Despite deforestation being a threat to the economy and well-being of the Malawi population, it has become easier to talk about it than to take strategic action to redress it. Discussions on deforestation tend to trigger a blame game directed at government.
The challenges surrounding deforestation have become almost insurmountable, beyond the capacity of any single institution or sector to deal with. Some schools of thought regard deforestation as a symptom, not a problem.
According to data generated by the World Resources Institute (www.wri.org), Malawi has been losing up to 31 000 hectares of forest cover per annum from 2001 to 2014, and the highest forest cover loss occurred in 2012 when up to about 50 000 hectares were lost.
Looking at the trend of forest loss from 2001 to 2014, and the recalling socio-economic and political events during this period, it can be safe to conclude that deforestation is a symptom of underlying complex factors. Let us unpack some of the events that seem to have triggered deforestation during this period.
Statistics show that in 2004/05 and 2007/2008 seasons, deforestation increased drastically. Coincidentally, there was hunger in Malawi in these years which was triggered by dry spells and drought. According to a study conducted by Poverty and Environment Initiative Project released in 2010, about 80 percent of the Malawi population depends on natural resources to sustain their livelihoods. As a result of the hunger that struck in these two years, most people resorted to tree cutting for charcoal production which they would sale to generate cash for food and other basic necessities.
On the other hand, in 2009 and 2010, Malawi experienced a bumper harvest due to good rains and the introduction of subsidy on agricultural farm inputs such as seed and fertiliser, and the economy, in form of GDP, is reported to have grown by seven percent. The growth in economy also coincided with political stability. The reduction in forest cover loss was almost half of the average annual loss during that period.
The period 2011 to 2014 experienced increased forest cover loss, culminating in 2012, where about 50 000 hectares were lost. Again, recalling socio-economic and political events during that period point to some link with massive forest cover loss.
The political situation in Malawi started showing signs of decline in 2011, culminating in 2012. According to socio-political commentators, while the official value of the kwacha against the United States dollar was high, it was, in real sense low. Commodity prices rose and fuel shortages were rampant. While the discontent in urban areas was manifested by massive protests and demonstrations, in rural areas tree cutting accelerated to make up for the increased commodity prices.
Apart from these factors, we should be mindful of increased population growth and reliance on biomass such as firewood and charcoal as major source of energy for cooking and lighting. With only 12 percent of the population being supplied with electricity, and with the population increasing 2.8 percent per annum in Malawi, increased deforestation is inevitable.
So, we should regard deforestation as a symptom of the socio-economic, political situation; and natural phenomenon such as dry spells and droughts as underlying factors.
While a lot is being done to reduce deforestation, it is not enough. For example, according to data generated by the WRI, between 2001 and 2014, Malawi gained 10 299 hectares of tree cover. This gives an annual gain of 736 hectares against 31 000 hectares being lost, which is only two percent.
Thus, deforestation in the short-term is usually driven by the economic and political decisions, but of course, not leaving out climate change impacts and extreme weather events such as dry spells and droughts. Unfortunately, these driving forces do not commensurate with the enabling resources provided to the public institutions mandated to lead the fight of deforestation. We all have a role to play and the responsibility to reduce deforestation.