Before our very eyes, we are watching Viphya Plantations, popularly known as Chikangawa, being wiped off the face of Malawi—literally. The country gazes on as Dzalanyama Forest Reserve is being shaved bare. Mulanje Mountain, especially its treasure trove of cedar trees, continues to be ravaged and no one, frankly, cares.
Catchment areas—including those that are the sources of the water we drink—are being gang-raped by machete and axe-wielding characters and we are all looking away; as if we could not care less. Meanwhile, politicians are happily playing double standards—railing against deforestation in the media while silently and privately egging on the plunders to unsutainably keep looting our reserves for charcoal and fire wood simply because they represent a voting block the professional liars believe can be the difference between winning an election and being a mere also-run.
What about the Forestry Department? I have never seen such a confused pack. They never confiscate hundreds of bags littered along the MI Road, for example, but quickly jump at the fellow with just a single bag bought from the massive environmental degraders, who are left scot free to continue with their terrible ways by the road-sides where hundreds of bags are placed for sale. It is not that the legal and regulatory framework is non-existent. There is the Forestry Policy whose application remains a problem.
The Forestry Act has some tough measures against deforesters but enforcement is half-hearted. The Land Act too has clear actions aimed at deterring land degradation, but who cares to see them through. Those in positions of power appear as helpless as the ravaged innocent trees and bare lands. The helpless tone was evident recently in Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Atupele Muluzi who, apparently, expressed shock at the pace at which the Dzalanyama Forest Reserve is being deforestated, saying there is need for an immediate decisive action if the current situation was to be addressed. Muluzi cried on that that the country needs concerted efforts from all stakeholders to stop the alarming levels of deforestation. “We need to save the forest now or risk a dry Capital City. No action or business as usual is disastrous,” Muluzi reportedly said during a stakeholders’ meeting to map way forward to address the problem.
These are empty words from someone who has no idea about what to do. He calls for action without leading the way in specifying that action and how it can be implement to help arrest the problem. When the man with the most political power over our natural resources refuses to accept responsibility and act boldly to tackle the growing crisis, does the country have any hope of saving our forests? With such timid approach by the Minister, is it any wonder that Malawi is bereft of trees with empty hills, land arable land that has little forest cover? Does it surprise anybody that water, in the rainy season, moves freely while sweeping away even the crops that have been planted right where trees were cut down to create the farming land? pointing to how the dominance of agriculture in the national economy could make saving forests harder, what with a population growth rate that is worsening pressure on land—the most important asset for at least 90 percent of the Malawian population. Indeed, the link between population growth rates and the speed at which forests are being whacked away is very close. Some figures I have seen—they are about 10 years old—show that the country’s population growth rate is around 3.1 percent while the deforestation rate is 2.4 percent—almost neck-in-neck. Unfortunately, for too long, we neglected to embed population planning into our development planning. For example, the first Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDSI) had very little, if any, population linkages, although, thankfully, MGDS II has given it some level of prominence.
Again, the overreliance on agriculture—especially subsistence farming—is also worsening the deforestation problem. Agriculture accounts for 80 percent of total employment in Malawi, makes up nearly 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and is responsible for up to 90 percent of total exports. There is no doubt that subsistence farming, tobacco production and, of course, charcoal and firewood use are the major causes of deforestation, which means direct interventions must go in those areas, including effective incentives for those that survive on charcoal and firewood to generate income and wrongly think that they would die without such a business. But there are also underling causes that require drastic policy measures that should be fully implemented with vigour if this country is to be saved.
Thus, policies that aggressively tackle poverty and provide economic incentives must be developed and, if already there, improved and implemented. Issues of population density and land shortages; we must fairly deal with the imbalances in land distribution and must reform our land laws to make land tenure more certain. These are long term strategies. In the short-term, we can be a little more serious with rapid afforestation, strive for more efficiency in charcoal making, expand sharply increase access to electricity, diversify the economy away from its over-reliance on subsistence farming and look for technologies that can help us to produce tobacco in a more environmental friendly manner. And, oh, can we be a little less fertile in our reproductive organs? And for God’s sake, can we drastically minimise the largely-scale timber extraction by these logging companies currently going on destructively in Chikangawa and other areas? Thank you. n