Malawi’s forests are disappearing faster than they are being replenished, but neither police barricades nor seizing charcoal is keeping the problem in check.
Charcoal sales are astonishingly flourishing too close to roadblocks where police and forestry officers confiscate charcoal from travellers.
The irony mirrors a breakdown in the enforcement of forest protection laws in Malawi.
At Zalewa checkpoint in Neno and Thabwa in Chikwawa, charcoal selling points have been growing for decades as the law enforcers look on.
Conservationists say security agents with eyes firmly on bicycles and small vehicles are not protecting waning forests, but amassing the illicit ‘black gold’ for resale.
Director of forestry Clement Chilima says the police stops have become worthless as truckers and charcoal barons traffic the illegal commodity day and night.
He explained: “I have seen that myself and roadblocks are nearly useless. We are better off without them and I suspect corruption.
“You will see trucks carrying charcoal passing roadblocks. The police see them. Our officers see them. We need to strengthen law enforcement.”
Chilima said it will soon become illegal for forestry offices to sell charcoal confiscated from illegal producers, transporters and traders.
When asked about the charcoal hotspots near roadblocks, national police spokesperson James Kadadzera says: “In almost all permanent roadblocks in Malawi, police officers man these checkpoints together with forest officers.
“Forest officers are responsible for all enforcement to do with forest produce; we provide a supportive role where necessary.”
He says it is true that bags of charcoal still find its way to town either through lorries or bicycles.
“We need a colloborative effort by all stakeholders to reduce charcoal production and selling,” Kadadzera says, adding traditional leaders’ involvement “is a must to win this battle”.
But Chief Malili of the hilly locality adjacent to Thabwa Roadblock in Chikwawa states that community leaders cannot replace police and forestry officers.
“Forest guards and the police need to work together because some village heads and forest committee members are involved in charcoal business. After all, when they confiscate charcoal, forestry officials will sell it anyway,” he explains.
Catholic Development Commission (Cadecom) national coordinator Chimwemwe Phiri says selective justice frustrates citizen action to safeguard trees.
“When you look at charcoal passing roadblocks and being sold in the vicinity, you wonder whether the police and forestry officers are there to protect forests or get some bags for sale. They rarely check trucks loaded with charcoal and seem happy to get some charcoal which they sell to their colleagues.”
Cadecom works with community forest committees in Machinga. Their by-laws ban the production, selling and transportation of charcoal in line with the revised Forestry Act.
“The local forest protectors find it frustrating that when they seize charcoal, Forestry Department staff only come to collect it and sell it at cheap price. It’s like they have a ready market and they are only desperate to satisfy the demand, not to save forests,” Phiri said.
The forestry law Parliament passed in February prescribe stiffer penalties, including the seizure of bicycles, motorcycles and vehicles intercepted with charcoal.
Policymakers are debating regulations to make the amended law work, including an outlaw on the resale of charcoal by forestry officials.
“The new Forestry Act makes selling charcoal illegal and it does not matter whether the seller is an individual or a government department. No one is above the law,” says Herbert Mwalukomo, executive director of Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy.
The activist commends Chilima for squarely confronting the ironies of law enforcement roadblocks exhibit.
He said: “Thumbs up, time to act is now. If we get rid of the charcoal market, people will start looking for sustainable alternatives including gas.
“With a gas cylinder, you don’t need charcoal. In Zambia, just next door, you don’t see people selling charcoal recklessly.”
Mwalukomo urges charcoal traders and buyers “to do the right thing” for the love of the country and future generations.
According to the 2018 census, nearly all households in Malawi—98 percent—cook using charcoal and firewood.
As a result, trees are disappearing faster than they are being replaced in the annual national tree-planting season.
Last month, President Lazarus Chakwera and Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo urged the population of 18.4 million to switch to briquettes, gas and other sustainable cooking energy sources instead of depleting forests.