LILONGWE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Impoverished villagers are hacking down Malawi's forests to make charcoal, undeterred by government efforts to confiscate the dirty fuel as a power deficit stokes demand.
Only 9 percent of the southern African country's population have access to electricity, ensuring a good market for the charcoal produced by communities living near forests.
The fuel is sold mainly in urban and semi-urban areas where even those who do have a power connection cannot afford electricity for cooking.
Alex Thom, standing by his bags of charcoal on the roadside at Bale in Rumphi in northern Malawi, said he and others make charcoal by smoldering wood because it provides steady earnings.
“This is our major source of income. The cash crops we grow are seasonal, which means there are parts of the year when we have nothing to sell. But we can store the charcoal and sell it later,” he said.
Charcoal producers, including those around the vast Dzalanyama forest stretching between Dedza and the Malawian capital Lilongwe, say they are driven to the environmentally destructive trade by poverty.
“There is a need to economically empower the poor, especially those in areas bordering natural forests,” said Charles Kajoloweka, a consultant on forest issues.
Policies should encourage local people to co-manage the forests so they see the mutual benefits of protecting them, he added.
Kajoloweka described Malawi’s deforestation rate as “alarming”, and said the real situation was not reflected in out-of-date official figures.
The Department of Forestry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation researchers put the deforestation rate at between 1.6 percent and 2.8 percent of forest cover per year. It plans to commission a new estimate.
Without stepped-up action, the country will continue to experience rising temperatures as its forests are cut down, releasing the carbon they store into the atmosphere, Kajoloweka warned.
To prevent this, laws governing protection of forests must be adhered to and stricter sanctions introduced, he said.
“The enforcement of these laws is so weak,” he added.
The law stipulates that those found felling trees should have their equipment confiscated, and where charcoal has already been produced, it should be removed.
“There is a need for stiffer punishment. Snatching the charcoal counts for nothing,” Kajoloweka said. “Charcoal means trees have already been felled.”
The large amount of charcoal confiscated at police roadblocks far from where it is produced means existing measures to tame deforestation are ineffective, he added.
Director of Forestry Clement Chilima said forest guards are confiscating charcoal at roadblocks “out of desperation to kill the market or reduce demand”.
“That way we believe those making the charcoal will be forced to seek other means of generating income. But that is not working perfectly,” he explained in a telephone interview.
The government now plans to try and address the problem at its source, he added, without going into details of how this would be done.
Local water boards are already taking action to protect forest reserves in water catchments by deploying Malawi Defence Force soldiers to guard areas supplying water to the cities of Mzuzu and Lilongwe.
The government is considering licensing individuals who produce charcoal in a sustainable way, compared with the majority who are not.
“We will look at those who are growing trees and making charcoal,” Chilima said.
The government has recently launched projects that could help, under the U.N.-backed Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme, together with donors such as USAID and local groups like Total Land Care.
“Individuals who are in the charcoal business because they have no other means of survival will be engaged in alternative sources of income,” Chilima said.
Total Land Care, for example, promotes apiculture and tree-planting initiatives as ways of curbing deforestation due to charcoal-making. Instead, those involved sell honey, tree seedlings and lumber.
The Department of Forestry and the Department of Energy will also target charcoal users, Chilima said, although they expect resistance from some who prefer charcoal as a cooking fuel.
Joseph Kalowekamo, a spokesman for the Department of Energy, said the government is working to increase access to electricity to 30 percent of the population by 2030.
The Malawi Rural Electrification Programme is connecting people in rural and peri-urban areas, while the government has plans to increase hydro-electric generation capacity, he said by email.
Little has been done yet on other renewable energy sources, but the government has installed community solar and wind hybrid systems in northern, central and southern parts of the country.
These are benefiting around 900 households through a mini-grid network, Kalowekamo said.
The government, with technical and financial support from the Scottish government and the World Bank, is conducting an assessment of solar, wind and geothermal energy resources.
It will develop a renewable energy strategy based on what the assessment judges to be economically viable, Kalowekamo added.
(Reporting by Karen Sanje; editing by Megan Rowling)