Once upon a time, uninhabited places used to have good tree cover. In those days, if you saw some green from a distance, you were sure that you were approaching an uninhabited area. Things have now reversed. If you see some green today, chances are that you are approaching a habited area. The uninhabited areas are now bare, devoid of any trees. If you stand at Manyowe in Blantyre and take a view of Soche Hill, you will notice some greenery from the foot of the mountain to somewhere mid-way up, where the human settlement stops. Beyond that, the mountain is bald. Of course, there is some greenery at the very top of the mountain, but I think it is because that place is hard to reach.
The lesson we learn from this observation is that trees, and other natural resources, can be preserved if they belong to someone. The trees you see in habited areas are mango, avocado, guava and other types or shrubs that the plot owners will have planted and will look after. If anybody comes to cut them down, they will be apprehended and taken to court for trespassing or theft, or both.
A sense of ownership can protect our forests. Trees that grow in places that do not belong to anybody are vulnerable to what environmentalists call “the tragedy of the commons”. This concept is based on a published pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd in 1833. Lloyd stated that if some herders shared a common parcel of land, which any of them could access to graze their sheep, it would so happen that because access to the grazing land is not regulated, overgrazing would occur. As a result of the overgrazing, the sheep would begin to starve, resulting in dwindling profits to the herders.
Soon, the herders will, one after another, begin to add more animals to their herds to counter the dwindling profits. The growing herds will put more pressure on the grazing land resulting in highly accelerated overgrazing. Very soon there will be no grazing land left.
The point is that the herders will be acting on self interest. None of them will restrain themselves from overharvesting the grazing land, their main drive being maximising the benefits accruing to them. Self interest is what destroys our forests and other natural resources.
The thinking is like, “I need to earn a little something to fend for my family. I, therefore, can cut down whatever natural trees I find and sell them as firewood or convert them to charcoal.”
Because of self interest, nobody cares to pause and consider what effect the wanton felling of trees will have. I have always argued that if the charcoal makers had the sense of planting trees to replace those that they cut down, the problem would not be as acute as it is. But, obviously, self interest prevents them from doing so because what they want is quick returns. They cannot wait for six, seven or 10 years for the trees to mature before they start harvesting them. That does not even begin to cross their minds.
It will take considerable effort to change people’s mindset into believing that forests or lakes or game parks are their assets and that they need to look after them. The people must either take ownership of these resources or they must be convinced that government legitimately owns them and will, therefore, deal with anybody found tampering with such assets.
As I search within my past, my mind goes back several decades to the time I was in Standard Three. The title of our Chichewa book was “Liwiro”. In that book authored by one G. E. Michongwe, there was a poem which talked about a game reserve that belonged to Bophera Village. One of the stanzas went: “Mfumu Bophera thengo la Gwaza atseka. Ati, ‘Umu kusaka ayi. Ogwidwa, kuno mubwere naye kumene adzalangidwa kwa ndithu.’” (Chief Bophera orders a moratorium on Gwaza reserve, saying, “No hunting is permitted here. If anybody is caught hunting, bring him here and he will be dealt with accordingly).
If our chiefs had a sense of ownership of natural resources, like chief Bophera had, we would successfully protect such assets from “the tragedy of the commons”.