The battle to protect the forest reserves in Malawi has been there for ages. And to amplify the government’s desire towards winning the battle to safeguard the environment, the Malawi Defence Forces was roped in to patrol the reserves in 2017.
However, seven years down the line, the intervention does not seem effective as the forest’s reserves continue to be invaded and destroyed by charcoal burners and wood harvesters. This has not spared Perekezi Forest Reserve in the Malawi’s northern District of Mzimba.
The Perekezi Forest Reserve has a length of 49.73 Kilometres and is around forest cover of 303,937 hectares representing 29.7% of the total land area.
Among other notable forests include, Kaning’ina, Nkhotakota, Chimaliro forest reserve, Dzalanyama, among other across the country.
Statistics indicate that in Malawi, about 300,000 hectares of forest are cleared every year, which equates to about an eighth of the country’s entire forestland.
According to Forestry Global Watch, in 2010, Malawi had a 1.39mha of natural forest, extending over 12 percent of its land area. In 2021, it lost 14.7kha of natural forest, equivalent to 5.30Mt of carbon dioxide emissions.
Despite by-laws to protect the forest reserve, people are secretly beating the laws and security systems to find their way in for permanent settlement and charcoal burning which they transport and sell to the country’s capital cities such as Lilongwe, Blantyre as well as Mzuzu.
An investigation has shown that the invaders, who are mostly armed with machetes pose a great danger to anyone who attempts to chase them out of the forests.
On 24 May 2022, Isaac Baloyi, an Assistant Forestry Officer at Mzimba District Forestry Office and 40 other people, nearly lost their lives when they attempted to patrol and chase out the forestry campers.
“It was on 24 May 2022 when I met my fate. We went on patrols to chase people who invaded Perekezi forest and they were even camping inside the forest while producing charcoal. We were only 40 people split into two groups of 20, and each group had one forestry guard with a gun against 200 invaders but it yielded nothing.
“The assailants were fully armed with machetes and axes and we failed to drive them out, instead we had to run for our dear lives. In the course of running, I fell on the ground, and I was beaten and hacked and left nearly lifeless. I thank God I am still alive,” said Baloyi.
Baloyi said the escapade has left him with nightmares in his daily life as he cannot ably work the way he used to and he still feel the pains in the chest, muscles and he even sprained his front finger nails.
“We have tried the best, but our effort to chase them has proven futile, and we are slowly losing the battle because the assailants are always ready to retaliate with pangas. At times, the people bribe their way in, through village heads and forestry guards,” said Baloyi.
Efforts to combat charcoal burning
In his sentiments, Group Village Headman for Emazwini in Perekezi, Brighton Shumba played down the bribes issue saying they have formulated by-laws which govern the forest but the problem is the assailants who seem to be powerful enemies.
“The people are so daring because when approached they turn down any advances to engage with them against the malpractice. They say that they cannot stop cutting down trees and producing charcoal because it is the only way to fend for their families.
“To be honest, as Chiefs, we try our best to guard and protect Perekezi Forest Reserve because we believe this is our asset which God gave to us but the challenge is that people do not follow the bylaws. In February 2023, I and my fellow chiefs went to patrol the forest but we were chased,” he said.
President Lazarus Chakwera during a State of National Address (SONA) on 20th February, 2023 said government is making strides to protect the Forest Reserves in the country.
Chakwera said government recruited 300 Forest guards and 33 Forestry Officers in 2022 to protect Eight Forest Reserves and 21 Plantations across the country including Perekezi Forest Reserve in Mzimba District.
The Environmental specialist Charles Bakolo said only 9 percent of the southern African countries’ population has access to electricity, ensuring a good market for the charcoal produced by communities living near forests.
He said there is a need to economically empower the poor people living in areas bordering the natural forests as well as finding the alternative source of energy and both in-come, if the battle is to be won.
“Without stepped-up action, the country will continue to experience rising temperatures as the forests are cut down, releasing the carbon they store into the atmosphere and causing global warming leading to occurrence of natural disasters because of disturbed ecosystem,” said Bakolo.
Malawi is one of the least electrified countries globally currently at 11% overall, with 42% of the urban and only 4% of the rural population connected to electricity.