Establishing the Government’s Role in Malawi’s Forest Conservation

DR. CHILIMA
Vice President, Malawi

The state of forests and forest resources in Malawi and the role of Government in protecting and managing them have changed dramatically over the decades, closely associated with the local political evolution.

During the colonial days, forests and trees were protected by the Government for the national good, driven largely by a ‘custodial mentality’. Later, Government established industrial plantations and gazetted areas as protected forest reserves. Local communities were empowered to manage Village Forest Areas (VFA), while Government retained control over extraction of trees through Licensing.

During the transition period to democracy after 1995, Malawi experienced the most rampant destruction of forests and an escalation of deforestation, when through restructuring of the public service, there was massive layoff of general workers in the Department of Forestry, inadequate capacity by the Department to manage and protect forests and large scale corruption.

Currently, the Government is encouraging and facilitating the involvement of the private sector and communities to manage forests through medium to long-term agreements.

Within the context of the Forestry Act, the Department of Forestry is mandated to ‘ensure the sustainable development, conservation and utilisation of forestry resources for socio-economic growth and development of Malawi’.

The Department’s various responsibilities include: licensing for sustainable use of forest land and utilisation of forest produce on customary land, public land, forest reserves and protected areas; regulating charcoal production, importation, exportation, transportation and utilisation; entering into agreements with local government authorities, NGOs or private partners for implementation of forest conservation management plans; and ensuring collection, organisation, maintenance and access of forest information data and records.

Other responsibilities include providing forestry research and training services and enforcing forest law. The Department carries out its mandate using key strategic instruments, such as the National Forestry Policy, the National Forestry Program (NFP), Charcoal Strategy, Forest Landscape Restoration Strategy and the REDD+ Strategy.

There are various challenges and threats facing Malawi’s forests, including: frequent bushfires and conversion of forest land to agriculture, settlements and infrastructure development; illegal and unsustainable harvesting of trees to supply firewood and charcoal; corruption involving forestry officers and other law enforcers; inadequate focus on forestry as a priority by Government; limited interest by the private sector to invest in forestry; and weak institutional structure, technical and financial capacity of the Department of Forestry to coordinate forest management and enforce the Forest Law.

For the Department of Forestry to deliver its mandate and support Government to fulfil its role, these challenges need to be addressed swiftly and effectively.