Thousands of trees are planted in the country to conserve the environment and to meet the immediate energy demands of communities. Although such a large population of trees is planted each year, these efforts are being frustrated by the fact that most trees are cut prematurely.
According to a report titled Status of Forests and Tree Management in Malawi by the Coordination Union for Rehabilitation of the Environment (Cure), over 60 percent of trees planted annually in the country do not survive. Cure estimates the figures to be around 55 million.
Charles Chimbudzo, 42, from Kamwendo Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mkanda, Mulanje was among people involved in careless tree-cutting. But now, Chimbudzo has planted 400 trees, thanks to stiff punishments introduced by Group Village Head Kamwendo.
“I used to cut trees carelessly, but through awareness, I am now a changed person,” he says.
Chimbudzo, a father of six, says the penalties introduced by the chief have helped contain deforestation.
Angry with the rate at which trees were cut and rivers flooding due to lack of trees along the Namadzi and Msombezi river banks, Kamwendo called on his subjects to protect trees to avert climate change challenges.
Kamwendo says he felt the need to create a sense of responsibility and ownership among people in the village if trees were to be protected.
“I sat down with my 10 village heads to brainstorm how to deal with the challenge. We agreed to penalise culprits so as to control tree-cutting and also to encourage people to grow more trees,” says Kamwendo, who was installed in 2008.
The chief with his subjects developed an action plan. The action plan until today says each area has village development committees (VDC) and then area development committees (ADCs) which have regulations. The regulations included that whoever wants to cut a tree should seek permission from the chief, failing which they are fined a chicken for each tree felled. One of the culprits was Chimbudzo.
As Malawi commemorates International Day of Forests and Trees, the need to enforce such measures could not have come at a better time.
This year’s commemorations are focusing on tree management at community level. Researchers, in a document titled 11 Ways to Help Save Our Forests, have stated forests are destroyed through tree-cutting for firewood, furniture, the paper industry and development.
To counter deforestation, several organisations, communities and government institutions have been planting trees, but research shows that only 40 percent of all planted trees survive. Among the reasons cited in the report are that 60 percent of the planted trees die due to poor management and increased cases of bush fires.
Kamwendo’s stringent measures to ensure trees are saved are in line with the Forestry Act of 1997 which says: “Any person who lights or causes to be lit a fire in a forest reserve, protected forest area or village forest area shall be guilty of an offence and liable upon conviction of a fine of K10 000 and to imprisonment for a term of five years.”
However, without the intervention of chiefs like Kamwendo, there does not seem to be any enforcement of this Act.
Currently, Kamwendo Village is an example of an area where tree planting can be a success.
“Last year, people in my area planted close to 15 000 trees. This year, we have planted more than that and the basic rule remains, cut once fully grown, and with consent from the chiefs, and replace the cut trees. We don’t want to go back to the times when people would cut trees anyhow,” he says.
No wonder Kamwendo’s efforts have been recognised by Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT). The organisation in conjunction with Mulanje District Forestry Office and World Vision Malawi (WVM) crowned Kamwendo ADC as an example in tree planting and preservation.
The Development Aid from People to People (Dapp) says chiefs are better placed to handle deforestation issues by introducing punitive measures which are hardly enforced by Forestry authorities in the country.
Programmes officer for Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa), Dorothy Tembo, says chiefs cannot be blamed for not fully implementing the Forstry Act as they may face challenges in implementing the law itself.
“In general, the Forestry Act is outdated. In fact, there is limited implementation of this outdated clause,” Tembo says, adding community surveillance and educating masses can help maintain forests.
The Department of Forestry thinks the formation of forestry clubs in communities would also help preserve forests without involving authorities.
Regional forestry officer for the South, Cecilia Chauluka, says such clubs allow communities to manage forests or trees for medicinal, firewood and timber purposes only.
Chauluka says: “The agreement has a strategic plan, which details what ought to be done by communities and when to harvest. It further gives people mandate to discipline those caught setting their forests on fire.”
“Previously, we used to manage them, but as you know, it is not easy; hence the decision to let go some of the forests so that masses manage them,” she said.