The scramble for the hugely depleted Viphya Plantations reached a new low on Thursday when four Raiply Malawi workers were detained in Mzuzu for allegedly encroaching on territory belonging to Timber Millers Union (TMU).
The foursome—a truck driver, tractor operator and two labourers—were detained alongside two forestry officials at Mchengautuwa Police Unit after they were allegedly captured logging bluegum trees at Chamatete in Nthungwa, an area said to have been granted to the union of seven timber millers’ cooperatives.
TMU also confiscated a truckload of logs and a tractor which were still in police custody as of Friday morning.
The arrests could be a case of tit-for-tat as tensions have been rising for two weeks since some union members were intercepted by security officials at Chikangawa Police Station after being caught making timber in Raiply zone.
The six hostages were still in police custody on the margins of Mzuzu when Nation on Sunday rushed to Mchengautuwa at 5.30pm on Thursday and a lawyer hired by the union termed them “principal offenders” in what he described as “a clear case of theft”.
“The six were caught in the act of stealing trees in an area which belongs to my clients. We don’t know how long this has been going on and we are yet to ascertain the gravity of the loss, but we will certainly take this case to court,” said the union’s lawyer, George Kadzipatike.
According to TMU president Paul Nthambazale, they engaged police officers to round up the suspects after a tip-off from a member of one of the cooperatives at around 9am.
In an interview, Nthambazale said: “Our main worry is that the Raiply officials were harvesting trees in our area without seeking permission.
“Besides, government could be losing a lot of revenue, not only because they did not follow the right procedures, but also since we suspect this trend may have been going on for a long time.”
He ruled out an out-of-court settlement just two weeks after Raiply had rebuffed calls for a negotiated end to the case involving trespassing unionists who were branded thieves and encroachers.
In 2010, TMU signed a concession with government for over 10 000 hectares—half of the hectarage assigned to Raiply—in Africa’s largest man-made forest.
Guidelines by the Department of Forestry require concessionaires to write plantation manager Wellington Nyondo, who sends planners to measure any plot earmarked for logging and invoice the applicant who can only start logging after paying the fees.
“The main losers are Malawians because the plantation officer doesn’t seem to know who are issuing permits in this manner,” claimed Nthambazale.
In an interview, the detained forestry officials, Mtula Msiska and Oswald Chakupompha, said they were operating on instructions from chief forester Andrew Mhango who takes orders from Nyondo.
They claimed to be victims of circumstances, saying Raiply’s inroads into the contested stretch comes a week after its officials approached Nyondo for more blue gum trees.
“Raiply has been harvesting bluegums at Chamatete since 2010, almost two years before the union started operating there,” claimed Msiska.
Added Chakupompha: “To us, the area belongs to the Department of Forestry.”
Raiply chief executive officer Tomas Oommen agreed with the foresters’ narrative and said it is unfair that the union leaders are cooking up allegations to counter the ongoing case involving their followers who stand accused of encroaching on Raiply territory.
“Around Nthungwa, there is a stretch with big bluegum trees. We have been harvesting trees from there for seven or eight years and we always buy. We approached the chief forester [a Mr Mhango] and the plantations manager [Nyondo] and they gave us permission to start harvesting,” said Oomen.
He argued that if the area really belongs to the union, the forestry officials would not have given them permits.
In an interview on Friday, Nyondo explained: “First, the union did not inform me of their plans to detain Raiply vehicles and workers. I also got it as news.
“Second, Raiply has been getting poles from Nthungwa and Mazamba for years. Of course, they bypassed me, but they met the in-charge of Nthungwa, Mr Mhango, who gave them the go-ahead.”
He asked for more time to look at the concessions for details on ownership of the bluegums.
On Friday morning, Mhango said he was aware of Raiply’s search for hardwood, but he does not issue permits.
“My duty is simply to tally the volumes of trees cut, but permits are issued by the plantations manager,” said Mhango.
The increasing spats over plots confirm the worrisome decline of the plantation devastated by wanton fires, reckless logging and political deals amid rising demand for wood materials.