No tenders. No questions asked. No nothing. It was in the bag. The name at the centre is Leston Mulli, one of Malawi’s most politically connected businesspersons during the Bingu wa Mutharika regime.
He was close to power, so close that when he wanted a huge chunk of a mountain, he got one, without the due processes.
A four-day investigation in Mulanje and Phalombe reveals that without anyone competing with Mulli: the absence of a transparent bidding process to examine the technical and financial ability of a company to operate a huge chunk of one of the country™s most sensitive eco-systems and valuable tourist attraction areas, Mulli Brothers got a 10-year licence to develop and provide eco-tourism services in Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve up to 2018 from June 2008.
Our investigations also show that Mulli Brothers has not been adhering to most of the conditions for the operation of the reserve, including development of a management plan, involvement of communities in the sustainable use of the reserve and remitting of funds to government.
But in an interview on Friday, MBL Holdings chairperson Leston Mulli said if the Department of Forestry had complaints on his company™s work in Thuchila, it should have followed procedures and revoked the licence, arguing people have now started using politics in business which, he said, would destroy the sector.
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine Gotani Hara this week confirmed the findings and promised to get to the bottom of the matter. In fact, on Wednesday, Gotani Hara convened a meeting with officials from the Department of Forestry as part of an internal process to appreciate what happened.
Tales of beatings, intimidation
Almost all traditional leaders from Likhubula to Thuchila refused to talk on the issue while most of the youth and women who spoke on condition of anonymity told tales of beatings, intimidation and threats from Mulli Brothers personnel when the communities wanted to access the forest to collect firewood.
It was sometime in 2009 when we saw Mulli people coming and starting to work here. We were told he owned the whole mountain and we could not access it. This was strange as we had a community management programme which gave us powers to work with the Department of Forestry officials in sustainable management of the forest, said a village head who pleaded for anonymity.
Forestry officials and some who retired from the service said they were just advised that the forest now belonged to Mulli and nobody else from the department came to brief them on what would be their role. Since then, they have faced hostilities from the company officials.
˜We got reports of ill-treatment™
Gotani Hara confirmed her ministry has received reports of how the company is ill-treating the communities around the licensed area. She also stated that the licence was indeed granted without tendering and the conditions in the licence are not adhered to.
I can confirm that we received all the complaints listed. I have instituted an investigation and appropriate course of action will be undertaken soon to protect the interests of Malawians, said Gotani Hara.
The licence states that Mulli Brothers shall ensure that communities accessing benefits from the area in one way or another and continue to do so in harmony and the company could enter into partnership agreement with communities under the facilitation of the Department of Forestry.
It was very strange that the community management aspect was completely ignored and around 2010, there was some fracas with the communities over the same. Worst still, the company was harvesting Mulanje Cedar without any authority, said a Forestry official.
The 10-year licence, whose copy Weekend Nation has obtained, starts from July 1 2008 and expires in 2018 and allocates 1 860.3 hectares of Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve to Mulli Brothers.
A Mulanje District forestry officer identified only as Masomanje was reported out of his office, located at Likhubula, which is some 11 kilometres from Mulanje™s Chitakale Turn-off to Phalombe and his number could not be reached to comment on the implications of licence over local forestry programme. We visited his office twice but never met him.
But in a letter dated 3rd July 2008 with reference number 14/9/5, Director of Forestry Dr. Dennis Kayambazinthu advised the regional forestry officer for the South and district forestry officers for Mulanje and Phalombe on the granting of the licence.
Enclosed is a duly signed operational licence allowing Mulli Brothers to develop and provide eco-tourism services in Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve. Please read it thoroughly. There will be a briefing meeting on the same between 22nd and 24th July, 2008 at Thuchila Tourist Lodge, Kayambazinthu wrote.
Efforts to talk to Kayambazinthu proved futile as he was reportedly out of the office throughout this week.
Mulli is currently operating Thuchila Forest Lodge, which initially belonged to the Department of Forestry. It could not be established if this was part of the licence or another separate entity.
The company has made some improvements at the lodge located about 31 kilometres from Mulanje Boma.
The lodge, located inside the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve in Kambenje area, however, does not provide access to natural resources for free to locals as stipulated in the agreement.
You pay a certain fee to get into forest to pick some firewood, but sometimes we are denied, everybody claims that [the area] is private property. It is the first time I am hearing that it belongs to us all, said a woman carrying firewood, but who was not willing to disclose her name and that of her village for fear of repercussions.
They claim to have been beaten or harassed by the company™s guards when found with firewood.
The irregularity of the licence issued, the absence of information to locals on the granting of the licence and general fear among civil servants in the district, make it impossible to monitor how the licensed area is managed.
The licence was granted under Forestry Act Chapter 63.01 of the Laws of Malawi using sections 45 and 54 and lists down personal details of Mulli Brothers owner Leston Ted Mulli. The Forest Reserve is listed as Mulanje Mountain (Thuchila Forest) in Phalombe located between Kambenje and Likulezi area.
We are going to preserve the nature in the forest, we will provide infrastructure in the forest to attract tourists and allow local peoples access to the forest for rotten firewood with our guard escort, Mulli writes of his commitments in the licence.
But none of the locals could confirm the access, saying they are not allowed free access and this has led to fracases in the area.
An area of 1 860.3 hectares shall be demarcated by agreement between parties hereto in Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve whose details shall be shown on a map. The overall licence area shall be known as the Mulli Brothers Licensed Area, reads clause III of the licence, adding that the management of the reserve would be for the benefit of government and surrounding communities that have traditional rights of access to it.
The clause further stipulates that within six months, Mulli Brothers should have submitted an eco-tourism development and management plan that would be approved by government covering physical and infrastructure (roads, tracks, paths lookout points, dams/water reservoirs) development, bio-diversity conversation, fire management and protection, nature sanctuary and information and education centres among others.
The plan shall be reviewed every year during a 10-year period from commence date and any renewal period in order to ensure sustainable and environmental responsive development, reads the clause.
But district officials in Phalombe and Mulanje said they do not know of any plan, neither have they ever been asked to undertake a review of the Thuchila part of the forest. The licence stipulates that any changes or deviations from the approved will require prior approval.
But Mulli Brothers defied this clause and started running operations in the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve without the management plan. Efforts by the Department of Forestry to request the company to follow procedures were reportedly ignored.
We got reports that they had started operating without signing the management plan, they seemed not to like the part of working with communities which caused fracas in the area around 2010 and that they had started harvesting the Mulanje Cedar without any authority. The department got alarmed, said a senior forest official.
˜People acted with impunity™
Weekend Nation has seen three letters written to Mulli Brothers asking them to respond on their operations but, forestry officials claim, they never received any response.
This has been a headache and it is right that you expose how people acted with impunity. When the first two letters were sent, they claimed they never received them. The third one was hand delivered, but up to now, they have not responded, said a second official at the department.
The company was supposed to have adequate public liability insurance cover, be responsible for rehabilitation of land and vegetation in the forest reserve area damaged by Mulli Brothers and that it would not claim anything from government during the use of the forest or its roads.
On financial benefits, government is supposed to hold two percent of equity in the company to be held by the Forestry Management and Development Fund (FMDF) while the alternative could be a compensatory forest rehabilitation which might include replanting and management of land not less than a hectare every year.
Mulli Brothers shall transfer two (2) percent of the equity in the company operating eco-tourism business to the FMDF annually three years after the commencement of the operational licence, reads the licence.
This meant that the transfers should have started last year, but nothing, according to Forestry officials, has been remitted to the Fund yet.
˜Leave politics out of business™
In an interview on Friday, Mulli said he could not be discussing business through the media, advising everyone who had issues with him to follow normal procedures and leave politics out of business.
I am a businessman. If they think we are doing a bad job, why can™t they just revoke the licence other than debating in the media? Why can™t they act on complaints? I never got the letters, otherwise we could have responded.
We are providing employment, we are replanting and we are revitalising some of the dead companies that were up for liquidation, said Mulli.
He said those that were bringing politics into business should realise that businesses such as his, if forced to scale-down, could have negative impact on over 10 000 employees that the company has.
If we scale down, it is not Mulli that suffers, if we close down as others wish, it will be Malawians that we employ that suffer, said Mulli.