In the district of Mzimba in Malawi’s northern region, lies the Bunganya Forest Reserve, covering an area of approximately 34.40 square kilometers or 34,403 hectares.
Gazetted as a protected area in 1973 and established for catchment protection to prevent stream bank erosion during the wet season, this lush of expanse greenery has been the greatest source of forest resources for surrounding communities.
However, to date, this majestic forest has been weathering multiple storms threatening its very existence. The reserve now has contrasting sceneries, an area where trees are still intact coupled with sustainable management practices and another one with visible signs of charcoal-led deforestation.
A rapid scan conducted by Modern Cooking for Healthy Forest (MCHF) shows that key drivers of deforestation in the reserve are illegal and unmanaged commercial firewood collection, illegal charcoal production, and illegal logging for poles or boards.
These drivers according to locals date back to the dawn of multiparty politics in the country.
“Multiparty brought many negatives,” Blasco Kumwenda, Chairperson for Kanandlewe Village Natural Resources Management Committee (VNRMC), said: “During the one-party era, we had tight security but after multiparty, people started cutting trees in the reserve irresponsibly.”
For years, Bunganya Forest Reserve has been experiencing multiple threats and destruction. This vital ecosystem, essential for both local livelihoods and the environment, has been facing an existential crisis. Nevertheless, it is here that the indomitable spirit of a community united in their love for the forest took root.
At the forefront of this conservation movement is Mlumuzana Mtembalibwe Nkosi, a visionary leader who is spearheading efforts to protect the Kanandlewe Forest Area inside Bunganya Forest Reserve. Under his guidance, the community has enacted a series of unique and effective measures to safeguard this vital ecosystem.
Their approach is both innovative and deeply rooted in local culture. For example, they have a unique system of forest protection fines. This is a blend of traditional and environmental stewardship, aiming to make every community member a guardian of the forest.
“We prohibit cutting down of trees in the reserve and violators are fined a chicken with the belief that they will change and stop destroying trees in the forest. We know that the punishments are not deterrent enough and we are thinking of upgrading the fines, at least to a goat,” Mlumuzana Mtembalibwe Nkosi said during a visit to the area.
While this may seem unconventional, it has proven to be a powerful tool in safeguarding the Kanandlewe section of the forest. Plans by Mlumuzana Mtembalibwe Nkosi to upgrade this fine to a goat reflect the seriousness of the chief’s commitment and that of the community to the conservation of this beloved forest. This change would not only reinforce the seriousness of their commitment but also provide a practical deterrent against illegal logging.
Blasco Kumwenda, the Chairperson Kanandlewe VNRMC explains that their decision to take up the mantle of forest guardians was born from a deep concern for the relentless destruction they witnessed.
“We decided to start safeguarding the forest because we were deeply, concerned by the destruction we witnessed. Our forest is not just a source of timber and fuel wood but also provides vital ecosystems, including water supply and climate regulation,” he said.
“The destruction caused a lot of damage. It negatively affected our gardens. We experienced running waters that led to soil erosion in our gardens. As you can see, our gardens no longer have the same nutrients as they did before,” Kumwenda added.
This community has not limited itself to punitive measures alone. To reduce their dependence on the forest for firewood, they are implementing a unique and ambitious endeavor. In 2016, they began regenerating a nearby Kanandlewe mountain, specifically for harvesting firewood. This proactive approach ensures that they can sustainably meet their fuel wood needs while reducing the pressure on the reserve.
What is particularly remarkable about the conservation efforts in Bunganya Forest Reserve is the significant role played by women in the community. Martha Kumwenda, a dedicated community member, emphasizes the importance of their involvement.
“Women are at the forefront of these initiatives because they are the ones who bear the brunt of the challenges brought about by forest destruction. They understand the intimate connection between the forest and their daily lives,” Kumwenda said.
The women of Bunganya are actively involved in planting, nurturing, and protecting the newly generated areas, ensuring the sustainability of their efforts. Their commitment to safeguarding the forest is a testament to the vital role that local communities, regardless of gender, can play in preserving the planet’s invaluable natural resources.
While the community is making progress to safeguard the reserve, one of the primary threats they face is from individuals who come from outside the village to exploit the forest’s resources, often under the cover of darkness.
“In our local area, nobody is involved in charcoal burning. However, there are people from other areas who come to destroy the Bunganya reserve. This is because we have a committee dedicated to protecting the reserve, and our presence makes them afraid to come to our side,” Kumwenda the VNRMC chairperson said.
He added; “Despite this, they still come during the night from places like Madise and Kamwe, where trees are no longer available. They cannot come during daylight because we are vigilant in protecting the reserve. We need temporary patrol workers for the night,” Kumwenda said.
The challenges faced by communities in safeguarding their forests are well, recognized by the authorities. Mzimba North Assistant Forestry Officer Kumbukani Msofi acknowledges these difficulties and affirms the government’s commitment to intervene.
“We cannot run away from the problem of shortage of staff. As you may have heard in the past months the government is recruiting forest guards and is deploying them in different forest reserves and this area is also one of the places where when recruited some of them are going to be assigned here,” Msofi said.
On the suggestion to employ temporary patrol workers, Msofi said; “This is a very good suggestion but that will depend on the way the government has set up its structures and its budget so that those people should be hired. However, I cannot say here that there is a program of recruiting temporary workers apart from what we are doing of working with the community and encouraging community policing within the forest.”
Beyond the community’s work to protect the forest, every household in the village boasts an efficient cook stove that relies on minimal firewood usage. This forward-thinking approach came through the USAID and UKAID Co-funded Modern Cooking for Healthy Forest project, which is also supporting conservation efforts in the area.
Wezi Chisenga, Forest Specialist at MCHF elaborates on their mission to promote forestry conservation efforts in Bunganya Forest Reserve.
“Our work largely involves improving the management and conservation of forestry resources in forest reserves. One of the major achievements we have done so far is to help the Department of Forestry develop the forest management plan for the reserve but also empower the local forest organizations,” Chisenga said.
He added; “We are empowering them in the management of forest resources specifically to do with promotion of assisted natural regeneration, fire prevention activities but also understanding their responsibilities in terms of monitoring whatever activity is happening inside the forest reserve and then report to relevant law enforcement agencies all illegal activities.”
As one walks through the Bunganya Forest Reserve, the transformation is evident. Once a landscape facing multiple threats is now a testament to the resilience of a community that refused to surrender to despair. The Bunganya community efforts serve as a powerful reminder that even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges; the human spirit can rise above, reaffirming humanity’s shared responsibility to protect the natural world.