Securing Malawi’s Forests Need Less Talk, More Action
Forests provide a variety of important goods – timber, food, energy – and services – soil and water conservation, pollution reduction and climate regulation. Despite their importance, forest resources in Malawi continue to degrade rapidly, largely due to unsustainable and illegal charcoal production. There are three main challenges facing the forestry sector: convenience of forest resources as a source of income; limited availability of alternative energy; and weak law enforcement.
While some illegal charcoal producers claim they are involved in the business because it is their only source of survival, it is the convenience of forest resources as a source of income that is a major drawback in the fight against deforestation in Malawi. Forest resources are readily available throughout the year as a source of income both on customary land and in protected areas. This is unlike many other forms of income generation, which require risk taking, investment costs and time.
There is also limited availability of alternative energy sources among urban and peri-urban populations, and, as highlighted by Suzgo Chitete in ‘Forests burn as smoke-free policies pile’ and ‘Low awareness slowing uptake for alternatives,’ adoption of those that are available is very low. The lack of policy implementation by the Ministry of Energy means that alternative energy solutions are not available at scale, and the Forestry Department has been left to promote their use.
The final key challenge for Malawi’s forest resources is the weak law enforcement regime, characterised by corruption and limited capacity. Sources suggest that social, political and administrative conditions in the country provide an environment conducive to corrupt practices. Government officials have been known to be complicit in the trafficking of illegal charcoal, while there are similar stories of forestry officials aiding in forest crimes. There is also a high number of vacancies in the Department of Forestry for front line personnel, such as forest guards, while existing personnel are poorly equipped.
Addressing these problems will require strong political leadership and exemplary behaviour among leaders, with the goal being to instil positive environmental values in society. The government must increase awareness of, and access to, alternative energy sources among the urban and peri-urban communities and incentivise private sector investment in alternative energy. Vacancies at the Forestry Department must be filled and more resources provided to allow them to effectively undertake their jobs. There must also be implementation of improved systems for reporting, investigating and fighting corruption, to allow it to be dealt with decisively.