They wiped out vast forests, leaving rivers buried in silt, soils eroded and bleached by run-offs and their crops washed away by perennial floods.
Food insecurity keeps haunting the rural Malawians in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chimombo, Nsanje, as yields are dwindling. Besides, they have to do with murky water hardly safe for drinking.
In Nsamba and Chindikano villages, the communities, which annihilated natural trees that once protected Nyachipere River, Mzungu Hill as well as Makoka and Nyantiba forests, are rising to the enormous price of unsustainable exploitation of natural resources.
Chindikano villager Shehe Welengayi, 39, blames deforestation on swelling scrambles for fertile farmland.
“Every year, we used to cut down trees to open new crop fields when the old ones became barren. We thought trees belong to the government, but the floods haunt nobody but us when Nyachipere River burst beyond its banks when it rains,” he says.
The misconceived liberty to wantonly fell trees has left the community prone to shocks associated with climate change, says Group Village Head Nsamba.
“We cut the trees as we wished, forgetting our duty to safeguard the environment. Every year, we saw floods destroying buildings and development infrastructure, making us poorer,” he decried.
To conserve the environment and reduce the shocks, the villagers have embarked on a tree-planting project with support from Centre for Policy and Advocacy (Cepa) and Churches Action in Relief and Development (Card).
The three-year reforestation drive, funded by the Scottish Government through Christian Aid, strives for improved community resilience through increased water supply and food security in the flood-prone district.
The initiative specifically targets parts of T/As Mbenje and Chimombo where farmers receive seedlings, guidelines and briefs of the Forestry Policy which highlight the community roles and benefits of conserving the environment.
According to Cepa project manager Charles Kabambe, environmental degradation, especially deforestation, presents numerous setbacks to food security and access to safe water.
“The country is less resilient to harsh effects of climate change due to environmental degradation. We cannot develop the country when the hub is destroyed. We have the right to use the natural resources, but also the responsibility to conserve the environment,” he said.
Nsanje and the neighbouring Chikwawa, the worst hit by this year’s hunger, were among 15 districts that were devastated by floods last year.
It is high time communities seriously conserved the environment and restored the lost vegetation to reduce soil erosion, run-offs and floods, he said.
“In the absence of trees, fields are becoming increasingly unproductive and hunger is becoming chronic,” he warns.
The locals have crafted by-laws to safeguard trees.
In Mbenje, Bande villagers are making a living out of a forest they conserved back in 2013.
The remote community said hands off an idle parch, allowing stumps that once stood on a bare river banks to regenerate.
Ever since, Lalanje River, which was almost dry, has thickly forested banks complete with wild fruits and animals.
No one is allowed to cut down a tree without the knowledge of a community-based committee.
GVH Bande says: “Trees belong to all of us and every family has to benefit from the forest products.”
Nsamba and Chindikano villages have planted over 2 500 trees on Nyachipere River banks. Almost 3 000 more will be planted in Nyantiba and Makoka forest areas as well as Mzungu Hill.
The conservation exercise is being spearheaded by village-based committees responsible for natural resources management, water and development.
Nsanje assistant forestry officer McDuff Mwafumu asked the villagers to restore indigenous forests.
He commended the change agents for taking the forest policy to the people, saying: “The Forestry Department is ready to work with the communities to conserve the environment.”
The conserved rivers are central to irrigation farming which government has singled out as a lifeline for millions of Malawians struggling with food insecurity.
Almost seven in 10 Malawians face a bleak future due to droughts that halved the country’s maize yield in the previous growing seasons.
Cepa has established solar-powered irrigation schemes in GVH Nsamba and Melo to improve water supply and food security.
Nearly 400 households are involved in winter cropping, an intervention Kabambe turning around livelihoods and food prospects of low-income farmers.
The schemes aside, 61 farmers are practising conservation agriculture using high-yielding crop varieties in their upland fields.