For many years, perpetrators of various forestry crimes like illegal felling of trees for charcoal production purposes seemed to be treated with kids’ gloves owing to an apparently weak law.
Perhaps it is necessary to mention right at the outset that a majority of Malawians rely on charcoal or firewood for their cooking and heating needs.
But, as the country’s environmental crisis reaches a critical point, the authorities have seen it wise to fortify law enforcement and overhaul public policy to address behaviours that aggravate deforestation.
The 2020 Forestry Amendment Act was thus framed to enhance transparency and accountability in the sector, improve charcoal regulation, boost public-private partnership opportunities, and to provide forestry officers with greater law enforcement powers.
Following operationalisation of the amended law, which treats charcoal as a forest product, the authorities now have the mandate to mete out stiffer penalties in fines and jail time as a disincentive to illegal forest activities.
Under the revised law; production, transportation and trading in illegal charcoal are treated similarly to other illegal forest activities.
Thus, Malawi’s Forestry Policy and latest National Charcoal Strategy (2017–2027) forbids production of charcoal without a valid licence.
It is therefore incumbent upon every person involved in charcoal production, transportation and actual trading to have official papers if they are to continue with the business.
With the law already in place and everyone involved expected to abide by the regulations, what do local traders in the country’s rural and semi-urban areas think about it?
Visiting some of the hotspot for charcoal selling in the Commercial city of Blantyre, some traders who opted not be mentioned, said they were fully aware of the Law but had their reservations.
One woman, who identified herself as Esme pleaded with the authorities to keep them on board.
“We have heard of the processes that are there for one to get the license and it is very expensive.
If they can allow us to be operating in corporatives with our fellow traders it will help us a lot and make it easy for us to attain the license,” she pleaded.
Meanwhile, the reality on the ground is that getting the licence to produce charcoal from indigenous trees is not an easy endeavour bearing in mind that such trees are scarce.
In a written response to this reporter’s questionnaire, spokesperson for the department of forestry Frank Mkondetsi indicated that charcoal licence can indeed be issued to individuals, groups of people or companies.
He, however, was quick to point out that before a licence is issued; the department will first assess if the applicants have enough trees to sustainably produce charcoal over a period of time.
As such, the department does not and will not issue licences to individuals, groups of people or companies that do not have their own trees.
One such company who got such permits is Kawandama Hills Plantation.
The company’s managing director Nedson Chiloko discloses that the company was first company to be issued with a licence and has been operating since 2015, “We have got 7,750 hectares so we are planting the trees and it was not very difficult for us to convince government to give us the license.”
However, Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA) executive director, John Kapito, argues that proper consultation with all relevant players is key to incorporate everyone’s views.
“We have said this is a law that should have been discussed thoroughly and this is a law we thought all stakeholders should have been involved in drafting.
The users and those that re producing charcoal need to make sure that before its implementation, we have the systems, the alternatives identified and put in place,” Kapito argued.
Centre for Social Concern (CfSC) programmes manager for economic justice, Bernard Mphepo, agrees with Kapito stressing there should be deliberate efforts to reach the majority with the licences.
“It is the responsibility of the government to make sure that the majority of Malawians are not left out. Leaving the situation as it is, it is only for a selected few who will be able to benefit from the business.
It is the responsibility of the government to make sure that the process is simplified and also the cost is being looked into,” Mphepo clarified.
Likewise, members of the general public fear this will greatly impact their day-to-day activities.
Prisca Mkumba who resides in the commercial city of Blantyre fears more people will likely suffer as they are financially incapacitated of finding other alternatives of charcoal.
“It is going to affect the whole country. Electricity is not very effective nowadays. We get blackouts every day and we do not know when we will have lights. Some people say we can use gas but not everyone can afford gas,” she explained.
Herbert Mwalukomo, a board member at the Coordination Union for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (CURE), called for more awareness on the matter.
“The government needs to up its game because the statements are coming from charcoal producers. It means we are indeed not reaching out to them enough,” Mwalukomo elaborated.
With growing calls for concerted action to save the environment and calls for inclusive participation in the strategies being taken, the authorities seem to have a long way and a big task to address developing challenges.