Descending the hairpin bends from Blantyre City to the flood-prone Shire Valley districts of Chikwawa and Nsanje, bare mountains flash past in quick succession.
Closer to the foot of the mountain range, counts of charcoal bags on sale by the roadside wane.
However, the absence of massive stacks and rows that once stood in defiance of forestry laws has nothing to do with Thabwa Roadblock nearby.
Charcoal sellers near Chief Mlilima’s hilltop residence say he has advised them to display just one or two bags not to shame him.
Ask for more bags, the vendors hurry into a nearby bush and return with as many as you can buy—all to save the traditional leader’s face.
For chief’s sake
When we asked for three bags, they bragged that they had enough to supply a truckload.
One gushed: “Don’t be deceived. We only display one because the traditional authority, who lives nearby, does not want to be disgraced by charcoal business which has consumed indigenous trees.
“He has instructed us to do it discreetly so he doesn’t become a laughing stock during meetings with fellow chiefs, government officials and people who promote the conservation of trees.”
The chief’s order was corroborated by charcoal vendors at three selling points near the roadblock where police and forestry officers confiscate the illicit black gold from travellers.
In an interview, Mlilima advised the charcoal merchants against exhibiting “20 to 40 bags”, saying no one can stop charcoal trade overnight.
“I really told them to display few bags while searching for better income-generating activities. When I tell them to stop or report them to forestry officials, they say they are poor and cannot do without charcoal,” he explained.
His sensitivity to the backlash resulting from widespread charcoal sales does not just bring into question the country’s community-led forestry management.
It also contradicts his tough talk that charcoal producers and traders should be punished the same way as murderers. He reckons forest guards are better placed to safeguard trees than community leaders and committees which thrive on the outlawed business.
“Charcoal producers deserve stiff penalties because loss of trees causes disasters that claim lives,” he explained.
The floods caused by Cyclone Idai last year killed 56 of nearly one million affected people, with the Shire Valley being the worst hit.
As sunshine returned to the floodplain, Grace Bulagiyo was seen replanting maize in a field where her crop, which was ready for harvest, had been buried in silt. The octogenarian rues the treeless hills for the devastation caused by swollen Likhubula River, from Blantyre, which burst its banks and the M1 tarmac before sweeping her grain into the Shire.
“I have never seen such flooding in my lifetime, but it’s not surprising. Lush forests are gone and there is no tree to slow floodwater when rivers swell,” she said.
As Malawi now imports charcoal from Mozambique, Mlilima knows that selling a bag at a time will not save forests that are vanishing faster than they are being replenished.
“I don’t promote charcoal because trees in my area are gone; the bags you see are sourced from neighbouring forests. As a result, the Shire Valley is warmer because there are no trees to absorb the heat,” he says.
The clandestine sources include the flood-prone zones in West Bank, Maseya and Kasisi near Chikwawa’s top tourist destination—Majete Wildlife Reserve.
President Lazarus Chakwera urges Malawians to switch to briquettes, gas and other sustainable alternatives to charcoal and firewood.
But he gave no deadline to the forest produce used by 98 in every 100 households in Malawi.
Even the National Charcoal Strategy comes short of stating when Malawi intends to kick out the smoky cooking energy.
Director of forestry Clement Chilima says hiding charcoal stacks to save a chief’s face is no solution to deforestation.
He says: “This is very strange and it’s not solving the problem. It just gives a false picture that they are doing well to end charcoal production when they are doing business as usual.
“We need a holistic approach to end charcoal by promoting sustainable alternatives, not giving a false picture.”
Cause for worry
Catholic Development Commission (Cadecom) national coordinator Chimwemwe Phiri finds Mlilima’s example worrying as the National Forestry Policy requires traditional leaders to sensitise their communities to the gains of conserving trees.
“Chiefs are supposed to protect trees, but what is happening in Chikwawa is no different from the situation between Jenda and Mzimba where they display one bag, but supply more from nearby bushes,” he states.