Charles Mpaka

First published: 9th May 2021; Sunday Times and The Loud Whisper ( Times TV)

Synopsis: A civil war on Malawi’s forests

Systemic corruption has turned Malawi’s forests into war zones, with some forest scouts taking bribes from illegal sawyers to allow them access to the trees. And when the deals turn sour, gunfights and deaths often follow. At Zomba Mountain Forest Reserve, an important tourist destination in Malawi, more than 100 trees are illegally harvested each month – and just 40 staff do the work of 1,000. The reason? At a time when the demand for timber and charcoal is rising, the government has stripped the Department of Forestry of its funding and manpower, instead of giving it the ammunition it needs to fight the growing threat to Malawi’s forests.

Editor’s Comments

This was an excellent article that highlighted the Zomba Plateau deforestation crisis. The article addressed issues of institutional corruption, but also documented how the Government’s lack of resource allocation to the forestry sector—human and financial combined —have created the current situation in which deforestation, aided and facilitated by corruption has become rampant. With the support of Parliament, Government recently approved financing that will allow the Department of Forestry to fill more than 400 vacant field-based positions. Looking ahead it will be important to track if the funds were actually made available, and if so, whether the staff were hired, trained and mobilized. And ultimately, whether the presence of additional staff (hopefully, with the financial resources needed to do forestry work—including regulation and enforcement) will have the desired impact of curbing illegal activities, halting deforestation, and catalyzing restoration of degraded forests.

Journalist Bio

Name: Charles Mpaka

Current publictions: The Sunday Times and correspondent for IPS

Tel: 0882183044 • Email: mpakacg@gmail.com • Region: Southern (Blantyre)

How govt, corruption waged war on Malawi’s forests

On 23 December 2020, a Department of Forestry guard shot dead an illegal sawyer on the Zomba Mountain Forest Reserve. The shooting which occurred on the outer slope of the reserve on the Nankhunda side was not an act of forest protection.

It was a result of a disagreement over the amount of a bribe.

This tragic occurrence highlights how corruption, largely spawned and aided by the government through systemic emasculation of the Department of Forestry, has turned Malawi’s forests into war zones.

Mathews Mkwapatira, a forester of over 30 years and currently Assistant Plantation Manager for Zomba Mountain Forest Reserve said Malawi’s forests have been falling to what he called “civil wars”.

“There are civil wars within the system, a fight over exploitation of forests. Then there are wars between outsiders and insiders.

“For example, we have a big problem of illegal timber harvesters in this forest. They can number as much as 50 at once and they come armed. They can kill you,” he said.

According to Zomba Social and Economic Profile (2017 – 2020), at least more than 100 timber trees are illegally harvested every month in the plantation, with the harvesters, it says, taking advantage of the limited number of forest patrol staff.

That the staffing levels are too low is true, we have found out. But our investigation has also established that some of those few forest patrol staff are part of the syndicate.

Here is how one scheme has been played over the years: a group of scouts is on patrol. They find charcoal producers in the reserve. Sometimes, they arrest them; but many are also the times when they strike a deal.

“So we agree to give them a bag of charcoal in exchange for us to do our work in the forest without interruption. Agreed, no scout comes to our area until a period of say two or three weeks. When we finish our work, we give them their share of charcoal and we leave the forest. That’s when they can patrol the areas again,” said one of the charcoal producers, Powder Mulama, from Nankhunda area.

The same trick has been employed by small-scale illegal sawyers.

“We give them between K50,000 and K70,000 and they allow us to saw or [have] access to live trees,” said a sawyer, Piasi Mkwepu.

He was one of the five illegal sawyers engaged in a fight with the scouts last December. On this occasion, they had already paid K50,000 bribe.

“We expected them to do as agreed. So we were surprised they returned before we had finished our work. They found us around 2pm while we were having lunch. They said they wanted us to increase the money. We refused,” said Mkwepu.

In the heat of verbal exchanges, a physical combat erupted. The sawyers descended on one of the three scouts. To rescue the overpowered colleague, another scout pulled the trigger on one of the sawyers, Justin Nasiyaya. He died on the spot.

A scout who was redeployed from the reserve on reasons he suspects are related to his being involved in such malpractices said: “This is one major factor in the destruction of the forest. Everyone is doing it. Our bosses are doing it. We also do it.”

The scouts we interviewed alleged that managers have “deals of their own class”. For example, they alleged, they illegally allocate themselves timber plots during harvesting seasons.

Or they allocate some licensed harvesters a bigger than necessary plot in exchange for money.

While admitting that corruption is a problem, Mkwapatira dismissed the allegation that forest department officials allocate harvesting plots.

“Government gave that task to Frim (Forest Research Institute of Malawi). They make the demarcations, determine the volumes to be harvested, calculate the revenue and give the information to government,” he said.

On the guards’ involvement in corruption, he said: “Not too long ago, we got two scouts arrested. In the past, some were redeployed on those allegations.”

Govt’s war on forests

Our findings also show that government, Treasury to be specific, has helped to create conditions for the thriving of corruption that is tearing down Malawi’s forests.

At a time demand for forest products has been rising sharply partly due to failure of government’s poverty eradication policies, booming population, lack of alternative energy sources and human rights consciousness, government has emasculated the Department of Forestry by starving it of funding and manpower – instead of giving its battlefront lead soldier the ammunition needed to counter the growing siege.

Details in Annual Economic Reports of the past 22 years reveal that since 1998, not in a single year has the Department received the essential Other Recurrent Transaction (ORT) funding that is even half of its budgeted requirement.

For instance, in six financial years between 2003 and 2009, the DoF received an average of K54.7 million per annum in ORT. This was way below its average requirement of K250 million for its 8 cost centres.

In the 2013/14 financial year, out of K131 million approved budget for ORT for all its 8 cost centres, the South cost centre received K16. 5 million to manage daily operations at 40 forest reserves and 15 plantations covering a total of nearly 22,000 hectares.

In the past 5 financial years (2016 – 2021), Treasury has consistently cut ORT approved budgets for DoF. In the 2020/21 financial year for example, it reduced the budget from K302 million to K208 million against a minimum ORT requirement of K700 million for 8 cost centres.

“That’s our situation,” said Ted Kamoto, Assistant Director of Forestry, adding, “90 percent of what we get covers the wage bill. The rest goes to ORT for us to manage about 88 forest reserves. The funding is not only too low but also not all of it comes, let alone regularly.”

Asked about these funding concerns, Treasury spokesperson Williams Banda said in a WhatsApp text: “The funding to every institution will never be enough as we have huge development needs while our resources are limited.”

Environmental activist Dorothy Tembo-Nhlema said the government has never treated natural resources as an anchor of Malawi’s development.

She said a recent natural resources budget analysis shows that the sector gets just around one percent of the national budget.

“This is against the political narrative you hear that they want to arrest deforestation. Our priorities are upside down,” she said.

She further argued that while natural resources sector is starved of financial support, sectors that depend on natural resources to thrive such as agriculture gobble up the largest chunk of the budget.

“Agriculture, for example, needs water. It needs good soil. It needs forests. If we invested more in natural resources, we would invest less in agriculture because we would have dealt with the root causes that make agriculture fail,” she said.

Tembo-Nhlema also questioned the low staffing levels in the forestry sector.

According to Kamoto, the Department has not recruited new staff for 13 years now following a 2008 government moratorium.

“Education has been recruiting teachers. Health has been recruiting nurses. The police and the military have been recruiting. And government said ‘no’ to forestry? That’s disastrous,” she said.

Funding, staffing blows

Low funding and staff shortage have been weapons in the mass destruction of Zomba forest reserve. Staff numbers have been declining at the reserve since mid-1990s. From a work force that could rise to 1,000 people in peak times, there are now just about a total 40 workers.

Spanning 5,084 hectares, an area that size would require a minimum of 15 forest guards, according to officials. These are the frontline workers. They are supposed to traverse the entire reserve, on foot, combing every acre against invaders and encroachers. But there are only four are scouts, the men whose task it is to police the reserve.

Being few, they do not have shifts..

In their work, they need boots, raincoats and uniforms. But they buy these themselves because their managers say the office has no money to buy the items for them.

In 2016, a group of them went for further training. They hoped this would lead to their upgrading which would bring with it improved salaries. Nothing has changed since.

Out on patrols, when they catch forest invaders, rarely do calls to the office for a vehicle get a positive feedback, let alone fast enough.

“We wait for hours for the vehicle. We end up chatting with the suspects. We later get a call from the office that there is no fuel so we can let the suspects go,” said one of the scouts.

Mkwapatira confirmed these challenges.

“Forest management is labour intensive. You are talking about nurseries, making firebreaks, pruning, fighting fire…. You cannot expect 40 people to do exactly the same work that was being done by 1,000 people.

“And most of those 40 people are old. When you tell them they are not working hard enough, they tell you they are weak and are on treatment for various ailments. What do you do?” he said.

Counting the cost

Part of our two-month investigation included a six-hour trek on the plateau.

We found it well-stripped of trees, except around Mulunguzi Dam and Sunbird KuChawe Hotel where the plantation and tropical rain forest cover is still impressive.

We found maize fields in the reserve around Chingwe’s Hole.

The remaining pockets of indigenous forest, which makes only 20 hectares of the entire reserve, are under siege from charcoal makers.

Most of the streams feeding the Mulunguzi River in the upper section after the dam have lost their forest cover.

This degradation is threatening potable water supply to Zomba City and surrounding areas through Mulunguzi Dam, the biggest business asset for the Southern Region Water Board (SRWB).

Ritta Mwakwangwala, spokesperson for the Board, said the dam is under threat due to loss of forest cover in the catchment area.

She said the dam is now registering increasing siltation and infiltration of saw dust into the system which is pushing up the Board’s water treatment budget.

“In this service, we are supposed to reach a certain standard of quality for water potability. These days, to get that quality, we are investing more money in water treatment than we used to. This money would have expanded our system so that we supply water to a growing population,” she said.

She attributed the problem in part to conflict of interest between the department and the Board.

“We want every tree to remain standing for water restoration. The department wants trees harvested. Then you have invasion by charcoal makers and illegal sawyers. This conflict is posing problems,” she said.

Communities who have relied on streams bearing down from the mountain in various ways also reported a decline in water flow.

“Most of these steams used to supply water throughout the year. Now most of them become dry in August and September. This is affecting our production of vegetables and fruits such as strawberries,” said Grace Luka.

Furthermore, Zomba Plateau is one of the important tourist destinations in Malawi with attractions such as Chingwe’s Hole, Williams’ Falls and Emperor’s View, among others.

But visitors to these sites now complain of high temperatures on the plateau due to lack of shade in the hiking trails following the stripping of trees.

“So, we are recording increased cancellation of some trips and we lose money,” said Jonas Beyard, chairperson of the Zomba Tour Guides Association.

He added that they are seeing frequent mud slides which block some roads and trails, disappearance of species of birds, plants and animals leading to some animal lovers and bird watchers not to visit the mountain.

“In brief, the natural beauty of the mountain is diminishing, making it less attractive to tourists.”

‘We can fix this’

Despite suffering overwhelming devastation, Zomba Mountain Forest Reserve can be fixed, experts and communities told The Sunday Times.

Professor Sosten Chiotha, an environmentalist who has been in close contact with the reserve since 1973, said all it needs is to fix the governance system.

“In those days, there was a functional, alternating timber harvesting and replanting system which was being religiously followed. The Department had structure and stamina. Fires were treated as an emergency and putting them out was not the responsibility of the department alone. Everyone was a stakeholder, with the DoF providing leadership.

“Sort out the governance system and remove the silo mentality where government departments are not talking to each other on development plans. The situation can be fixed,” he said.

In Nankhunda area, the Zomba Forest Lodge has mobilised communities and slowly winning over the people to appreciate the impact of the loss of the forest on their livelihoods.

Tom Inch, manager of the lodge, said communities do not necessarily want to destroy the forest.

“But the capacity of land to sustain the needs of growing population has collapsed. Alternative sources of living are not available. In their minds, they invade the forest not to destroy it but to live. If this is fixed, it is possible to bring the community into conservation work and restore the reserve,” said Inch.

Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources, Nancy Tembo, admitted the challenges affecting the forestry sector.

“Your findings on corruption, funding and recruitment are correct. We are taking action.

“We have best practices around the country on forest management and we can reverse the situation in reserves such as Zomba,” Tembo said.

Government has also staked 1,800 hectares of the plantation for concession management for 60 years. Identification of the concessionaires is in progress.

But communities have warned that if there are no survival alternatives for them, the concessions will not stop them from invading the forest.

Tayimu Undani from Kasonga area who survives on illegal sawing in the reserve said in the 90s, the reserve was employing thousands of people from the surrounding communities.

He paid his entire secondary school fees using the money he was earning from piece work in the forest every holiday.

According to Undani, small scale businesses thrived in the communities because of the circulation of money earned from work in the forest.

“But [Bakili] Muluzi government retrenched people. It also stopped employing people. All those businesses collapsed, no alternatives. If those concessions bring back that past, we won’t be fighting. Sixty years is too long for us to be pushed out. This forest is ours,” said Undani.