April 10, 2018 Environmental Conservation Written by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima
indigenous woodlot
Most of the indigenous forest reserves in Malawi

are either owned by commercial agriculture estates or government. However, some farmers have taken upon themselves the challenge of making sure that indigenous woodlots are managed sustainably, reports Deogracias Benjamin Kalima.

Sellina Chepe, a retired domestic worker sits on the verandah of her house on the hill overlooking Mudi stream. However, she is not just simply sitting down, she is being attentive to what happens downhill. That is where her woodlot comprising of various indigenous trees, such as Khaya Nyasica, Albizia Lebbeck and Brachystegia, lies.

The trees are at different growth stages. Some are grown enough to be cut down and taken to a sawmill and have timber produced from them. Others are at a middle range, therefore, can be used as firewood, while other trees are very small, as they have just sprouted or are regenerating, therefore, needing constant monitoring.

There are some human activities she needs to keep watch for, if her woodlots are to survive. Since 2002, Chepe and her relatives have committed to look after the woodlot, when taking it over from her mother. Since then, she has taken care of regenerating and growing trees in the woodlot.

“It has taken us quite some time and effort to maintain such a woodlot today. At times we have to invest money and energy to clear firebreak paths, replant trees and take care of the smallest trees to see them grow.” She says.

Indigenous woodlot owned by Chepe
Indigenous woodlot owned by Chepe

Like other areas in Malawi, Chepe’s area has lost its forest cover over the past 30 years. Forest areas are cleared extensively to make way for farming land, to ever increasing population and also because of charcoal burning business – charcoal is used as a fuel for the most low and middle income households in towns and cities of Malawi. Due to a high charcoal demand in towns, some people in rural areas have made it their business. They buy trees from others, then, they cut them down and make charcoal. These people approach woodlot owners and buy trees from them, this way many woodlots have vanished.

“Some people here make their living from charcoal burning and selling. They approach people with woodlots like mine to buy their trees. Through this practice, we have lost many precious woodlots and forests.”

Sellina Chepe, the mother of five

She says indigenous trees are the ones that fall victim to charcoal burning because people like the charcoal from indigenous trees more, as it burns longer than that of exotic trees. The charcoal burners are always on the lookout for indigenous trees.

However, as Chepe says, she has never allowed any charcoal burner to cut down trees from her woodlot, saying the financial benefit coming out of it is not significant compared to having the trees, which offer her and her relatives fuel wood and poles for house roofing through cutting tree branches.

For the charcoal production, whole trees have to be cut down, whereas for the fuel wood and poles for shelter, only branches are needed, and therefore, trees can regenerate, assuring their future availability when needed.

“We use trees sustainably in our woodlot, knowing that our lives mostly depend on trees. For instance, I allow my children and other relatives cut only tree branches, when they need wood. I don’t allow them to cut a whole tree because we may end up losing the whole woodlot in the long run.” She says.

One of Chepe’s relatives, Mercy Nanthambwe, who assists her in looking after the woodlot, says knowing the fact that indigenous trees are very slow in growing as compared to exotic trees, they make sure they don’t cut them down recklessly.

“Indigenous trees do take a long time to grow or regenerate, so it means we cut down a whole tree only when necessary. Otherwise we also have exotic trees like the eucalyptus, which we mostly use for our daily needs especially as fuel wood.” She said.

Nanthambwe standing under a yellow acacia tree she planted at her house
Nanthambwe standing under a yellow acacia tree she planted at her house

Nanthambwe went on explaining that since 2015, they have been planting additional trees every year to add the number of trees into their woodlot. She says that throughout one three year period, they have planted over 800 trees, including eucalyptus, gliricidia and acacias among other trees.

“We are continually replenishing our woodlot with both indigenous and exotic trees, so that it continually provides us with wood for the years to come.” She said.

However, Nanthambwe bemoaned frequent occurrence of bush fires that are affecting the growth rate of the trees. She also complained of the tendency of livestock farmers, especially goat farmers, in the area, who use the woodlot as their grazing lot. By doing so, they expose smaller trees to goats, who feed on them and damage them. Small trees are, therefore, not able to grow and regenerate quickly.

“We have several challenges when looking after our woodlot. Some of them are harmful bush fires, animal grazing and even tree thefts at night by some community members. We keep watch 24 hours a day to deal with any emergencies that occurs.” She says.

A forestry expert, Aubrey Maloni Mbewe says more Malawians should be encouraged to own and take care of woodlots be it indigenous or exotic, as this will reduce the burden on the public forests to provide fuel wood and other basic needs for the people. He also asked stakeholders to come up with alternative income streams for people whose livelihoods currently depend on charcoal burning, and at the same time, make electricity affordable so that many people switch from charcoal to electricity.

“We should encourage more people to own and manage their own woodlots. It is also essential that our electricity tariffs become affordable to majority Malawians, so that most people should switch from using charcoal to electricity.”

Aubrey Maloni Mbewe

According to a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO 2010 report), Malawi forests and woodlands are estimated to cover 3,237,000 hectares, which is about 34 percent of the total land area. The same report says Malawi loses 200 square miles of forests annually due to fuel-wood, settlement and agricultural expansion which translates to a deforestation rate of 2.8 percent.

At this rate, the country ranks second in Africa, while globally it is fourth in deforestation. This sounds alarming, however with people like Chepe taking care of indigenous woodlots, while at the same time planting new exotic trees in most bare lands, the trend could be reversed and make Malawi a green country once again.

This is a guest post written by Deogracias Benjamin Kalima.

Deogracias Benjamin Kalima is a Malawian journalist based in Blantyre. He mostly report on environment conservation, agriculture, and rural development. His work has appeared in German (journafrica.de), American (earthisland.org) and African (ruralreporters.com) online platforms.