Chikangawa Forest under siege

Malawi’s founding president the late Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda must be turning in his grave on recent news from ‘his’ landmark brainchild, Chikangawa, where men are queuing for unprotected sex due to long periods of isolation.

But there is more to torment and burn the spirit of ‘the old man’: Chikangawa, one of Malawi’s scenic landmarks and a major environmental asset, is systematically being mowed down, laying bare years of investment and the Ngwazi’s historic Gweru dreams, in which he saw the country developing its own paper industry or a vibrant forest products sector.

The Ngwazi’s spirit must also be bleeding, noting that ‘his’ Chikangawa has turned into a recipe for climate change disaster.

The Nation investigations reveal that the plantation—popularly known as Chikangawa Forest—could have no fully-grown trees in the next 15 years if the current trend, in which more trees are being cut than replaced, is not checked.

Unsustainable harvesting of timber has shrunk the plantations so much that climate change experts fear it may result in desertification; hence, drastically affecting rainfall patterns in the region through global warming in a country that depends on rain-fed agriculture and is a perennial victim of floods and droughts.

Forest officials interviewed at various stations of Chikangawa confirm that out of the 53 000 hectares of the forest, only 8 250 hectares remain safe for now.

The rest of the forest has either been harvested or exploited through a concession to Raiply Malawi Limited and small to medium licences to saw millers.

A recent Malawi Government Performance Audit Report on the economic performance and environmental sustainability of Viphya Plantations by the Auditor General’s office notes with concern that the rate of replanting is much lower than that of harvesting.

It says several companies with government harvesting concessions do not have proper environmental plans for their operation  which results in over-harvesting and improper environmental management.

Centre for Environmental Policy and Advocacy executive director William Chadza describes the Chikangawa Forest situation as a “future disaster”.

He says the Chikangawa Forest crisis is eroding Malawi’s already minor efforts in mitigating climate change and it would be dangerous in future if the plantation is lost.

“It makes the country susceptible to all adverse effects of climate change. It is a lost opportunity to allow the forest to go like that. We are a net emitter and cutting trees affects our carbon sinks; meaning that we will not balance what we emit into the air,” says Chadza.

A carbon sink is anything that absorbs more carbon than it releases, according to environmental group FERN.

It says because of this increase in atmospheric carbon, a lot of emphasis and hope has been put into the ability of trees, other plants and the soil to temporarily sink the carbon that fossil fuel burning releases into the atmosphere.

Even the Kyoto Protocol, the international communities’ main instrument for halting global warming, suggests that the absorption of carbon dioxide by trees and the soil is just as valid a means to achieve emission reduction commitments as cutting carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.

Chadza says while it is difficult to measure how rains can be affected by the cutting down of trees, any environmental damage as is happening in Chikangawa has natural climatic consequences the country will have to bear.

Around Chikangawa, The Nation crew captured vast patches of empty hectarage and burnt forests left idle.

Sawyers, small-scale timber dealers and Viphya Plantation field operatives, all raised alarm, saying unless government intervenes in a more aggressive manner than is the case now, the forest could be extinct in no time.

One small-scale sawyer described as “sheer horror” the outlook of Chikangawa in the next 15 years.

The Nation investigations also reveal that while Chikangawa is an originally pine forest, timber companies are replacing pine with blue gum trees that environmentalists say have long-term effects on the water table which would affect rivers that have sources in the forest.

The Viphya Plateau is a source for the South Rukuru River and other perennial rivers which end into Lake Malawi.

Viphya Plantations officially became operational in 1967, but its first trees were planted in the late 1950s.

In various interviews, Chikangawa Forest officials say there are specific trees suitable for the area, but these are being ignored in favour of the fast-maturing and on-demand bluegum.

The officials claim the little replanting that some companies are doing circumvents forest technocrats and concessions requirements.

And due to inadequate resources, the officials are unable to monitor and enforce replacements.

Says a Viphya Plantation official: “We are supposed to tariff the companies per cubic hectare when harvesting and quantify it and later see to it that replanting is done. However, these procedures are not adhered to now. Bluegum, mainly used for electricity poles, seems to have turned into a priority.”

Two other officials also claim some companies have failed to rehabilitate roads within the forest and maintain fire breaks as concessions stipulate. They only do this when they are harvesting.

This is risky as fires come through such areas, thereby affecting large parts of the forest, according to the officers.

Between 2001 and 2005, burnt areas that were supposed to be harvested and replanted have remained untouched at Konkha, Nthimbwa and Kasumba.

“Burnt timber is good if harvested soon, within 12 months, but that has not happened. It takes 15 years to harvest a tree. This means that if we leave any space at any given point without replanting, at a certain stage we might have to stop harvesting and wait for them to grow—assuming the planting is done as it should,” says an expert who retired but still lives in the forest.

The other element is that while small-scale timber processing companies are charged and pay in cash—allowing government to collect up to K135 million in the 2010/2011 financial year, concessionaries pay directly to government, which has not published the amounts.

The locals pay K10 000 per cubic metre of trees.

Licensed small-scale pit sawyers are now being organised into cooperatives but they claim there are no more areas to harvest as there was recklessness at a certain point and many trees were lost to either bush fires or lack of replanting.

“I work around Kalungulu area. The trees are no longer available. The reality is that most small-scale operators replant trees immediately as they are afraid they will not be allocated extra areas, while some big companies neglect that role,” charges one owner of a small sawmill in the forest.

In terms of bush fires, there has been substantial reduction, but the forest’s security department’s 22 employees are a laughing stock. They have only one gun to police the whole forest. They also have no vehicle.

There are five main stations in the forest: Luwawa, Mazamba, Chikangawa, Kalungulu, Lusangazi and Nthungwa.

Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Energy, Natural Resources and Environment Ben Botolo describes what is happening in Chikangawa as “shameful”. But he argues the major concessionaries are taking better care of their area than sawmill owners.

Botolo says Raiply, for example, has invested over K6.6 billion to improve operations, which allows them to recover at least 80 percent of a tree.

He says so far, Raiply has shown a good record in managing and replanting trees, a point some people in the forest would laugh at, claiming the company is allegedly planting in areas near the main roads and not deep in the forest.

Botolo says government is trying to organise small-scale timber sawyers into cooperatives to allow them share capital and bring advanced equipment which would help to add value to harvested stocks unlike the current selling of raw timber.

He also defends the planting of bluegum trees, saying although the original concept for the plantation was to produce pulp and paper which mainly come from pine trees, blue gum trees have a ready market.

“The concept of pulp and paper still remains, but blue gums are used as poles for electricity and also saperi plywood, they are now having a very good crop. Since they grow faster, they allow the forest to be covered fast,” says Botolo.

He argues that while blue gum tree absorbs a lot of water, Chikangawa is safe environmentally as it has high rainfall, which means the water table cannot be affected by the trees.

On the revenue side, Botolo says the unconcessioned area is not performing, though he cannot say how much companies such as Raiply pays to government at the moment. He says the amounts from other companies has failed to reach the target of K300 million in the past years.

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