State-sponsored deforestation in Malawi


The name is Panthochi. But the banana plants dried up after 2000. A road that was flat and passable on foot and by car until 2004, is now impassable by car.

Now pedestrians have to walk in and out of a gully at Panthochi, where once, they walked on flat land -- evidence of environmental ruin that has occurred in Chapita Village, some five kilometres to the south-west of Mangochi Turn-off in the district of Balaka. 

“People say there were bananas here, a lot of them,” says Wyson Amidu, 21. He was born and lives in Chapita Village. “And that there was no gully here.”  

The gully is a norm for Amidu. But for those in their 40s, such as Ken Ndanga, the gully is a stranger, a product of environmental degradation. “This used to be a good road, passable by vehicles too,” recalls Ndanga who grew up in Chapita Village in the 1980s.  

Drawing water in Chimwalire is now a hassle unlike in the past when wells were 10 cm deep only.jpg
Drawing water in Chimwalire is now a hassle unlike in the past when wells were 10 cm deep only. Photos by Mzati Nkolokosa

About 50 metres away from Panthochi, in September, was a recently fire-cured brick kiln. There were signs of bricks produced the previous year too—and evidence of deforestation. 

Evidently, trees near Panthochi have been cut down for brick production, charcoal production or other uses. Construction experts in Malawi estimate that brick production consumes 850 metric tonnes of wood per year, according to a 2005 paper by the late architect Bernard Zingano. 

Brick production in Malawi
Brick production gobbles up hundred of metric tonnes of trees

For Ndanga, the gully is not the only stranger at Panthochi. Commercial brick production is a stranger too. “It was not like this when I was growing up in the 1980s,” recalls Ndanga.     

Indeed it was not so. Even the earth road from the M3 Zomba-Balaka Road at Chapita Bus Stage to Panthochi is turning into a water stream. It is clear that running water invades the road when it rains. 

Consequently, the road has become smaller, difficult to walk in (not on), and on some parts, impassable to cars. In addition, the road has become a stream, a tributary into the Panthochi gully.  

Some 300 metres from Pantchochi is Chimwalire River. Nkosa, a clan of about 100 people, is in between Panthochi and Chimwalire. The clan’s burial site is about 100 metres from Chimwalire. 

There is a gully from close to the burial site into Chimwalire. The gully has reduced and continues to reduce the width of the road. In addition, there is another gully in the middle of the road. But it is not that deep because people maintain the road every year. 

The gullies in the area signify that there is less infiltration of water into the ground than in the past. A soil with good infiltration reduces water runoff which causes flooding. The soil in Chapita Village in Balaka is no longer allowing infiltration as was the case three decades ago. There is less recharging of underground water than in the past.  

In the 1980s, even as late as 1990s, one did not have to dig a well in Chimwalire. Water was on the surface. All one did was to remove some sand and create a well, 10 cm deep, for example, and draw water. 

Now, people have to dig a well beyond the river’s bed of sand, reaching up to clay soil.There was a well two metres deep in October this year. The sand in the river was dry unlike in the past when the sand would remain wet almost all year round. 

The last time Chimwalire had water all year round was in 1986, according to former students of Naliswe Model School. Since then the river has become drier than each previous dry season. 

Yet, the river is flooding more than ever. But once the rainy season is over, the water is gone, the river dry.

“The river banks have been bare and there has not been any effort to plant trees,” says Ndanga.

The bare banks lead to siltation which ends up into Shire River. Chimwalire is a tributary of Shire, flowing into Malawi’s biggest river downstream of Kamuzu Barrage at Liwonde. 

“The water in our rivers is not increasing vertically,” says Chikumbusko Kaonga, an associate professor of environmental science at Malawi University of Business and Applied Studies (MUBAS). “The water is increasing horizontally.” 

The evidence is in the widening of river channels and the breaking of river banks as is the case with Chimwalire. Some trees that were on the river bank have been washed away by flooding waters. Other trees have been uprooted, roots half in the air, half in the soil. 

The river’s immediate catchment area is becoming drier than ever. Water is not penetrating into the ground. Trees have been cut down without being replaced. Chapita area and surrounding areas of Chiyendausiku, Kwitanda, Dziwe, Mitengwe, including the late Billy Chisupe’s area and Chilembwe, close to Liwonde, are bare grounds. Where once trees covered the ground, the land is bare now. 

What happened to trees? The easiest answer is expansion of farm land because of growing population. Charcoal and brick production are other reasons. Yet a careful search in history shows that these may not necessarily be the main factors for deforestation.

Government agencies are guilty of deforestation as well. There was a time in the 1980s when learners from Standard Five to Standard 8 at Naliswe Model School, for example, could be asked to bring a tree every day for a month, often in May: for 400 students, for example, that would be 400 trees per day, 2000 in a week and 8000 in a month. June would be for students to bring grass.

“Students were asked to bring grass and trees to school but there were no arrangements to replace the trees,” says Ndanga. 

Schools were not the only institutions guilty of deforestation in Balaka. People recall that in the 1980s prison inmates from Malawi Prison Services (MPS) used to cut down trees. 

“Nobody could question the inmates,” says a retired civil servant who witnessed prison inmates’ deforestation activities of the 1980s. 

Some 20 km away from Liwonde, on the road to Mangochi, is a rural roadside market called Mwima. About 15 km to the east lies Shire River inside Liwonde National Park. The stretch on the boundary with the park is called Kutsanya, named after the Butterfly trees that were common from the early 20th Century.  

A butterfly tree stump at Chikolongo, a sign that once this was a thick forest.jpg
A butterfly tree stump at Chikolongo, a sign that once this was a thick forest.

The Butterfly trees or indeed any other trees have been cut down, except in the national park. Kutsanya had a thick forest cover. No wonder, say people familiar with the area, the Bimbi rain making cult settled in the area, in a forest. 

Yet the whole TA Kalembo in Balaka, is now bare, deforested. Even the area between Ulongwe and Mwima, all the way to Shire is characterised by deforestation. 
This is a sad, untold story of state sponsored deforestation. There were two periods of deforestation at Kutsanya. First, in the 1970s and 80s; second, in the early years of the 21st Century.

Chikolongo Village, once a thick forest now bare after Kudzigulira Malo Project.jpg
Chikolongo Village, once a thick forest now bare after Kudzigulira Malo Project

The first round of deforestation was by inmates from Malawi Prison Services (MPS) in the 1970s and 80s.

“I saw the inmates cutting down Butterfly trees with my eyes,” says a village head who grew up in late 70s and early 80s. “Sometimes two to three vehicles full of trees in a day.” 

Local people did not know which prison was sending inmates to cut down the protected trees. “This was a one party era,” says the village head. “We could not ask questions. We watched helplessly.”

The destination of the trees remains unknown. There are two possible destinations, though. One, the trees were used as firewood at various prisons. But this is unlikely. Why were the inmates cutting down the Butterfly tree only? If the trees were for firewood, the inmates would have been cutting down non-protected trees.

The second explanation is that the trees were exported to some country. This possibility seems plausible. But there are questions: Who was exporting? Was it an individual or the state? It is difficult to tell, especially because in one party era, powerful individuals and the state were inseparable. There could be other potential destinations as well.

The practice of inmates cutting down trees in Balaka, and probably elsewhere in Malawi, ended with the advent of multiparty. Reasons are not obvious. Perhaps there were no more Butterfly trees to cut down. Perhaps those who were exporting the trees had lost power and could no longer export. 

Over the years, from 1990 to 2004, regeneration took place. Some trees that were young in 1990s were promising to grow into big trees. And then came the second wave of deforestation that finished Butterfly trees at Kutsanya. This wave, too, was state sponsored.

The Community-Based Rural Land Development Project (CBRLDP), commonly called Kudzigulira Malo Project, was implemented to address social conflicts related to unequal access to land, especially in Mulanje and Thyolo where tea estates occupy vast pieces of arable land. The Government of Malawi, with funding from the World Bank, piloted community-driven land transfer programme to land-deprived small scale farmers. 

The reasons for unequal access to land in Malawi are historical. Western commercial farmers grabbed vast pieces of land during the early years of colonial rule. In Thyolo, for example, tea estates occupy the best pieces of land, leaving Malawians in the hills of Molere and Thekerani. 
“Therefore, one of the key constraints to improved smallholder productivity is the small and declining land holding sizes,” says a 2012 World Bank Report No: ICR2265.

As such, in 2002, a new National Land Policy (NLP) was adopted by the Government of Malawi to correct some of the land issues. The land redistribution project was based on voluntary land transfers between landowners (willing sellers) and the land-poor (willing buyers). 
It was a well-publicised project, with community meetings in the target districts and radio and television programmes. This is the project that enabled whole communities to move from Mulanje, for example, to Mangochi. 

So, the area of Group Village Head (GVH) Chikolongo within Kutsanya was identified for relocation of communities from Mangochi. 

The communities or groups of families in the Kudzigulira Malo Project were called trusts. “Three trusts were allocated land in Chikolongo,” says Dickson Amini, who has lived in the area since he was born in the 1970s. 

The trusts were Pemphero, Tsogolani and Mwamadi. Each trust had a chairperson, a treasurer and a secretary. Pempero Trust had 32 families, according to Amini. The trust settled on a 70 hectare land, and each family got two hectares. A family that needed extra land got from the remaining six hectares. In addition to land, each family received K140,000 resettlement compensation over three years.    

“The relocated people cut down trees for charcoal production,” recalls Amini, with a sad look. “They cut down every tree, except the baobab tree.” But in reality, it was not the newly resettled people only. Everyone joined in the feast of deforestation. 

After three years, when the last instalment of the K140,000 was paid, some families from Pemphero Trust went back to Mangochi. Only 14 families remained. Then eight families went to Mangochi as well, six remained. Then four left. Two families remained. A year later, one family left, too. “Now,” says Amini, “one family remains.” 

It is clear, according to Amini and others in Chikolongo, that some people resettled from Mangochi to Chikolongo because there was money involved, K140,000 over three years. Once the money was paid, the people went back to their original homes.  It seems some members of the families of Pempero Trust remained in Mangochi to keep land, so their kinsmen could find a place on return. 

“Members of Tsogolani Trust and Mwamadi Trust are still here,” says Amini. “But they, too, cut down Butterfly trees and other trees for charcoal production. They left baobab trees only.”

Indeed baobab trees stand here and there in Chikolongo. Not Butterfly trees--they are gone. Only butterfly shrubs attempting to regenerate remain.

In summary, two state sponsored waves of deforestation have occurred in Balaka. Yet official documents blame deforestation on charcoal production and other domestic uses.

“More than 97% of households in Malawi rely on illegally and unsustainably sourced biomass (charcoal and firewood) for domestic cooking and heating energy,” says the National Charcoal Strategy (2017-2027).

“We are accused of deforestation,” says Amini. “But some national policies are deforestation enablers. The Kudzigulira Malo Project was one such enabler of deforestation.”