A round 1970, the then five-year-old Paul Nthambazale was fond of playing in a nearby forest with his two older siblings.
While growing up in the area, he was not only oblivious to the value of trees, but it never occurred to him that the forest will one day be a source of his fortune and at the same time a symbol of struggle for his community and country.
Now, the decades-old manmade forest is at the bone of contention between local and private timber milling companies. Experts and the government believe the problem has long been brewing.
Around 1964, founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda embarked on an ambitious project to turn one of the mountain ranges in the country into a forest. What followed was the planting of trees—mostly exotic pine—into 53 000 hectares of woodland, the country’s largest manmade forest.
While the initial idea was to use the trees to support a potential pulp and paper industry, the government later leased the forest through concessions to private companies and indigenous Malawians, both sharing 60 and 40 percent of the forest, respectively.
But heavy harvesting in the area has prompted the government to rearrange the agreements with the timber millers, and on several occasions, suspended harvesting in the forest to control deforestation.
Viphya Plantation lies within a mountain range saddling in Mzimba and Nkhata Bay. Mzuzu City is located on the western slope.
Over the years, about 400 Malawian timber millers have co-existed in the country’s forests until recently when the former claims they discovered their counterparts were being given a lion’s share.
Since 2013, the two groups have been at loggerheads with the government forestry officials backing the foreign companies.
Nthambazale, now a successful 40-year-old timber miller, heads a 35-member group called Reformed Timber Millers Union, a brainchild of Timber Millers Cooperative Union which disbanded after the government cancelled their permits.
After the group sued the government, they came up with a new agreement which is running to date.
He recalled when they started having problems with the agreement in 2013. They were entitled to 10 000 hectares of the forest, but said the piece had only 2 700 hectares of pine trees and 500 hectares of bluegum trees.
He said: “The government told us that it was going to source trees from the other concessionaires because the government had no trees.
“Government officials admitted that they made a mistake by giving too much land to the other concessionaires. In 1999, the government started giving concessionaires to foreign based companies in huge areas, others up to 20 000 of fully covered zones.”
Thambazale and his colleagues have been staging protests by blocking other companies from accessing the forest ito force the government to give them an extra piece of trees.
He said they will keep on protesting until they see change not only in timber, but other businesses as well where he claims foreigners are being given preferential treatment. He believes some government officials are cashing in on the resources available in the forests.
But according to director of forest Stella Gama, the 2016 forestry and the public sector reforms instituted by the government allow the Department of Forestry to engage the private sector in the management of forests under forest plantations agreements or concessions.
“This is normal but also of advantage to the ministry to ensure sustainable management of forests, improved industrial forestry and also enhance forest sector financing. Since 1999, the department has facilitated the signing and operationalisation of a number of agreements with a number of private companies,” said Gama.
She cited Raiply, AKL Timbers, Pyxus Agriculture, Kawandama Hills and Total Land Care as having a stake in over 30 000 hectares in the plantation.
Gama refuted allegations that government is favouring foreigners and said the problem is rooted in harvesting more trees than the millers can replace.
She explained: “Harvesting of the areas outside the Raiply concession area has happened unsustainably considering that the licensees were harvesting more than what the department could restore.
“It’s not correct to say that the government is favouring others. It’s just that the mode of engagement is varied. Others opted for long-term arrangements while the locals preferred short-term licences.”
Clifford Mkanthama, climate change and biodiversity expert, said the indigenous loggers need to follow whatever was agreed in their memorandum of understanding, but said the current protests are disappointing.
Mkanthama said there has been an argument that deforestation levels are reducing in the country although this could have been because people don’t have trees to cut anymore and not necessarily because people have stopped cutting down trees in the forests.
“They don’t have resources to harvest them. People are now scrambling for the little resources available and when it comes to timber in Malawi, the land that has enough trees is the plantation,” he said.
Mkanthama noted that most of the 53 000 hectares of the pine trees has also been destroyed by fire and people.
“People who just harvest without replenishing through replanting have found themselves in an awkward situation that they don’t have trees to harvest.”