A torched police patrol vehicle. A chief’s house set on fire. Bullets fly. Two die. This is the war zone that Thuma and Dedza-Salima forest reserves have become.
On one hand, communities are ready to die for them to freely, albeit illegally, exploit economic gains from the two protected sanctuaries via charcoal production and marketing.
On the other hand, security agencies have vowed— sometimes using excessive force—to save the forests and enforce law and order in the area, with little success.
Within eight months—between September 2020 and May 2021—communities shaved off trees on roughly five square kilometres (km) of land in Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve for charcoal production, according to Wildlife Action Group (WAG), a non-profit environmental watchdog.
Dedza-Salima Forest Reserve, gazetted in 1972, is 326 square km in size while Thuma Forest Reserve—gazette in 1926—lies on 197 square km.
Villagers surrounding the reserves have made it their mission to resist every move by authorities to stop them from making an unsustainable living out of the wooded areas.
Twice last year, the villagers chased away local patrol police officers who tried to halt charcoal production in the reserves.
During one of the confrontations, the encroachers set ablaze a police patrol vehicle, according to the area’s village head Mzikamanda.
He said they also burnt a house belonging to their group village head, Kapanda, accusing him of working with government agencies to stop the deforestation.
But National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera said in an interview last month that police will not give up until the encroachers are brought to book.
“We will make sure there is order in the area because no one is above the law,” he said. “At the moment, we are meeting community leaders such as chiefs to make sure that our forests are protected.”
Mzikamanda said efforts by the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources and Dedza District Forest Office have failed to stop villagers from cutting down trees and producing charcoal from the protected areas.
“We will do what it takes to make sure we remain in the area until government provides us with food for our families and loans to start small businesses,” he said in an interview in his area last month.
The forest encroachers have put in place security measures to protect themselves against State agents they deem intruders.
Even rangers guarding the forest reserve area are chased away with pangas and sticks whenever they stray deep into the area.
But posing as a charcoal intermediary, this reporter— with the help of a local fixer— managed to get into Dedza-Salima Escarpment Forest Reserve in the second week of April.
Equipped with 20 empty sacks, we first convinced Mzikamanda, the local chief, that we wanted to order hundreds of charcoal bags for sale in Lilongwe.
Mzikamanda, who is under Traditional Authority Tambala, is benefitting from the charcoal business in the reserve, which is about 60 km to the east of Linthipe 1 Bridge.
The chief has a group of men—his subjects—who are part of the encroachers. “They too produce charcoal and sell wood products,” he said.
But the chief warned us against meeting them, before quizzing us to first tell him the real mission of our visit.
He invited one of his henchmen—who, he claimed, uses black magic called ndota to determine our real reason for visiting the area.
“I need to do this because some come here pretending to buy charcoal when they are police officers trying to arrest us,” Mzikamanda said.
After handing over some cash to the chief’s magic man for a positive diagnosis of our intentions, we were cleared to carry on with our supposed charcoal deals.
The barefoot chief then said: “[But] if I find out that you just want to play games or that you are a CID officer, then you are gone. You will not be able to return home.”
When we moved closer to the reserve area, he sent a young boy to call two men. But only one man, whom the chief identified as Cheukani, came to greet us. Cheukani was jittery and suspicious.
It took Mzikamanda’s effort to reassure him that we were only charcoal traders.
Within an hour, he agreed that every fortnight he will be able to produce 290 bags of charcoal to satisfy our order. Each bag of charcoal would cost us K3 500.
We agreed that all bags would be kept at Mzikamanda’s house and the village head pledged to provide maximum security at a fee each time we visit the area to collect the bags.
To put an end to the forest reserve siege, Malawi Defence Force (MDF) soldiers were deployed to the forest reserves last year, according to Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo.
In an interview last month, the minister said the action resulted in the killing of two forest encroachers, while six others were seriously injured.
Tembo said she visited the area last year to discuss best ways to end the forest invasion, but her intervention did not end the encroachment.
“I went there, but they threatened to kill me,” she said. “That time there was tension following the death of two community members. I talked to them to stop cutting down trees.”
Following the minister’s visit, a task force was formed to monitor what they had agreed.
Dedza District forestry officer Violet Msukwa, who at the time of the interview was not aware that the community is back in the reserves, said the meeting agreed to set boundary tracing, form a task force to deal with encroachment cases and provide food to the communities.
The two reserves are managed by WAG, which signed a memorandum of understanding with the
Department of Forestry in 1997 to manage Thuma Forest Reserve.
In 2007, they also took over management of Dedza-Salima Escarpment Forest Reserve to better support protection and management of wildlife in the two reserves.
WAG has been working with traditional leaders around the two sanctuaries to stop community members from cutting down trees by providing incentives.
Among the incentive packages, over 1 600 people are directly benefitting from income generating activities.
Thuma and Dedza-Salima escarpments are two of few forest reserves in Malawi that are still home to mammals (36 in the case of the two reserves), including elephants and buffalos.
According to the Global Forest Watch (2020), between 2001 and 2019, the rate of deforestation in Thuma Forest Reserves was estimated at 3.8 hectares per year. The country’s growing population is increasing demand for forest resources.
More than 96 percent of Malawian households rely on firewood and charcoal as their primary cooking fuels, and over 75 percent of urban households rely on charcoal.
The report says that in 2018, demand for charcoal alone was worth an estimated $191 million (more than K150 billion), almost half of the total revenue that tobacco, the country’s main foreign currency earner, brought in that year.
With that demand, charcoal production and marketing provided employment opportunities for around 150 000 people, according to the report.