Today is World Environmental Day, a celebration of efforts “connecting people to nature”. Malawi News Agency (Mana) journalist DANIEL KASONDO highlights Chief Nthondo’s passion for fading forests.
Not long ago, hills and valleys in Ntchisi District were draped in thick, scenic forests. Mndirasadzu and Kaombe forests were dense.
But sights of smoke spiralling from these forests spells doom as trees go up in flames following the high demand for charcoal in urban areas.
The hills now lie bare, with outcropping rocks and stumps here and there.
Ntchisi is struggling to curb practices that rob its scenery of natural beauty.
But one community has taken an initiative to restore the vanishing forest cover.
Thanks to collective policing of forests, nearly all villages in the territory of Senior Chief Nthondo, almost 10 kilometres from Ntchisi Boma, offer passers-by continuous sights of indigenous forests.
“No person tampers with our trees without being asked tough questions,” boasts Senior Chief Nthondo, pointing to the thickly forested Chika hills.
The rural Malawians resolved to stop reckless felling of trees following nasty encounters with adverse effects of environmental degradation.
The harsh realities included massive soil erosion, siltation of rivers, erratic rainfall and scarcity of forest produce.
When Yoke Mpanang’ombe was enthroned as Traditional Authority (T/A) Nthondo in 1998, he vowed to protect natural resources by imposing strict rules.
“The first thing was to ensure that every shoot emerging from stumps grew into a new tree. They regenerated. Later, we passed by-laws to safeguard all trees, including those we keep planting,” he says.
Punishing offenders has helped protect nature in his area.
Those found felling a tree, whether small or big, are fined K25 000 or five goats.
The fine goes to village natural resources management committees.
The community sanctions have helped to give trees and shrubs in many homes, hills and crop fields a chance to regenerate and grow.
Recently, Minister of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining Bright Msaka visited Nthondo to appreciate the restoration of forests.
He commended the villagers for carefully managing its forests just when many communities in the country are failing.
“I think people can come and learn how you are doing it here. I am not surprised to hear that the rains have been good in the few past years,” he said.
The green cover has caught the attention of various organisations, too.
Among others, Training Support for Partners (TSP), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in Ntchisi, trained the locals in forest management.
This moved the villagers to make firebreaks to protect forests and start using the forests for their livelihood without ransacking it.
Now, it is home to bustling bee-keeping business.
“The locals were interested in sustainable forestry management. Another major component was the creation of family forests. Each family was encouraged to own a woodlot,” says TSP project coordinator Mighty Fremu.
They also encouraged committees to appoint a woman ambassador from each village. One of their duties is to go around, rallying women to lead in protecting trees.
Eunice Zimba, from Mphedza Village, is one of the ambassadors.
“Most women are now owners of personal woodlots,” Zimba says.
The numbers of women ambassadors is increasing.
They have heralded community forums where women discuss the importance of forests and how they can manage family woodlots.
“Women appreciate the significance of trees because they are the ones who suffer a lot because of deforestation. We don’t want to go back to the times we used to walk long distances in search of firewood,” says Zimba.
Ntchisi District Council recently requested for the hand of Malawi Defence Force (MDF) in protecting endangered forests.
But villagers in Nthondo seem to have the answer—arm the locals with information and they will lead in the fight against deforestation.
Community involvement and local leadership is working wonders in their midst.
“It is clear that the Department of Forestry lacks capacity to protect our forests. I propose they hand over the powers to chiefs. A sense of ownership is ideal for sustainable forest management,” says Nthondo.
Assistant district forestry officer Gabriel Misomali says this could be the way to go.
“Where there is strong community leadership, forests are still in good shape. Traditionally, chiefs have influence on how subjects handle natural resources,” he says.
His department is working closely with chiefs to conserve nature.
Nthondo says: “The solution is in our hands, not in the numbers of forestry officials or the might of armed soldiers.” n