A military operation to restore sanity in the hugely plundered Viphya Plantation in Mzimba has been blamed for the fire that destroyed parts of Malawi’s largest timber producer on Wednesday.
The evening fire gutted vast swathes of old and new trees at Mazamba, Mkonkhathipwa and surrounding forests a day after Timber Millers Cooperative Union obtained an injunction from the High Court in Mzuzu restraining government from evicting them from the plantation.
Coincidentally, the devastated areas fall within the union’s disputed 10 000 hectares which they were told to vacate having allegedly failed to harvest, manage and replant the trees in accordance with a concession signed in 2012. They also stand accused of owing government nearly K600 million for trees harvested.
In an interview yesterday, plantation manager Custom Nyirenda ruled out any conspiracy linking the fire to the raging battle for the depleted forest, saying there is “a strong suspicion” it was sparked by soldiers who have been burning and demolishing illegal structures in the protected area lately.
With government still ascertaining the cause and the gravity of the damage on the ground, Nyirenda told The Nation: “It has nothing to do with the conflict, but rather the Army which has been deployed to get rid of encroachers in the plantation.”
The majority of the consumed trees were newly planted, said the official.
While the government workforce’s investigations into the catastrophe continues, Timber Millers Cooperative Union president Paul Nthambazale said they will convene a press briefing today to expose the “pathetic loss and terror the Army has caused on the citizens they were supposed to safeguard.
When asked about the claims supposedly caused by the soldiers, Malawi Defence Force (MDF) spokesperson Paul Chiphwanya asked for more time to establish the truth of the matter.
Ironically, the soldiers were earlier involved in an extensive replanting exercise.
Counting the losses, figures at the plantation office show the annual tragedy has already destroyed nearly 240 hactares of mature and emerging trees in the State-run zones of Kalungulu and Nthungwa.
Raiply Malawi, whose concession covers 20 000 hectares out of Viphya Plantation’s 58 000 hactares, has lost about three hactares.