Just like other protected forests in the country, Perekezi Forest Reserve, a lush expanse spanning approximately 155 square kilometers in Mzimba District, Northern Malawi, is currently the frontline in a battle against deforestation.
In recent years, this pristine reserve, gazetted as a protected area in 1935, has faced an ominous threat in the form of rampant deforestation and degradation. The chief instigator of this ecological peril is the illegal and unsustainable charcoal and firewood production.
The increasing demand for illegally and unsustainably sourced charcoal and firewood for domestic cooking and heating energy has been contributing to this threat. A 2017-2027 National Charcoal Strategy puts households’ reliance on charcoal and firewood at more than 97 percent.
Culprits behind this environmental crisis in Perekezi are numerous and organized. Former pit sawyers from the neighboring Viphya Plantation, local producers, and newcomers in the world of charcoal production have all contributed to the problem.
This increased charcoal production is often, intertwined with other illicit activities, including Chamba cultivation, compounding the challenges faced by conservationists.
Walking along the M1 road between Mzimba Turn-off and Luviri, large quantities of charcoal bags are visible and inside some parts of the forest, the destruction is unbearable.
Amid this ecological crisis, a ray of hope shines through the reserve’s canopy, embodied by Group Village Headman (GVH) Mbofana Nyika, a beacon of conservation in the Chafisi Block. His strong leadership is proving key to sustainable forest management
Mbofana Nyika and the local community have managed to slow down forest cover loss inside Chafisi Block. Here the forest is intact, dead wood is seen lying intact, and no bags of charcoal transported from the area.
“We started safeguarding this area after realizing the importance of trees for our livelihoods having witnessed challenges other communities where trees have been depleted are facing,” GVH Mbofana Nyika said. “Our efforts are bearing fruits as you can see our forest area here is still intact.”
To preserve livelihoods and the forest itself, the community has initiated programs to safeguard trees while helping villagers generate income without resorting to tree destruction.
“Our efforts involve patrolling the forest, protecting trees from bushfires by creating firebreaks, encouraging communities to plant trees and develop backyard woodlots for their fuel wood needs, and focusing on alleviating poverty, which pushes people into destroying forests, by offering alternative income sources to deter them from destroying trees for profit,” GVH Mbofana Nyika said.
Isaac Mkandawire, a dedicated youth from GVH Mbofana Nyika, underscores the importance of conserving the forest, emphasizing its role in providing fresh air, consistent rainfall, agricultural yields, and vital resources.
“We benefit a lot in taking care of this forest,” Mkandawire said. “From a perennial supply of flowing rivers supporting winter farming to an abundance of local fruits, mushrooms, and other forest products. Additionally, the intact forest aids our beekeeping business, providing us with further income opportunities.”
Although the community here is succeeding in its conservation efforts, GVH Mbofana Nyika worries about a looming threat of deforestation and invasion of the area by those who have depleted other regions of the reserve.
In a heartfelt plea, Mbofana Nyika calls for unity among various stakeholders, including the Government to deal with this impending threat.
“We need to unite with various stakeholders including the Government. While we do patrols, we do not have pieces of equipment to protect ourselves from heavily armed charcoal producers. We ask the Government to deploy armed forest guards without that once charcoal producers invade this area we will be helpless,” GVH Mbofana Nyika said.
Whereas Chafisi Block exemplifies successful conservation, a few kilometers away, Chipungu Block under Group Village Headman Chinjoka Chirwa faces an uphill battle.
Here the forest experienced alarming levels of deforestation between 2007 and 2017 and the trend continues. It is a source of charcoal seen along the M1 road, which eventually finds its way into urban markets.
The Forest degradation is partly, attributed to the changing values and behaviors of the younger generation who prioritize immediate benefits over long-term environmental benefits.
Nevertheless, in response to these challenges, communities have taken the initiative to restore the lost areas of the forest through assisted regeneration and regular patrols. They hope that in safeguarding the regenerated trees, they will manage to restore the forest for future generations.
“We encourage community members to take part in taking care of the regenerated trees because we believe that it is these trees that will restore the lost areas of our forest. We work in the forest taking care by say pruning these small trees and we do this every Thursday,” Irene Banda, Treasure for Chipungu Block said.
However, GVH Chinjoka Chirwa alleges that their efforts are often, frustrated by law enforcement agencies who release those arrested for illegal activities.
“We do patrols and arrest people but the problem comes when we take them to police. They are released and the same people come back and continue with their illegal activities,” GVH Chinjoka Chirwa said.
Responding to the allegation, Mzimba Police Station Public Relations Officer Peter Botha said it is not true that they release culprits as alleged.
“The challenge that we have is a misconception among villagers because whenever we arrest such people, we do all the processes like taking them to court. However, sometimes they are given lenient fines ranging from MK15, 000 to MK40, 000 and those fines are not difficult to pay,” Botha said.
He added; “Once they pay we have to release them. However, once that happens villagers think that we have released them when in fact it is not freeing them but it’s getting released after paying the fine, same as after serving the sentence.”
“The second scenario is that sometimes we arrest women who are breastfeeding, so it is very difficult to keep a mother in a police cell together with a child who is just innocent. So on that issue most of the time we do give them a police bail but we are not just releasing them unconditionally, they do go to court as well,” Botha explained.
Mzimba District Forestry officials acknowledge the continuing pressing issue of deforestation in Perekezi, thus they are also doing their part in contributing to conservation efforts happening inside the forest.
“We face challenges in the management of forest resources in the reserve as people are taking it as an advantage to sell charcoal because of the availability of markets,” Mzimba South Forestry Extension Officer Isaac Baloyi said.
No matter the case, we still make sure that the situation does not go beyond our control. We work with MCHF sensitizing communities and organize routine patrols with the police and other organizations like Luwawa Environmental Trust. Through these collaborative efforts, we see some changes because the number of charcoal production cases is now minimal,” Baloyi said.
Modern Cooking for Healthy Forests, a USAID and UK-aid Co-funded project working with the Malawi Government, is supporting efforts to address deforestation and degradation in the reserve.
The project has empowered local forest organizations and communities to manage forest resources effectively, report illegal activities, and sensitize people about the importance of conservation.
Wezi Chisenga, MCHF Forest Specialist comments on the successes and challenges contributing to varied progress in conservation efforts.
“For successful forest management you need an empowered community,” Chisenga said. “Empowered communities have that understanding to say okay this is what I am supposed to do, this is what is permitted, this is what is prohibited inside the reserve, and having that understanding is contributing to successes.”
“However, challenges are there because generally, when you sensitize, others take up what they have learned easily, others at a later stage. Another one is to do with leadership because if you are a strong leader, you do not condone certain behaviors if what you are doing is to bring in a positive change,” Chisenga said.
Despite the challenges faced, Perekezi Forest is not giving in to the brink of deforestation. Through community-led efforts, collaborative endeavors, and a commitment to preserving this vital natural resource, the battle to save Perekezi Forest Reserve in Northern Malawi continues.