Unchecked deforestation endangers Malawi ecosystems

Posted: 17 December 2004

Author: Charles Mkoka

Deforestation for charcoal burning, slash and burn cultivation, and tobacco curing is threatening human survival and the entire ecosystem of this African rift country. Fresh water has turned saline along the shore of Lake Malawi, and wildlife habitat is disappearing as a result of widespread logging, reports Charles Mkoka.

Fuelwood for sale on a Malawi roadside. Photo: © A. Conti courtesy FAO
Fuelwood for sale on a Malawi roadside. Photo: © A. Conti courtesy FAO
Fuelwood for sale on a Malawi roadside© A. Conti courtesy FAO
The Forest Act prohibits clearing of indigenous forests, but a tour of the lands along Lake Malawi shows that areas that were covered with woodlands just a few years ago, are now bare. The brachystegia trees, their pale golden heartwood striped with dark brown, are gone.

Conservationists have expressed alarm at the rate of land clearing by those intending to open new farms.

David Bradfield, project manager for the German funded Frankfurt Zoological Society, runs a project in Liwonde National Park. Holding a Global Positioning System device that he uses to map the deforestated areas, he warns that deforestation is taking its toll on the environment in the areas surrounding Liwonde National Park and the forest areas in the Namwera area all the way to the Mozambique border.

"When I came here, two years ago there were trees in these mountains," he said, pointing to the Mlindi Hills close to the newly opened Mangochi-Naminga road. "This time around there no trees left."

Bradfield has spent his time in the country protecting both wildlife and tree species through funding environmental projects in the Liwonde Mangochi area.

Tree felling

Photographs taken by another concerned conservationist reveal alarming levels of wood being chopped from the mountains and hills and ferried by tractor to the tobacco barns.

Wood piled behind tobacco curing sheds on the Ngoche Estate. © Charles Mkoka
Wood piled behind tobacco curing sheds on the Ngoche Estate. © Charles Mkoka
Wood piled behind tobacco curing sheds on the Ngoche Estate© Charles Mkoka
Eyewitnesses report that often many tractors and trucks travel from the mountains with wood for the many tobacco estates in the area.

Cheap local labor is used to facilitate logging in the mountains, according to Karen Nakonya and Thousand James, both employed as firewood cutters for one of the tobacco estates in the district.

"We are only doing this as a job as you can see that we have nowhere to go. We have to do it as we have an obligation to support ourselves and our families," says Nakonya who has been a logger for more than 10 years.

The large scale tree cutting, accelerating at the speed of light, has created large chunks of bare land on the mountains and hills. The deforestation is difficult to reverse and will pose longer term environmental challenges for the country, scientists say.

Damaged ecosystems

Consulting hydrogeologist Jim Anscombe, who has been working in the area, says the forest acts like blanket over the land, and the trees work like a water pump.

"Driven by energy from the sun, the trees pump water from the water table, through the roots, trunk and leaves, up into the atmosphere through the process of transpiration," he said. "Collectively the forest pumps millions of liters of water daily to the atmosphere."

"In subtropical climates such as Malawi," said Anscombe, "transpired water condenses in the stratosphere, creating thunderheads, which push up the breeze, redistributing the water as summer rain. Under these conditions, crops are reliably grown on the plains between the forested uplands. Families are fed, and drought and famine are rare."

"Rain falling on a forested slope is absorbed into the root biomass and dispensed slowly to the plains below," he explained. "In subtropical environments, it is common for the dispensing streams and rivers to flow even through the dry season, as the summer rain slowly percolates in, through and out of the system."

"Land and soil degradation are minimized because the trees and their root network provide restraining protection," he said.

But when a region is deforested, said Anscombe, the negative environmental impact has numerous delayed effects that may not appear for a decade or two, but the situation becomes irreversible.

Rainfall from summer thunderheads decreases as the trees are felled. Rainfall distribution deteriorates and becomes dependent on more erratic regional weather patterns such as those pushed by pressure changes from distant oceans. Crop yields suffer from reduced rainfall and degraded soils, increasingthe incidence of crop failure and famine.

Ascombe has been conducting gound water surveys on where boreholes should be sunk for wells under a German funded GITEC project. He says deforestation is having a devastating effect on the water table.

Shrinking water table

On the plains between deforested areas the water table has become shallower because there are no trees left to pump the water to the atmosphere, he explains.

Direct sunlight on the soil surface increases the amount of water loss to the atmosphere from the now shallow water table. This leads to salt buildup in the soil layers and the progressive reduction in soil fertility.

In a worst case scenario, the deforested land is rendered saline, barren and infertile within a decade.

A 77 year old Greek farmer Peter Panariwtu interviewed at one of the tobacco estates said that efforts by the commercial farming communities to secure land for woodland plantations to avert these problems have hit a blank wall. There are no more 400 hectare parcels of land available for reforestation.

Panariwtu acknowledged that indigenous trees are being used for curing tobacco on his estate, most of it bought from other estates in the area.

Keith Eden, a South African farmer growing seed maize in Malawi, said that most of the farmers know there is good money in tobacco. He expressed concern at the rate at which indigenous trees are being chopped to fuel the tobacco curing sheds.

Forestry officials in Mangochi said that although they have produced a plan of work for the year, no funding trickles in from headquarters to keep the work going.

"My boss can prepare the annual work plan, however, there is literally nothing that comes to this office for our daily operations, says Assistant District Forestry Officer Charles Kamwendo.

"The vehicle that we use is not road worthy. Its certificate of fitness was last done in 1997 and that once the road traffic department comes across it, it will be impounded," he said.

"It is now eight years since we last conducted patrols for our forest reserves," said Mangochi District Forestry Officer Vita Kanyemba. "So no boundary patrols have been made in Phirilongwe, Mangochi and Namizimu forest reserves."

"We have no uniforms, no fuel and no houses," Kanyemba said. "We have the drive but resources are a limiting factor here. How can we work in that case?"

Malawi's growing numbers

According to Malawi's population projections (prepared with the help of UNFPA), women are still having on average more than 6 children and the population is projected to grow from 12 million to 20 million by 2025, despite the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS.

Asked to assign blame for the massive deforestation in Malawi, Kanyemba could only respond, "The officials say that is a vicious circle."

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs said in its 2002 State of the Environment Report that Malawi's forest resources declined from 47 percent of the total land area to around 28 percent in 2000.

Population growth, poverty, agricultural expansion, wood energy demands, and wildfires keep eroding Malawi's forest resources, the ministry reports.

There are now fears that forest cover may have shrunk below 20 per cent, as massive tree cutting continues uninterrupted in most of areas of the country.

Source: © Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved. Reproduced with permission.