A m’bawa tree that former president Peter Mutharika planted during the launch of 2018/19 tree planting season at Malingunde Primary School could not be found a day after the ceremony.
The school’s Deputy Head Teacher Harold Khuthe say he sent pupils to water trees on the day after President and other prominent figures had planted the trees the day prior.
He recalls: “We took it as our responsibility to look after the trees. I was shocked to hear from the learners that there were no trees that side, including those planted by the president.”
Apparently, communities had uprooted the trees just after the launch at the school located in the outskirts of Lilongwe City.
Even a cedar tree Mutharika planted on December 18 2019 at Thuchira Health Centre at Nkando in Mulanje District is no longer there.
The two examples highlight the problem of poor survival rate of trees planted by Government during Forestry Season.
This has been the case despite the country placing greater focus of tree survival and it’s aspiration to meet the 2018/2019 national budget of MK5 billion for youth tree planting program.
The inability to effectively tackle charcoal-led deforestation, and related to this the poor history of tree planting are together forming one of the major challenges facing Malawi.
For the past years, National Forestry Season through tree planting exercise has never reached its intended purpose of restoring the natural forests or otherwise contributing to re-afforestation despite allocating financial and other resources to these efforts.
Re-afforestation, being an intention of restocking forests and woodlands that have been depleted but the inability to address illegal charcoal demand coupled with ignorance on ecological requirements, agricultural land expansion and bush fires have limited the impacts of National Forestry Season.
An estimate of over 100 million trees planted the past five tree-planting-seasons; spanning 2016 through 2020 have been lost.
Through the 5 years span, Department of Forestry set an annual target of planting over 302 million trees. An estimate of 304 million trees were planted achieving 101 percent of the target. However, according to data provided by the Department of Forestry 201 million trees survived representing 66 percent on an estimate of 121 thousand hectares.
This loss is blamed on a range of factors including, late tree-planting, and ignorance on ecological requirements, livestock grazing and bush fires among others.
But Khuthe attributes the low survival rate on the wrong trees being planted in the wrong place including places where people own and use land, poor after plant care.
But that isn’t all; Khuthe feels the situation would have been different had there been stronger by-laws or adherence of laws governing the safeguard of trees.
“In fact that season only 35 percent of trees planted survived and it was mostly exotic trees that survived at the campus than indigenous trees due to soil suitability concerns.” Khuthe lamented
The 2017-2027 National Charcoal Strategy revealed that more than 97% of Malawian households use charcoal or firewood for cooking and heating. As the population grows the demand for charcoal and firewood will remain high and increase in the absence of viable alternatives.
The strategy states that the continued loss of forest as charcoal and firewood demand grows affects Malawian through declining of availability of wood for charcoal, decrease in soil fertility and water retention, increased flood incidence due to increased water runoff and declining of hydropower productivity.
However, the Malawi 2063 vision enabler 7 raised hope that as a country will diversify cooking away from using biomass towards cleaner and environmentally sustainable means by promoting innovations and technologies in the environmental sector.
The Malawi 2063 blueprint further states, on restructuring of land tenure systems and enforce fit for purpose use of environmental resources, inculcate practical and peoplecentered value systems on environmental resources use and management.
No wonder as an intervention; whilst launching the 2016/2017 tree planting season, forestry department called not just for the planting and protecting of trees rather for their 100 percent survival rate.
A year-earlier; Malawi had just experienced one of the worst floods having devastated farmlands and shrunk the agricultural yield; in the process many farming households were left insecure.
According to a report by International organization for Migration (IOM) over 80,000 households across southern Malawi’s Chikwawa, Nsanje Phalombe and Zomba were heavily affected by Cyclone Idai in 2020.
Nearly 85,000 hectares of crops were flooded, affecting more than 57,000 smallholder farmers. Homes and infrastructure were destroyed, agriculture fields and livestock washed away, leading to substantial damage to sanitation facilities, which poses a serious risk of waterborne disease. This rainfall event was similar to the floods experienced in 2022 as more than 200,000 smallholder farmers’ field crops were destroyed.
Fast forward to the 2016-through-2020 national forestry seasons emphasizing on restoring degraded land and aspiring a 4.5 million hectares cover. The result hasn’t been positive as department of forestry has continuously failed to meet the highest number of survival rate.
In the border district of Mwanza, the story is slightly different.
Morris Muliranji, chairperson of Tikambe youth network says despite phasing out of the project but the scheme financially empowered youths in the district some of whom ventured into livestock keeping through incentives received having planted and cared for trees and establish woodlots in communities.
Another success story is also shared of Ng’ambani youth club in Mangochi district whose bylaws have helped them register high survival rate of trees according to Nyson Kamtetete chairperson of the youth.
“Here; cutting down of trees or letting loose livestock or charcoal burning are illegal and punishable offences. People pay fines. So this has helped in having trees survive,” Kamtetete.
On their part; community leaders have an interesting take.
For Sub Chief Mwangolera of Karonga one challenge with the tree planting exercise is that communities are ignorant about the motive behind the exercise.
He suggests a better intervention would be for the forestry department to raise awareness on alternative sources of cooking energy and availability of technologies like gas stoves to counter charcoal burning which is also lowering survival rate of trees.
“Achieving the 2030 goal is dependent on many factors one of which is for government to create conducive environment for clean energy alternatives at affordable prices,” says Sub Chief Mwangolera.
Inkosi Chilikumwendo of Dedza district on the other hand is wearying of the intensity of forestry depletion.
However, he says, not all hope is lost as the country can restore the forestry lost through allowing regeneration to take place including for forests like Dzalanyama whose cover has gone chiefly to charcoal burning.
Sad in all this is that in spite of the pomp that comes with launch of tree-planting exercises the Cedar tree planted at Thuchira Health Center at Mkando in Mulanje on 18 December 2019 is no longer there.
The orange and m’bawa tree planted on 15 December 2018 at Malingunde primary school ground in Lilongwe, at Kalambo primary school is not there and some media reports can also tell of a ceremonial tree planted during 2017/2018 in Mwanza which isn’t there.
Whilst authorities withheld this publication permission to see if at all a ceremonial tree planted at during the 2020 season in Nkhatabay survived at all.
Nonetheless, director of forestry Stella Gama says currently the survival rate is at 65 to 69 percent across the country.
“As a nation we are planting over 60 million trees yearly and also managing natural regeneration but there are number of challenges we face including: poor management of tree seedlings at nursery level, poor sivicultural practices.
“Also [there’re concerns of] destruction by livestock and lack of tree and site matching, which results in low survival rate,” Gama observes.
Meanwhile Lilongwe Wildlife Trust Director of programs Dorothy Tembo Nhlema emphasized on focusing on management and conservation of already planted trees and regeneration.
“All I can say is that we can do better on management of trees. A lot of trees have not survived, let’s focus more on conserving what is available already and this should be throughout the year and not just forest season,” Nhlema says.
Come to think of the 2017 forestry landscape restoration opportunities assessment of Malawi which recommends the protection of the remaining forest reserves and other forested areas, restore degraded areas and plant trees (establishment of woodlots)
Thus AFR100 sees an option to restore 4.5 million degraded lands with an approximate of over MK279 billion by 2030 backed by the 2016 National Forestry Policy which promotes the use of alternative sources of energy to reduce consumption of fuel wood on one end.
While on the other the ministry takes responsibility of ensuring the provision of energy and alternative technologies to biomass energy in consistent with the forestry policy.
This project is supported by Forest Accountability Journalism Initiative in Malawi (FAJIM)