in the same business. I have a lot of gold [trees] here,” he added.
I found out that with the help of the chief’s aide, a charcoal producer can be allocated a piece of forest from where he can produce up to 1 000 bags of charcoal in return for 30 bags of charcoal if one does not make an upfront payment.
People we interviewed in the area said after producing the charcoal, you have to pay the police and forestry officials to smuggle the charcoal out of the forest.
A bag costs K300. This means that a State official on duty can pocket up to K300 000 for every 1 000 bags of charcoal.
“There is no way, charcoal can reach Blantyre or Zomba without bribing forestry officials and the police,” said one charcoal producer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of arrest.
There are three routes to Kabwayibwayi’s area which is about 90 kilometres northwest of Phalula. Other routes are via Kanono and Kam’mwamba, and Neno for those from Mwanza. Government officers are bribed anywhere along the route.
The chief said over 3 000 people from Zomba, Ntcheu, Mwanza, Neno, Balaka, Blantyre and Chikwawa are involved in the charcoal business either as buyers or producers. Blantyre is the hottest market, he said.
The air in the forest is filled with smoke as charcoal producers dash to roll out the next bag of charcoal out of the production furnaces.
Most of Neno, Mwanza, Ntcheu and part of Balaka have now been cleared of forests and people have converged on the border between Malawi and Mozambique—in Neno—where there are still some trees. Once this forest is cleared no one knows what will happen.
Posing as a charcoal producer and armed with empty sacks, this reporter was allocated a woodlot from where to produce charcoal. I did not have time or expertise to make my own charcoal so I opted to buy five bags.
Buying and transporting charcoal
A bag costs K2 000. Producers said for a bag to be transported to markets in Blantyre, buyers pay K2 500 per bag. This reporter, who wanted to investigate how five bags can be smuggled out of the forest, was asked to pay an additional K300 for each bag for “997”, a reference to police patrol
“Most of the times we meet police and they charge us K300. We collect the K300 from buyers in advance to pay off police officers or forestry officials,” one charcoal producer, who was my escort only named Happy explained.
He said even at Zalewa Roadblock officials are easily bribed, that’s why charcoal gets to Blantyre.
“Just give the driver [who smuggles the charcoal] K2 500 plus K300 and you will get your bag in Blantyre. He will pay K300 [to bribe officials] at the [Zalewa] roadblock,” Happy said. There are additional charges for loading and offloading. I paid a total of K25 500 for five bags which included the price for buying the charcoal, transport, bribing the officers on the way and for loading and offloading.
By 3am Saturday, the lorry that carried the five bags arrived at Khama market in Machinjiri Blantyre offloading about 250 bags which were smuggled out of Neno forests.
—Main source of fuel—
Charcoal being the main source of fuel in urban areas is hot business. In Blantyre and Zomba a bag of charcoal sells at K8 500 while smaller bags sell at between K5 500 and K4 500.
Research findings shared at Malawi National Charcoal Forum in 2015 show that Malawi’s charcoal industry is worth over $40 million (about K30 billion) and production of charcoal provides an income for close to one million people in the country.
However, the impact of charcoal production has been huge on the country’s afforestation programmes. Between 1990 and 2005, Malawi lost over 12.7 percent of its forest cover, according to Oxfam.
In an interview on Wednesday, deputy director of forestry Ted Kamoto said Malawi’s deforestation rate is ranked second in Africa and fourth in the world.
Said Kamoto: “The problem is that 85 per cent of people in Malawi are using charcoal for domestic cooking. We have a lot to do to win the battle against charcoal production,”
Alarmed at the rate forests were being wiped out, the Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Climate Change in June asked government to impose a ban on charcoal burning and selling to preserve trees.
Chairperson of the committee Welani Chilenga said the fight against charcoal burning in the country will not be won because corruption is rampant among police officers and other government officers manning roadblocks.
“Why is it that we have so many roadblocks on our roads, yet charcoal sellers still find their way to various suburbs in our towns and cities?” wondered Chilenga.
But National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera layed the blame on communities in the area where charcoal is produced.
He said people should report to police whenever an officer is seen receiving bribes.
with support from centre for investigative journalism Malawi