Forests are essential to Malawi’s survival

Ramzy Kanaan
Modern Cooking for Health Forests project

The science is clear: forests are essential to life on earth. While forests cover only around 30% of the planet’s land area, they are home to 75% of all plant and animal life. Forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change and are essential components in the water cycle. Globally, and here in Malawi, forests provide food, fibre and fuel that supports human growth and development.

However, the world’s forests are being lost at an alarming rate – and the same is true in Malawi. Approximately 12% of Malawi’s natural forests were lost between 1985 and 2017, but just as significantly, over the past two decades even more of Malawi’s forests have been thinned and degraded.

The primary driver of deforestation and forest degradation in Malawi is well documented – the growing demand for charcoal (and secondarily, for commercial firewood). Between 2011 and 2018, the percentage of urban households using charcoal as their primary source of cooking/ heating energy increased from 44% to more than 76%. Nearly all the charcoal available to buy in Lilongwe and other urban areas is produced illegally and unsustainably from natural forests.

How did we get to the point where trees can be cut and charcoal produced in Forest Reserves? Where illegal charcoal is transported openly, passing through multiple roadblocks manned by personnel from both the MPS and the DoF, to be sold openly in markets? The answer is clear – it is enabled through systemic institutional corruption, facilitated by powerful individuals.

Could the production and trade in illegal charcoal be stopped? Absolutely – if the Government were to fully commit to addressing the problem.

First, the Government must prioritise investment in protecting remaining forests and key forest reserves. At present, most DoF staff are located in urban areas far from the forests they are assigned to plan, manage and conserve. Similarly, budget allocations for regulation and enforcement are minimal, especially when compared with the investment in tree planting and other activities with far less potential to contribute to forestry sector goals.

Second, focus on restoring degraded natural forests. Letting trees grow back naturally with limited assistance is often cheaper, more efficient and more effective than planting trees. Third, strategically invest in supplemental tree planting: tree planting can and should be part of Malawi’s solution to deforestation and forest degradation, but the current programme has been ill-placed, resulting in an enormous waste of already limited financial resources.

Finally, to succeed in addressing the problem of charcoal-led deforestation, the Government must ensure the rule of law applies to everyone, everywhere, always. The extent of political involvement in Malawi’s deforestation – in Viphya and other plantations and in the charcoal business – is well known and continues today. If hard-fought enforcement gains can simply be ‘overturned’ through political influence, then we will have lost before we’ve even started.