Death of a community forest defender in Dzalanyama Reserve has sent ripples of fear in communities around the endangered forest, increasing demands for a military intervention abolished in 2018.
“Heavily armed, illegal charcoal producers ran after the community volunteers. Unfortunately, Widson Samuel, 32, was caught, beaten and hacked beyond recognition.
“He died on the spot. The unknown criminals also injured Chiyerekezo Mainala who is currently admitted to Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe,” narrates Dedza Police Station spokesperson Cassim Manda.
On July 20, Samuel, from Lozani Village in Traditional Authority Chilikumwendo in Dedza, was among 14 community forest guards on routine patrols in Dzalanyama Forest—the source of the piped water for Lilongwe City. However, they were caught in a deadly ambush that left one dead and the other critically injured in the forest bordering Dedza, Lilongwe and Mchinji.
For decades, illegal loggers and charcoal producers have been annihilating the vast forest. The wave of destruction has led to massive siltation of Lilongwe River, where Lilongwe Water Board (LWB) taps water for the capital city’s population of nearly one million.
To conserve the forest, young men from surrounding villages in Dedza have been mounting patrols. The initiative persuaded the Department of Forestry with funding from Japanese International Cooperation Agency (Jica) to equip them with the necessary skills and tools.
In this way, the volunteers have become major protectors of the forest since Malawi Defence Force (MDF) silently pulled out of the forest.
Says Dedza district forestry officer Victor Lusaka: “Since MDF left, the threat of deforestation is back. Charcoal burners have infested the forest and they do not come from nearby villages, but from other districts.
“During the recent attack on the community forest guards, it is believed that the charcoal burners were heavily armed. They are notorious at what they do and they walk in gangs.”
Lusaka says the forest scouts “fell into a trap” as they initially met just about five out of many charcoal makers ready for any attack.
“It is said there were more than 50 charcoal makers. When the community scouts saw the initial five on their bicycles, they confiscated the bags of charcoal and they were instantly attacked by those who came out of their hiding place with pangas and axes.”
The battle to save Dzalanyama becomes tricky and tense because the forest sits on the border between Malawi and Mozambique.
“We hear Mozambicans are being given licences to burn, yet there are no trees in Mozambique. As such, they come here with their licences.
“When they burn trees and cross the border, there is nothing we can do,” explains Lusaka.
The recent incident illustrates how forest protectors fall prey to destroyers the soldiers were deployed to eliminate
Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining spokesperson Sangwani Phiri said government and LWB have mobilised resources for redeployment of the military platoons.
However, director of forestry Stella Gama says she is “shocked, dejected, stressed and speechless” by the ambush.
“It is so disheartening to get news that community members that were supporting government efforts to conserve and manage forest resources in Dzalanyama Forest met this fate. How can they hack to death a fellow human being for charcoal?” she asks.
Gama says similar incidents once compelled the ministry to commence talks on forest management issues in Dzalanyama with its Mozambican counterpart.
“We are using appropriate government channels and the unfortunate incident will be included in their discussion at the next meeting once it’s been organised,” she says.
Fear for life
As the wait for talks continues, the community scouts are afraid of going back into the forest.
Lusaka has also advised against the community-led patrols, leaving the dangerous chore to the government-sponsored forest guards and rangers they were complementing.
“Currently, we are talking with the Department of Forestry to organise a big patrol, maybe using the Department of Parks and Wildlife, Malawi Police Service and MDF to sweep the charcoal burners that have proliferated the forest before these scouts can continue with their normal patrols,” he says.
However, the attack has also exposed how defenceless the forest rangers currently are.
There are only two forest rangers who stay at the site where the incident happened and they usually conduct patrols without firearms, The Nation has learnt.
They usually go with the volunteers when patrolling a dangerous zone.
And Lusaka shined a light on the deadly consequences of facing armed gangs without a single live bullet.
He narrated “During normal patrols, we encourage the scouts to go with the department’s forest guards. However, the major problem is that the department doesn’t have ammunition; the rangers only have the guns as sticks.
“Actually, on this day, a ranger had actually refused to escort the community guards for fear of his security. He was afraid that the charcoal burners were going to snatch the harmless weapon.” n