Bobby Kabango

First published: 31st May 2021; Tha Nation and Nation Online

Synopsis: Malawi’s forest reserves under siege

A brave undercover reporter risked his life posing as a charcoal middleman to gain access to Thuma and Dedza-Salima Forest Reserves, which have become battlegrounds between communities illegally harvesting trees for charcoal and the law enforcement trying to protect the reserves. Both the police and the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) have failed to end the siege – two forest encroachers have died, and a police vehicle was set alight. The Wildlife Action Group (WAG) manages the reserves and has been working with community leaders to provide incentives to stop deforestation, but more needs to be done. And it’s not just the trees that are suffering – Thuma and Dedza-Salima escarpments are also home to 36 species of mammals, including elephants and buffalos – and they need urgent protection.

Editor’s Comments

This article highlighted how the illegal charcoal value chain operates from the source of production. It also documented how the right partner can support Government and communities to restore degraded forests, and protect wildlife, while delivering tangible benefits to surrounding communities. Looking forward, it would be interesting for journalists to investigate and document instances of how Traditional Leaders and politicians have championed or undermined Government’s conservation efforts.

Journalist Bio

Name: Bobby Kabango

Current publications: Nation Publications Limited , Region: Southern region (Blantyre)

A torched police patrol vehicle. A chief’s house was set on fire. Bullets fly. Two die. This is the war zone that Dedza-Salima forest reserve has turned into.

On one hand, communities are ready to die for them to freely, albeit illegally, exploit economic gains from the protected sanctuary via charcoal production and marketing.

On the other hand, Malawi Police Service (MPS) and Malawi Defense Force (MDF) have vowed— sometimes using excessive force—to save the forests and enforce law and order in the area.

Within eight months—between September 2020 and May 2021—some community members illegally encroached on the forest reserve, shaving off trees on roughly five square kilometres (km) of land in Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve for charcoal production, according to Wildlife Action Group (WAG), a non-profit environmental watchdog.

Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve, gazetted in 1972, is 326 square km in size while Thuma Forest Reserve—gazette in 1926—lies on 197 square km. Some villagers surrounding the reserve have made it their mission to resist every move by authorities to stop them from making an illegal and unsustainable living out of the wooded areas.

One of the encroachers loads a bag of charcoal.

Twice last year, the villagers chased away local patrol police officers who tried to halt charcoal production in the reserve. During one of the confrontations, the encroachers set ablaze a police patrol vehicle, according to the area’s village head Mzikamanda.

He said they also burnt a house belonging to their group village head, Kapanda, accusing him of working with government agencies to stop the deforestation.

But National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera said in an interview last month that police will not give up until the encroachers are brought to book. “We will make sure there is order in the area because no one is above the law,” he

said. “At the moment, we are meeting community leaders such as chiefs to make sure that our forests are protected.”

Mzikamanda said efforts by the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources and Dedza District Forest Office have failed to stop villagers from cutting down trees and producing charcoal from the protected area. “We will do what it takes to make sure we remain in the area until the government provides us with food for our families and loans to start small businesses,” he said in an interview in his area last month.

The forest encroachers have put in place security measures to protect themselves against State agents they deem intruders. Even rangers guarding the forest reserve area are chased away with pangas and sticks whenever they patrol the area.

But posing as a charcoal intermediary, this reporter—with the help of a local fixer— managed to get into Dedza-Salima Escarpment Forest Reserve in the second week of April.

Equipped with 20 empty sacks, we first convinced Mzikamanda, the local chief, that we wanted to order hundreds of charcoal bags for sale in Lilongwe.

Mzikamanda, which is under Traditional Authority Tambala, is benefitting from the charcoal business in the reserve, which is about 60 km to the east of Linthipe 1 Bridge.

The chief has a group of men—his subjects—who are part of the encroachers. “They too produce charcoal and sell wood products,” he said.

But the chief warned us against meeting them, before quizzing us to first tell him the real mission of our visit. He invited one of his henchmen—who, he claimed, uses black magic called ndota to determine our real reason for visiting the area. “I need to do this because some come here pretending to buy charcoal when they are police officers trying to arrest us,” Mzikamanda said.

After handing over some cash to the chief’s magic man for a positive diagnosis of our intentions, we were cleared to carry on with our supposed charcoal deals. The barefoot chief then said: “[But] if I find out that you just want to play games or that you are a CID officer, then you are gone. You will not be able to return home.”

When we moved closer to the reserve area, he sent a young boy to call two men. But only one man, whom the chief identified as Cheukani, came to greet us. Cheukani was jittery and suspicious.

It took Mzikamanda’s effort to reassure him that we were only charcoal traders.

Within an hour, he agreed that every fortnight he will be able to produce 290 bags of illegal charcoal weighing 50kgs to satisfy our order. Each bag would cost us K3 500 (a 50kg bag plus its head).

We agreed that all bags would be kept at Mzikamanda’s house and the village head pledged to provide maximum security at a fee each time we visit the area to collect the bags.

To put an end to the forest reserve siege, Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers were deployed to the forest reserves last year, according to Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo.

In an interview last month, the minister said the action resulted in the killing of two forest encroachers, while six others were seriously injured.

Tembo said she visited the area last year to discuss best ways to end the forest invasion, but her intervention did not end the encroachment.

“I went there, but they threatened to kill me,” she said. “That time there was tension following the death of two community members. I told them to stop cutting down trees.”

Following the minister’s visit, a task force was formed to monitor what they had agreed. The task force was designed to make sure that no community member is cutting down trees and the area and that they should provide security to the Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve.

The task force which comprised community members has not met, it died and there is no future.

Dedza District forestry officer Violet Msukwa, who at the time of the interview was not aware that the community is back in the Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve, said the meeting agreed to set boundary tracing, form a task force to deal with encroachment cases and provide food to the communities.

The two reserves are managed by WAG, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Forestry in 1997 to manage Thuma Forest Reserve.

In 2007, they also took over management of Dedza—Salima Escarpment Forest Reserve to better support protection and management of wildlife in the two reserves.

WAG has been working with traditional leaders around the two sanctuaries to stop community members from cutting down trees by providing incentives for three years. Among the incentive packages, over 1 600 people are directly benefiting from income generating activities.

Thuma and D-SEFR are two of the best managed Forest Reserves in Malawi, which is evidenced by both the wildlife populations and the botanical health and diversity of species as it is a home to mammals (36 in the case of the two reserves), including elephants and buffalos.

From the engagement, WAG worked very closely with traditional authorities and communities who assisted to protect the forests. Through this cooperation and collaboration WAG has supported many community income generating activities which help mitigate community dependence on the forest product such as bee keeping production, irrigation agriculture, poultry projects—and has also supported community-based infrastructure, including drilling of bore holes, building schools, and one health center.

WAG has had an excellent relationships in the areas of TA Chitekwere, Chewere, Kalonga, Kambwiri, Ndindi, Kambalambe and Kachikomoto and some areas in TA Tambala in Dedza.

It is in some parts of Tambala where certain areas are unwilling to work with and wish to continue conducting illegal activities which is causing serious negative impacts on the protected area.

They are involved in charcoal burning, hunting in large groups of up to 40 people with over 60 dogs to kill wildlife for commercial trade.

They are also setting wire snares to kill wildlife for commercial trade. These snares also injure listed species such as elephants who carry horrific wounds due the wire on their legs or trunk and some die from their wounds. They have been involved in hunting and killing elephants for the ivory trade.

Others do light fires inside the forest, illegal trespassing when walking across the forest to the Salima side to visit family, illegal fishing inside the protected areas for commercial trade—some found with over 287 fish. Encroachment—opening gardens inside protected areas and hunting with firearms to kill buffalo.

Despite all this, WAG has made a number of efforts to end the illegal activities within the reserve land.

In the year 2020 alone, WAG recorded 67 patrols into areas where Kapanda and surrounding villages are active inside the protected area. However, the same year, 83 illegal activities were reported. From the year 2019 and 2020, 28 arrests were made.

WAG has also made some efforts to control, educate and develop those areas by regular communication with TA and GVH, meeting in July 2020 to ask how they can start income generating activities in the area to reduce reliance on forest. Sponsored a borehole for Kapanda school but it was diverted to another area without consultation. In 2018/19 they held meetings to sensitize communities about the new Wildlife Act and distributed community guides to the amended Wildlife Act.

According to the Global Forest Watch (2020), between 2001 and 2019, the rate of deforestation in Thuma Forest Reserves was estimated at 3.8 hectares per year. The country’s growing population is increasing demand for forest resources.

More than 96 percent of Malawian households rely on firewood and charcoal as their primary cooking fuels, and over 75 percent of urban households rely on charcoal.

The report says that in 2018, demand for charcoal alone was worth an estimated $191 million (more than K150 billion), almost half of the total revenue that tobacco, the country’s main foreign currency earner, brought in that year.

With that demand, charcoal production and marketing provided employment opportunities for around 150 000 people, according to the report.