In Mzimba, forests are vanishing at an alarming rate as tobacco estates rely on trees to dry and cure the ‘green gold’. As the trees increasingly go up in smoke, the locals are complaining about dwindling harvests and frequent dry spells, floods and hailstorms.
But tobacco farmers are equally hit by the harsh effects of climate change.
Gung’u Kaunda, a tobacco grower at Kalama in Mtwalo, says he lost 80 percent of his maize, tobacco and beans due to water climate-related problems.
“Rains are erratic and rivers are drying. We struggled to find water for tobacco nurseries. Soon after planting, the crops were washed away by heavy rains,” he says.
The farmer had to replant much of his 700-hectare estate. He might have harvested 300 bales last year, but he thinks 120 will be a bonus this year.
Similar cries are endemic in Rumphi, the second largest tobacco-growing district in the North.
Bolero resident Patrick Nyirenda lost half of his produce during the dry spell that partly left 2.8 Malawians facing hunger.
“Rains were scarce. My 10 hectares usually produce 200 bales, but I only managed 100 last year,” Nyirenda says.
Bolero and Mwahenga were the worst hit by dry spells that affected 5 859 households.
Environmental experts attribute the tragedy to wanton felling of trees used for drying tobacco.
Hendrix Mwanza of Ehlekweni, Mzimba, uses at least 30 tonnes for erecting barns for the leaf on his 40-hectare estate.
He buys a few eucalyptus poles from Lusangazi Forest in the State-owned Viphya Plantation, but the majority are indigenous trees from the depleted Jenjewe and Chimbongondo forest reserves near the farm.
“I have close to 50 tobacco barns that need trees every year,” Mwanza says.
Surprisingly, village heads are in the forefront depleting the forests they are supposed to safeguard.
“We buy the natural trees from traditional leaders around the forests. Sometimes, we get them without their permission,” Mwanza says.
The story is the same in Ekwendeni, Ehlaleni, Engucwini and Kalama where Kapilisisi Forest Reserve is slowly being wiped out.
Deforestation mirrors the ugly side of tobacco farming, which employs 25 percent of the country’s workforce and accounts for 60 percent of exports.
Global Environment Facility (GEF) civil society network country contact person Kinnear Mlowoka quotes a study conducted in Mtwalo which indicates tobacco farming and charcoal making are escalating deforestation.
“Farmers are growing tobacco as a tradition, not as a business. This mentality has not improved their livelihood but degrades the environment,” Mlowoka said.
He is convinced that safeguarding the environment can improve people’s livelihoods more than tobacco farming if the locals start owning woodlots for commercial and domestic use.
Environmental experts blame the collapse of natural resource management systems on the high rate of deforestation.
Currently, the country loses nearly three in 100 trees every year, one of the worst deforestation rates in the world.
Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining advocates a shift from farming practices that leave the forests bare.
The ministry levies 0.02 percent of proceeds from tobacco companies and estate owners, says spokesperson Sangwani Phiri.
The fund is managed by the Department of Forestry. It supports the establishment of village forest areas, regeneration of indigenous trees and mass awareness against encroachment of forest reserves and replenishment of trees consumed by tobacco activities.
“We urge tobacco buyers to take a leading role in tree planting exercises. Presently, we are in touch with buyers like Alliance One to come up with thousands of seedlings for planting in tobacco growing areas,” Phiri said.
The ministry also requires tobacco growers to reserve 10 percent of their estates for woodlots for barn making and other chores.
Presently, some tobacco buyers, who offer farmers inputs on contract basis, encourage farmers to plant trees in a pattern that fledges into a permanent barn.
According to JTI director of corporate affairs and communications Antonio Vencesla, the company plans to plant 26 million trees by 2018 as part of its sustainable reforestation strategy.
Nearly 16 million trees have been planted since 2011, he said.
However, Mlowoka thinks that natural regeneration would be much better.
“Re-afforestation programmes have been done for years, but the survival rate of trees is very minimal due to dry spells and lack of care. We need to focus on regeneration of the existing forests,” he argues.
As the scrapping of forests continues, Senior Chief Mtwalo asks government to strictly enforce forest protection laws.
“Some chiefs have passed bylaws against careless cutting down of trees, but they are not supported by the Forestry Department,” he says. nx