On my way to Mponela last month, I was pleasantly surprised to see a man-made forest some five or so kilometres south of the township. I saw not less than five bee hives within the forest. On enquiry, I was told that the forest was owned and cared for by villagers.
One of the greatest problems we have in caring for forests is that most of them have no owner or owners. As such they are subjected to the dilemma that environmentalists call “the tragedy of the commons”.
The commons are any natural resources that do not belong to an individual or a corporate body. The term ‘the tragedy of the commons’ was coined by Garret Hardin in 1968. Referring to earlier work by William Foster Lloyd, Hardin brought to the attention of the world the plight of a common piece of pasterland where different herdsmen were at liberty to graze their animals. Each herdsman would start with a few animals but would later realise that he would make more profit if he added a few more animals. Without restraints, each herdman would add more and more animals to the land such that before long the entire pasterland would be overrun.
In our context, the commons could be the forest on Dedza, Zomba, Mulanje Mountain or on Dzalanyama range. It could be Lake Malawi or Lake Malombe. Any natural resource not owned by anybody qualifies for ‘commons’. Without any restraint people would harvest from any of these commons. Soon they would realise that the more they harvest the greater will be the benefit to themselves. This is how natural resources get easily overrun.
By contrast, the forest I saw near Mponela did not have the characteristics of the commons. The owners would religiously guard it against any intruder. People’s maize or tobacco gardens are not easily intruded by people or animals. In the recent past, monkeys and baboons used to be a menace to maize gardens. It was fashionable to construct a structure where the farmer or his agents would hide and chase away any monkeys or baboons that attempted to pick some maize from the garden. In the event of a human being attempting to intrude, that would result in warfare of sorts.
If a forest belongs to a community, they will guard it with the same enthusiasm. After all, the community members are the ones that would benefit from the forest. A forest will provide firewood, for example. It will accommodate bee hives; it will prevent soil erosion; it will act as a windbreak, among other benefits.
Charcoal burning per se is not a problem. It only becomes a problem because people deplete trees without replacing them. A village can go into a 10-year plan where a forest will be planted every year. As they reach the 10th year, they can harvest the oldest of these forests and turn the wood into charcoal. As long as they make sure that fresh trees are planted to replace the ones they have cut down, the charcoal project will be sustainable. The following year it will be the turn of the second oldest forest, and so on. On a 10-year cycle, the village will have access to the wood they need for charcoal burning.
Sadly, it is not in our fabric to plan beyond a year. We are used to crops such as maize, beans and groundnuts which are harvested after only a few months. Not many of us have the patience to wait as long as 10 years before we start reaping benefits from our crops. Here trees should be considered as crops.
I only know of one Malawian who ventured into macadamia farming. Macadamia nuts are picked from trees that have attained an age of five or six years. If you plant them this year, you will need to care for them for five years before you can have the nuts that you can sell. This is not attractive to most Malawians. Confucious is believed to have stated: “If you plan for one year, plant rice; if your plan is for 10 years, plant trees; if your plan is for a hundred years, educate your children.” This is invaluable wisdom that should teach all and sundry to engage in long-term planning. Planting and caring for trees is a good example of long-term planning.
We need to search within our communities for natural resources that fall into the category of the commons. Two things must happen, namely such resources must be owned and the owners must have long-term plans for them. We can transform our rural landscape by doing these things.