It may sound unbelievable, but the rate at which forests are being wiped would be on the wane if adults heeded calls for an end to things that shock their children.
Henderson Douglas, the chairperson of Nthumbi Primary School Wildlife Club in Central Malawi, wants a quick end to charcoal burning-a trade which is rapidly wiping out trees in the territory of Traditional Authority Champiti in Ntcheu.
“We are alarmed at the rate at which the environment is being destroyed, resulting in constant black-outs, erratic rains, prolonged droughts and high temperatures. People continue cutting down trees carelessly and we wonder what sort of a country we will inherit in future,” says the pupil.
For years, the country has been losing trees at a faster rate than they are being replenished.
With three in every 100 trees felled every year, it is actually the fastest loser of trees in southern Africa, the second-fastest on the continent and the sixth worldwide.
The learners in the remote part of the Central Region district are averse to wanton depletion of forests in the country.
Ronnie Chirambo, national tree planting officer in the Department of Forestry, wishes the deforestation rate continued falling until such a time when no single tree is cut down needlessly.
“We used to have a high deforestation rate estimated at around 3.2 to 2.8 percent, but it has gone down to around slightly over one percent because there are few or no trees left to be cut down,” she says.
The vanishing of forests, especially indigenous trees, recently prompted school children in Ntcheu to hold a protest march demanding authorities to intensify their efforts to protect and replenish the lost treasure.
According to Douglas, it is pathetic that massive unemployment, constricted business opportunities and frequent power outages are pushing many villagers to switch to charcoal as a major source of alternatives.
“People have been burning charcoal for ages, but they are still poor and miserable. They need new sources of livelihood that would uplift their social and economic status,” he says.
Group village head Champiti concurs, saying it is saddening that it has to take school children to plead with adults to stop felling trees for charcoal. She wants people to learn from impoverishing effects of climate change, especially droughts and floods that are reducing crop yields.
“Malawians should learn to particularly plant indigenous trees such as nsangu, mbawa, mlombwa which keep water and restore soil fertility. Some exotic ones, especially eucalyptus and gmelina, deplete water,” she says.
She encourages Malawians to plant more trees this rainy season for better rains, good weather and better power supply.
The traditional leader wants her community to put in place by-laws prescribing harsh penalties to deter people from cutting down trees.
“It is shameful that it took children to speak against things that elders do to the detriment of natural resources and the environment,” she says.
Recently, Training Support for Partners (TSP), which financed the march on the need to conserve the Upper Shire catchment area, has launched a tree-planting season in Champiti.
This year, government plans to plant 60 million trees countrywide, but the main challenge is that most of them are abandoned to die. Some are stifled by weeds while others are chewed by livestock.
However, Chirambo said government is determined to ensure no less than 80 out of every 100 trees survive and grow despite the prevailing drought.
However, reforestation efforts are nothing without combating charcoal making and other ravaging drawbacks.
Ntcheu district commissioner Paul Kalilombe attributed failure to police charcoal business to critical shortage of forest patrollers, funding and worsening power blackouts.
He reckons empowering people along the Shire River catchment area with alternative source of energy and income would ease pressure on forests.
“The Forestry Department is not adequately empowered to decisively deal with deforestation and our road blocks are so porous that charcoal is freely passing through these checkpoints,” Kalilombe says.
Acting district forestry officer Caroline Dzimbiri backs the need to offer charcoal-burning communities alternative means of livelihoods.
Presently, she says, the department has trained some villages in bee-keeping.
TSP project officer Charles Pankhokwe says management of the environment and conservation of forest cover within the Upper Shire catchment area require concerted efforts and no one should be left behind.
Says Pankhokwe: “We want to instil in people of this area the spirit of planting trees and managing existing trees to conserve the country’s largest river and its catchment area. This will improve power generation on the lower part of the Shire. Lessening the frequency of blackouts will lessen the demand for charcoal and pressure on the forests.” n