The vicious effects of deforestation in Malawi and the transformative power of hope.
Pretext to Malawi’s illegal charcoal trade: Charcoal is made through a process of smothering burning wood, it’s usually covered and burnt in deep hand-dug pits.
It’s hard labour, dirty and illegal to sell.
It’s fair to say that most charcoal makers, if not all, only make it due to limited alternative options. One farmer told me that it’s better for him to be a charcoal farmer than a thief. When options are slim, the alternatives are usually not pretty.
Sadly, charcoal is a major contributor to Malawi’s rapid forest depletion. Now people can’t find firewood locally, there is a greater demand for charcoal, purchased at local markets.
Charcoal makers burn where there are still trees, then transport the charcoal in huge bags to far-flung markets. Often walking for hours under the oppressive weight of the bag and the heat of the relentless sun.
The problem we face in Malawi now is this: There are so few large trees remaining in Malawi that charcoal makers face extreme challenges, with hearts wanting to earn an honest living, many are driven to desperation, chopping wood in protected forests.
The question you ask is, what can be done?
I (Joe) always get excited about field visits, especially when they are on winding dirt roads that lead deep into the rolling mountains I’ve grown to love.
As we carefully navigated the 4x4 further and further from the tarmac, plumes of smoke escaping from the ground across our line of vision gave way to the fact we were entering the heart of charcoal production land.
A short time later, we stopped and were greeted with handshakes and warm welcomes from the chief and several community members.
Now on foot, Augustine (the Tree Project Manager) and I ventured deep into the countryside for a follow-up and progress assessment in Nkhalango village.
The Tree Project team began working with the village in late 2022, engaging with a group of farmers to grow diverse forests of non invasive and native varieties, agroforestry and fruit trees.
Now in 2023 more farmers are joining the Family Tree Project and this year it is part funded by Welsh Government WCVA.
“Prize” incentives come and go as fast as the attempted project”
Chief Nkhalango made a point of expressing his heartened thanks for not providing incentives to the community (fizzy drinks, cash or maize are often given in exchange for project participation), this is not a Fisherman’s Rest projects method. He was officially recognising the relationships we build, rather than “prize” incentives that come and go as fast as the attempted project.
Chief Nkhalango explained how our method of conservation, education and long-term project value attracted members in his village who were looking for development, not only short-term benefits. Encouragingly, he informed us that the ‘Family Tree’ groups of farmers had improved unity in the village. An unexpected, but significant secondary impact, for sure!
As we journeyed on foot deep into the valley, Mr Petrol, a ‘Family Tree’ member, proudly showed us the trees he planted last rainy season. There was also land he has now assigned for more trees and the dream of having bees in the future. The vigour and determination for change on the young man’s face was a resolute reminder of the importance of the Tree Project and the responsibility that we have towards the farmers that we work with.
On the opposite side of the valley, smoke billowed into the skyline.
Walking along, our group and discussion grew to include local passing farmers.
With minimal pressing, a man named Mr Manda offered that he makes 7 bags of charcoal in one month.
This earns him £52.
The trail of farmers joked that this was only because he was so strong and that most only manage 2-3 bags.
When asked where he gets the trees for his charcoal, Mr Manda said his trees were long gone. Now he buys from his neighbours and further afield.
I asked him. What will happen in 5 years, when there are no trees to buy locally, he said “that will be to up to God”.
Farmers in the Family Tree club took over the conversation. They gently encouraged him to look beyond today and think about tomorrow.
I have no doubt that he will be joining the group this coming season.
“Fisherman’s Rest sees things before they happen”
We proceeded to walk past a shade tree with a group of happy faced uniform-clad learners reading from their scrappy exercise books.
They had just walked 2 hours back from Nankhufi II Primary School.
The school path meanders through a short ravine with mature riverine trees. The chief told us that their fathers had always protected them, as they were the source of an ancient spring.
He explained his plan to go one better, by expanding the ancient forested area with indigenous watershed species.
It was a pleasure to hear such positivity, knowledge and wisdom coming from communities trained by the Fisherman’s Rest team, in fact, I was WOWED.
The community here have grasped the project and is taking it in directions that serve them.
The afternoon closed with deep discussions on the painful and very real impact of deforestation. The challenges to reforest, and the life changing impact of the Tree Project.
Chief Nkhalango turned to the group saying
“I know this is true. I’ve been to so many meetings in Nankhufi and Kakodwa with Fisherman’s Rest. Fishermans sees things before they happen, I know how they commit”.
Little did I know that he had recently been given chieftaincy, yet he had supported community and school development work with Fisherman’s Rest since 2010!
As we climbed back into the 4x4, I let the gravitas of the day sink in.
Communities are the “Why”
Projects are the “How”
You are the “When”.
When you make a move, the “How” and the “Why” happens.
You have pushed the “snowball” over the ledge in Nkhalango village. Together, we are watching it gain in size and momentum.
There is a way to go yet, but you, the communities in Malawi, and we are not in this for saplings - we are in this for the long run, for POWERFUL change.
We want to be here to see the mighty M’bawa (Malawi’s equivalent to an oak tree) passed on to the next generation.
You are empowering communities and changing people’s lives, through supporting the Tree Project and standing with us as our wider FR, Malawi family!
To keep making a tangible difference and see month by month the impact of the Tree project to people in Malawi, jump right in and join Rooted.
You’ll likely meet Chief Nkhalango over a Zoom call!
Get your fingers on the Tree Project pulse by signing up for our Rooted waitlist.
Doors open end of September!