THE PLIGHT OF A TREE; MY JOURNEY TO NJENTCHERERE IN DZALANYAMA FOREST RESERVE

Grace Nyenyezi Khombe

First published: 26th – 28th March 2021; ZBS News Special Report

Synopsis: ‘Tree hunting’ for charcoal is rife in Dzalanyama
Journalist Grace Nyenyezi Khombe visits Njentcherere dambo in Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, where she meets families who are turning to ‘tree hunting’ – cutting down indigenous trees to produce charcoal – as a means of survival. A 50-year-old tree produces just two to three bags of charcoal, with each bag selling for as little as one thousand kwacha. But, as one tree hunter says: “we continue coming here because this is our source of living, the government cannot stop us if there is no alternative for our survival.” With corrupt forest guards taking bribes rather than protecting the trees, and a lack of viable, affordable alternatives to charcoal, what hope is there for Dzalanyama and the rest of the country’s forests? Malawi is at the edge of desertification.

Editor’s Comments
This article highlights the desperate situation in Dzalanyama Forest Reserve, Lilongwe City’s primary water catchment. The journalist begins by stating that to a large extent deforestation “…is being orchestrated by some
trusted forest guards”. While this article, and others in this dossier describe corruption within the ranks and file of both Dept. of Forestry and Malawi Police Service staff, the journalist also describes very clearly how charcoal producers know they are doing something illegal—but they chose to do it because it is more lucrative than legal livelihood options they were pursuing. The article also begins to describes the organized nature of the charcoal business in Dzalanyama. In future it would be worthwhile to investigate the organized nature of charcoal
production, and those financing (and benefiting most) from this production and trade from Dzalanyama.

Journalist Bio
Name: Grace Nyenyezi Khombe
Current publications: Zodiak Broadcasting Station
Tel: + 265 0888 199 721 • Email: awekhombe@gmail.com • Region: Central region (Lilongwe)

In this special assignment Grace Nyenyezi Khombe takes us to Njentcherere dambo deep inside Dzalanyama Forest Reserve to tell the plight of a tree and establish the degree of deforestation which is to a larger extent is being orchestrated by some entrusted forest guards.

Njentcherere is one of the few places where there are mature indigenous trees in Dzalanyama Forest Reserve and has become one of the busiest places in the forest.

At Njentcherere, Grace has found mature trees as old as 50-year-old produce only between two to three bags of charcoal. Each bag is sold as low as one thousand Kwacha which is just enough to buy one meal for a family of six in a village setup.

Here, as we hear in this report, people who are involved in these illegal activities of cutting down trees are ruthless to anybody who dares to confront them and though they are aware of the environmental and social consequences they are not ready to quit.

The happenings at Njentcherere in Dzalanyama are a replica of what is happening in almost all forest reserves in the country which are a threat to Sustainable Development goal 15 in sustainably managing forests, combat desertification, halt and reserve land degradation as well as halt biodiversity loss.

My journey to Njentcherere I met these angry tree hunters, “Police officers or forest security guards cannot come here, we don’t fear them, infact they are the most corrupt people, we are ready to defend ourselves, we use whatever is available like trees, panga knives and axes to defend ourselves, we have nothing to lose, those people who are telling us to stop this business receive government allowances and they want us to stop without providing any alternative, this we can’t allow”

This is Njentcherere dambo. It is located deep inside the once gigantic Dzalanyama forest reserve in Dedza district near Mozambique. This one of the busiest places inside this forest. It is a place of attraction. Here, we are told the number of people doing these activities outnumbers those in the village. Here, both men and women are into this business of ‘tree hunting’, yes the business of cutting down trees for fuelwood and charcoal production. They claim this is the sole means of their survival.

Global Forest Watch report of 2020 reveals that Dzalanyama forest reserve has experienced extensive deforestation and degradation largely due to human activities. According to the report, between 2001 and 2019, the rate of deforestation was estimated at 544.9 hectares per year. The forest has a total area of 98.930 hectors. This resulted in accumulated forest loss of 11.1 percent during the same period.

Indigenous trees here are prone to charcoal production because they have high calorific value, high biomass, and low moisture content.

These men and women today look tired, hungry, angry and fearless; they are alert and ready to deal with anybody daring to come closer and stop them from doing this illicit business. There is tight local network within this area to alert each other when need arises especially when Malawi Defense Force soldiers are deployed to protect the forest.

“we are many here and when one sees something strange, the message goes as quickly as possible to everyone, even to our friends who are close to Mozambique they are able to get the message, it is a vast network, we are able to run away. There are hundreds and hundreds of charcoal burning sites across the forest, but when it happens that they have found us here unexpectedly we fight”, they attest

Meet Brenda Nkhwani a mother of four children and she is in her late 40s. She has just finished cutting down one giant indigenous tree all by herself. She tells me that the processing of a tree into charcoal takes her two weeks from the day she cuts a tree down. She expects to produce at least two to three bags of charcoal which she is likely to sell at 1 thousand kwacha each. Hence, she expects to get 2 to 3 thousand Kwacha after a period of two weeks.

When I asked her why she joined this dreary work, she giggles and tells me point blank; poverty is a driving factor “ we were lacking all basic needs and our home was in a miserable state, we were a laughing stalk in our village, we were unable to fend for our children hence we agreed to do something, we had no choice but to come here and start doing this tough job for our survival, we stay in Magomera and it takes two hours on foot to come here on a daily basis”, explains Mercy.

Brenda and her husband joined the band wagon of tree hunting here at Njentcherere dambo since January 2021. But within a space of four weeks the couple managed to cut down twenty mature trees thereby producing over twenty bags of charcoal which translates to about 80 thousand Kwacha.

Although she admits this is donkey work, she tells me they are not ready to quit because they are now getting what they needed. Interestingly, Brenda attests to the fact that trees have been depleted and fears for the worse in few years to come. She tells me; “We are aware that charcoal production business is not our permanent solution for survival, trees have gone and we don’t know what will happen next… but there is nothing we can do about it, what concerns us is our daily food, we just need something on the table today, let tomorrow worry for itself, but we can’t just quit, we can’t!”.

Timothy Mwenda and his wife Tapiwa are here too. They ventured into this activity in 2016. Every month, this couple cuts down between four to five mature trees for Charcoal production and they produce at least 6 bags charcoal every month. Each bag of tree is sold between 1 thousand to 3 thousand kwacha.

“As a father I was failing to provide for my family. I tried several businesses but to no avail, but this is not a good business, we use physical strength to cut down trees, burn charcoal and the whole process is tedious, but we have been hearing on

radio that government is providing loans to those who want to venture into business, but we are sidelined this is why we cannot stop cutting down trees here, we can’t quit!”, argues Mwenda

His wife Tapiwa too is not ready to quit. “This is donkey work and we are having a lot of health problems to cut down trees and prepare charcoal burners, but we can’t stop, we continue coming here because this is our source of living, government cannot stop us if there is no alternative for our survival, we are ready to risk our lives to come here, we do all this for our children to have something to eat and survive”.

At Njentcherere dambo I found Kalikokha Mwandama and Chikaiko Mphande who are in their 40s. They have just finished cutting down one of the biggest trees here at Njetcherere. It has taken the two men close to two hours to cut down this tree using man made axes. On a daily basis, they cut down at least two trees of this kind. Today they have not eaten anything since morning and this is why it has taken them close to two hours to cut down this tree.

Kalikokha and Chikaiko have been in this business for more than four years but confess to me that they have nothing to show for their labour but only bitter experiences they have suffered in the hands of Malawi Defense Force soldiers who are sometimes hired to provide security in quest to end charcoal production. “We fear MDF soldiers, when they get us they can kill us, we are beaten mercilessly, they leave us at the point of death, sometimes we are carried back home by fellow villager’s unconscious, but we can’t stop, when we have recovered from the injuries we still come back to continue our business because we have nothing to fend for ourselves”.

Interestingly, they told me they are able to beat the system and continue cutting down trees because they receive go ahead from forest guards who demand money as low as one thousand kwacha for them to have access to trees. They are given specific plots where they can cut down trees. Money exchange hands here and it is a normal trend.

They attest to this; “ a security guard cannot dare come and stop us from cutting down trees, even police officers we don’t fear them, they are corrupt people, forest guards they are not here to protect the forest, when they find us they only ask us to give them money like one thousand kwacha to share us plots where to cut down trees. They can do nothing to us, imagine we are able to cut down trees and a whole seven tone lorry of firewood we can only pay them 7 thousand kwacha and allow us to go. They tell us that they too they want to benefit from the forest”.

USAID/UK project on Modern Cooking for a healthy forest MCHF reveals that communities around Dzalanyama forest are motivated to stay in this illegal business by existence of high demand for charcoal, the primary source of domestic energy in both urban and suburban areas of Lilongwe city.

In addition, The 2018 Malawi Cooking and Heating Energy report reveals that Charcoal consumption in urban settlement was at 76. 4 percent and 14.3 percent in rural areas. In Blantyre, illegal charcoal use was at 81 percent, Lilongwe at 74 percent , Mzuzu and Zomba at 69 and 67 percent respectively.

The report further argues that due to the high demand for charcoal, some people around Dzalanyama forest reserve have abandoned farming and other businesses and resorted to illegal harvesting of trees for fuelwood and charcoal for their livelihoods.

Clement Banda who comes from Chadza village in Lilongwe rural quit his fresh maize business and ventured into charcoal selling in 2017. On February 20, 2021 I met him at Njentcherere in the midst of his business. He had just packed his three bags of charcoal which he expects to get at 4500 kwacha from each bag. He sells charcoal at Ngwenya market in Area 24 in the outskirts of Lilongwe city. “This is not a good business; we face a lot of challenges on the way most of the times we sleep on the road. From here to Lilongwe I walk close to 7 hours pushing these bags of charcoal on foot, honestly I am ready to stop if I can have enough capital to boost my previous business. The most difficult time is when we have been caught by forest officers on the way who beat us and confiscate our charcoal and bicycles, but we can’t stop because we have nothing to do, charcoal is on demand in town”, Banda explains.

Now in his 50s Yelomani Lemoni has been coming here to buy bags of charcoal and sell them in Mchesi township in Lilongwe since 1999. He pushes bags of charcoal from here to Lilongwe Mchesi which takes him close to ten hours. He blames forest officers of being on the forefront in promoting this business because they resell charcoal which they have confiscated from them and sees no reason to quit. He calls this part of the game. “ Here in the forest we don’t have problems, but when we meet forest officers on the way especially at the road block, they can beat us like nobody’s business. I remember one day when they caught us

near Likuni road block they beat us so badly and my friend attempted to run away but to no avail so he was severe injured and they confiscated our charcoal and bicycles. But here we are today. What pains me most, when they confiscate bags of charcoal they resell them for their own survival. This pains us and we can’t stop because they are making money using our sweat, they have to stop this”

MMy efforts to meet forest guards proved futile on several occasions. They did not want to meet us even when we visited their homes.

When we confronted Dedza District Forestry Officer Violet Msukwa on March 8th 2021 on massive plundering of trees at Njentcherere area, she at first expressed ignorance on the matter. And on allegations by some tree hunters that some forest guards demand money in exchange for trees, Mrs. Msukwa could not believe the news.

However, a week later, on March 13 2020, Dedza forest officers invaded Njetcherere area where they managed to arrest some people whom they believe will help to provide names of forest guards who are allegedly aiding the wanton cutting down of trees in the area.

“After your phone call, we decided to do something and we assigned a team to go to the area where we found hundreds of people cutting down trees and burn charcoal. We managed to arrest some of the people and they will appear in court soon. We want these people to disclose names of forest guards who are aiding them cut down trees for charcoal production”, explains Msukwa.

Njentcherere Damdo is situated within TA Chilikumwendo in Dedza. Area Development Committee ADC chairperson Mr. Fanuwere Mwanza said efforts to stop men and women from cutting down trees are yielding no results. He admits that this is a serious challenge that requires multispectral approach to end the vice. He fears for the worst saying charcoal production continues to affect the environment. He too told us forest guards are promoting the trend.

“This is a serious challenge, but what we see is that this is being orchestrated by forest guards, they are in the forefront demanding money from these people to give them a go ahead to continue cutting down trees. This has destroyed the forest. But I believe if these people are given loans to start other businesses they can stop destroying trees. Unfortunately, efforts to help them access public loans are not yielding anything and people are frustrated”.

Away from Njentcherere in Dzalanyama, Chagunda area near Thuma Forest in Salima district is another business place for charcoal production. Almost everyone here has one story to tell, poverty is a driving factor pushing them into tree hunting for charcoal production. I met these three men who have been in this business for more than ten years and they do not have any reasons at all to quit. “I can’t stop this business because of poverty though it is not good to us, but this is where we get all the basic needs for our children, talk of school uniforms and exercise books, there is nothing we can do apart from this business”. The second man narrates his story “i tried several times to get MEDEF loans but to no avail, I gave up and this is why I came here to venture into this business. But if I’m empowered financially I can surely quit and start doing something else, I can venture into irrigation farming since we have a scheme here”. The third man tells me “What demotivates me is the fact that these forestry officers when they confiscate bags of charcoal they resell them, this is not fair. And those hired to protect trees here in Thuma forest demand money from us so that we can have access to trees here. We can’t quit”.

Thuma forest in Salima is also heading for desertification due to huge volumes of trees that are being destroyed for charcoal production. Here Salima district forestry Officer Adam Jarson said 2 hundred hectors of trees under forest management land have been depleted. “According to our survey conducted in 2016, half of the forest resources are depleted annually, this translates into 200 hectors of land which is 500 thousand trees. Charcoal production is the main drive and we are struggling to contain this”, says Jarson

When we confronted Director of Forestry in the ministry of Natural Resources Dr. Clement Chilima with our findings, he acknowledges serious depletion of trees in the country’s forest reserve. As one of the controlling measures he tells us the department has suspended the resell of confiscated charcoal in all districts but also said investigations has been launched to bring to book corrupt officers. “we are aware of massive plundering of our natural resources particularly trees for charcoal production, but you know we are dealing with dangerous people and you can’t just go there and stop them, they can kill you, this is why most of the times we deploy the Malawi Defense Force to help us. But still we have instituted an inquiry into the matter and bring to book all forestry officers who are aiding charcoal production”, says Chilima.

The National Charcoal Strategy of 2017 to 2027 states that more than 97 percent of households in Malawi rely on illegally and unsustainably sourced biomass (charcoal and firewood) for domestic cooking and heating energy. This has resulted in high levels of deforestation and forest degradation throughout the country, with downstream negative impacts on water availability, hydropower-generating capacity, and more broadly, vulnerability of Malawians to climate change.

Sustainable Development goal 15 stresses the need for countries to sustainably manage forests, to combat desertification, halt and reserve land degradation as well as halt biodiversity loss.

But Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus chairperson Welani Chilenga who is also Parliamentary committee on Environment chairperson is in no doubt that Malawi is losing the battle against deforestation. He fears if 70 years from now Malawi would ably deal with deforestation which is fueled by charcoal production. He tells me government is not ready to deal with the issue at hand. “I have been in parliament and in various environmental committees in Parliament since 2014, I have seen several policies passed and Acts amended but implementation is a big challenge, there is no political will to end this vice, we have many more years to end this business, we are not ready to provide alternatives to charcoal as source of energy, electricity tariffs are high even me I can’t afford to use electricity as a source of energy at my home”, laments Chilenga.

The National Charcoal Strategy indicates that drivers of charcoal production include rural and urban poverty, a readily-available urban market for charcoal tied to a lack of reliable, affordable alternatives, and weak law enforcement.

The 2021 Modern Cooking for a healthy forest MCHF site based inventory Analysis which targeted Dzalanyama, Kaning’ina, Thuma, Bunganya, Perekezi , Mua –Livulezi and Dedza-Salima Escarpment forest reserves suggests that rural communities bear the disproportionate burden of deforestation, reduced wood supply and environmental degradation.

A forest expert Mike Chirwa suggests adoption of sustainable alternative energy sources and efficient cooking technologies to reduce unsustainable wood fuel and charcoal demand is a lasting solution. He states that Malawi is losing huge volumes of biomass each year and he called upon those responsible to take action.

But is there anything that government is doing to help ending the vice by empowering those cutting down trees for charcoal production? Most of these people in Dzalanyama and Thuma forest attest to the fact they are willing to quit if given money to start other businesses.

National Economic Empowerment Fund NEEF a public loan facility tells us it puts in place measures to ensure all resource-constrained Malawians access the loans.

Through a questionnaire on March 14, 2021, NEEF public relations officer Whyghton Kapasule indicated that they have reviewed the loan facility requirements to take on board those that may be left out by the formal banking sector due to collateral demands.

“We have softened our collateral requirement and included physical collateral such as land, property, so they should take advantage of this and hatch viable businesses”, Kapasule says.

A National Forest Landscape Restoration Strategy stipulates that Malawi requires a restoration movement and a “whole of government approach”—one that is led by farmers, communities, entrepreneurs, investors, NGOs and extension workers, and government officials responsible for agriculture, forestry, finance, planning, and rural development among others.

But the fact remains that charcoal production is the main driver of deforestation but findings have shown that to date, corrective efforts have focused narrowly on prohibition of charcoal production, which has promoted illegality in production, transportation and marketing.

Urgent action is needed now to turn around tables and effectively control the rate deforestation and sustainably use forest resources for economic benefits of the nation and preservation of wild species. Otherwise Malawi is at the edge of desertification.