Trees and youth employment

Calls from journalists to comment on the K5 billion National Youth Tree Planting programme has prompted me to outline gaps in tree-planting initiatives.

I applaud government for greening the budget through the great decision which will not only create economic opportunities for many, but also directly address poverty, food insecurity and climate-related challenges.

This directly responds to Poverty, Environment Initiative (PEI) programme that has been implemented in the country since 2012 in partnership with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN Enviroment and other partners.

Tree-planting initiatives have been taking place since Malawi attained independence in 1964, but most of the trees planted do not survive or receive adequate care.

Besides, the country loses millions of trees every year.

The major challenge with tree-planting initiatives is that they are not treated as business. Most of the trees planted do not have short-term economic benefits.

There is no proper planning, stakeholder engagement, incentives and linkages to poverty reduction in most of the tree planting initiatives.

For example, trees are planted without being linked to the wider landscape that can boost ecotourism initiatives for economic and ecological benefits.

Due to widespread poverty, environmental conservation programmes are not meeting basic needs of people: food, housing and clothes.

Unfortunately, the tree-planting programmes are not fully incorporated and budgeted for in national and district development plans.  Most of them are driven by non-governmental organisations and companies with questionable sustainability interventions.

There is no proper education or awareness programme on the benefits of trees and environment.  Most schools, including universities, have no proper programme that allows students to appreciate and recognise the environment as part of our businesses.

By contrast, South Africa observes the National Arbor Week which raises the status of environment issue through structured education and awareness programmes, including the dangers of forest fires and the importance of trees.The Tree Challenge Initiative in Jamaica also offers education-linked interventions.

Lack of ownership of trees is another challenge. This mostly affects trees planted on communal or public land.

The land tenure related challenges are not factored in when designing tree planting programmes. This is linked to failure to recognise bare mountains as the main space for tree planting.

Politicians have also contributed to environmental degradation.  A good example is Viphya Plantation where few greedy individuals have destroyed the country’s largest manmade forests without tangible investment to create employment.

This has eroded the willingness of Malawians to invest in trees.

Based on these observations, several challenges may affect the Youth Tree Planting Programme.

The main problem is that the programme will be driven on political premises without considering the real objective of creating green jobs for the youth.

With rampant corruption, the funds might be used by politicians and not for the intended unemployed youthful Malawians.

If the resources are channelled for the intended objective, the following can affect the sustainability of the initiative.

Environmental interventions are not what the youth are lacking in Malawi. A recent study I conducted in Salima, Mangochi and Dedza shows that most of the youths were interested to be mobile money agents or motor bicycle taxi operators. Very few young people mentioned vocational and technical skills as well as green jobs. n

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