Perekezi Forest Reserve faces ongoing threats, but community-led conservation efforts show promise – Capital Radio Malawi
14 April, 2024

Perekezi Forest Reserve faces ongoing threats, but community-led conservation efforts show promise

In the heart of Mzimba District, nestled amid the serene landscapes of Northern Malawi, lies the Perekezi Forest Reserve, a sanctuary that has stood as a guardian of biodiversity for centuries.

Beneath its lush canopy, numerous streams, including the South Rukuru River, converge. The reserve has long served as a vital water catchment area, nurturing agriculture, preserving biodiversity, and ensuring access to clean water by the local communities within and beyond.

However, the serene beauty of Perekezi has been facing an ominous threat in the form of rampant deforestation and catchment degradation. The chief instigator of this ecological peril is illegal and unsustainable charcoal production.

Charcoal burning in process

This threat has been primarily, driven by a growing number of charcoal production groups, including former pit sawyers from neighboring Viphya Plantation, local producers, and newcomers from far-flung areas seeking to exploit this natural resource for personal economic gains.

Challenges in law enforcement have been further complicating the situation. Additionally, the changing values and behaviors of the younger generation who prioritize immediate benefits over long-term environmental conservation gains have been contributing to the growing threat.

Nevertheless, amid this biodiversity threat, traditional leaders surrounding the reserve are standing firm leading efforts to slow down forest cover loss through community-led initiatives.

The conservation efforts, which are part of the National Landscape Restoration Plan towards attaining 4.5 million hectares under the Bonn Challenge, are slowly bearing fruits in Perekezi Forest Reserve, which covers 15, 538 hectares.

While strolling along an over 20-kilometer stretch of the M1 road from Mzimba Turn-off to Luviri, one can still observe substantial quantities of charcoal bags and within certain sections of the forest the devastation is distressing, in most areas, there are signs of encouraging progress.

“Mainly the destruction in Perekezi is not in all areas as there are more areas that are doing well,” Stepples Nyandeni, Assistant District Forestry Officer (DFO) for M’mbelwa District Council says: “I can comfortably say that only 15 percent of the reserve is currently under threat.”

The journey

The progress attained to date traces its roots back to 2014 when, with funding from the European Union (EU) through the Improved Forest Management for Sustainable Livelihood Programme (IFMSLP), the Forestry Department initiated the development of Co-Management Plans for Perekezi Forest Reserve.

This followed the failure of management methods and benefits of the reserve at the time, which had minimal community involvement, to satisfy the increasing demands of people and institutions with different needs and perceptions.

The unavailability of steady markets for Non-Timber Forest products such as mushrooms, illegal extraction of forest products, weak local institutional linkages for sustainable management of forest resources, and poor land use practices on customary land adjacent to the reserve contributed to the failure.

Thus, the Department of Forestry embraced the Co-management arrangement as a viable management option to enhance Perekezi Forest productivity and at the same time reduce unsanctioned pressure from the surrounding communities.

The new arrangement, characterized by heightened community participation, aimed to augment forest cover on customary land bordering the reserve and involve communities in the sustainable management of land on this adjacent customary land.

Furthermore, it sought to manage Perekezi forest resources for catchment and biodiversity protection effectively, elevate the economic contribution of forest products to sustain livelihoods of forest-dependent communities, and formalize access to the extraction of forest products from the reserve.

In line with these objectives, community members took ownership of the reserve. They formulated by-laws designed to safeguard the reserve, stipulating fines for violating the regulations.

Additionally, the community organized itself to conduct regular patrols and uphold the well-being of the forest. This included establishing firebreaks to control bushfires and taking care of regenerated trees.

The progress

Largely, the plans and efforts are yielding positive outcomes. In numerous blocks of the forest, community members, under the guidance of their traditional leaders, have effectively curtailed the loss of forest cover. However, in certain pockets, the challenges persist.

An exemplary figure in this endeavor is Group Village Headman Mbofana Nyika, overseeing the 981-hectare Chafisi Block. His leadership has set an inspiring precedent, successfully reducing forest cover loss under his jurisdiction. The forest here remains undisturbed, with dead wood scattered and no traces of charcoal bags transported from the vicinity.

Leading by exampleGVH Mbofana Nyika

Under his guidance, the community has initiated income-generating projects that do not involve tree depletion. Additionally, fines have been implemented as a deterrent, serving as a cautionary measure to promote awareness about the crucial significance of preserving trees.

“We initiated the protection of this area upon recognizing the vital role trees play in sustaining our livelihoods, observing the difficulties faced by other communities where trees have been depleted. Our efforts are proving successful, evident in the fact that our forest remains intact,” GVH Mbofana Nyika says.

“We engage in activities such as patrolling the forest, establishing firebreaks to shield trees from bushfires, promoting tree planting, and encouraging communities to develop backyard woodlots for their fuel wood requirements,” GVH Mbofana Nyika explains.

“Additionally, our focus is on addressing poverty, a driving force behind forest destruction, we provide alternative income sources like beekeeping to discourage people from exploiting trees for profit,” he says.

Isaac Mkandawire, a youth from GVH Mbofana Nyika, attests to the influential role of the traditional leader in organizing and motivating the community to actively, participate in conservation efforts.

“Without the involvement of our chief, it could have been difficult for us to come together and agree on one thing. With the chief at the forefront, reminding us that this is our forest and we benefit from it, it is easy for us to follow what our leader is advising us to do,” Mkandawire says.

Opposite scenario

While Chafisi Block stands out as a success story in conservation, a few kilometers away, Chipungu Block under GVH Chinjoka Chirwa located in the southern part of the reserve along the M1 road faces significant challenges that impede conservation efforts.

Here, the destruction is disheartening as indigenous tree species continue to be chopped as nobody’s business. The area serves as a source of charcoal that is prominently visible along the M1 road, ultimately reaching urban markets.

The community however is not just watching. They are proactively taking steps to rehabilitate the depleted areas of the forest through assisted regeneration and consistent patrols. Their goal is to protect the rejuvenated trees, aiming to restore the forest for the benefit of future generations.

“There are many reasons for the continued destruction of the forest in this area despite our relentless efforts to put a stop to it,” GVH Chinjoka Chirwa says. “The most worrisome reason is the evolving values and behaviors of the younger generation, who tend to prioritize immediate benefits over long-term environmental considerations.”

The varied progress in conservation across these management blocks prompts inquiry into the underlying factors.

Stepples Nyandeni, the Assistant DFO for M’mbelwa District Council, explains, “Indeed, in certain areas, the adoption rate is better compared to others due to several factors.”

“Some communities, despite receiving training, appear not to be implementing what they learned in alignment with the objectives and strategies set in managing the reserve. In other areas, significantly affected communities are not adhering to the by-laws established.”

The setbacks

Despite the success of community-led conservation efforts in most parts of the reserve and a promising future, persistent challenges threaten achieved gains. These challenges include the escalating demand for charcoal in urban areas and challenges in law enforcement, among others.

In Chafisi Block, GVH Mbofana Nyika voices concern about a looming threat of deforestation and potential invasion by individuals responsible for damaging other sections of the reserve.

“We urgently need to unite with various stakeholders. Despite conducting patrols, we lack adequate equipment to defend ourselves against heavily armed charcoal producers. We implore the Government to deploy armed forest guards to handle potential dangers posed by those engaged in illegal activities,” GVH Mbofana Nyika says.

Similarly, in Chipungu Block, GVH Chinjoka Chirwa identifies inconsistency in law enforcement as a setback. He claims that their efforts are frequently, impeded by law enforcement agencies that release individuals arrested for engaging in illegal activities.

“We conduct patrols and apprehend individuals, but the issue arises when we hand them over to police. They are released, and the same individuals return to resume their illegal activities,” GVH Chinjoka Chirwa says.

In response to the accusation, Peter Botha, the Public Relations Officer for Mzimba Police Station, refutes the claim that they release offenders as suggested, stating that they follow due processes.

Botha clarifies that after apprehension, individuals go through the necessary procedures, including court proceedings, with fines imposed ranging from MK15, 000 to MK40, 000 as provided in the Forestry Act, the Penal Code and sometimes based on the mitigation factors and discretion of the presiding magistrate. Botha explains that villages mistakenly perceive the completion of the release process following payment of the fines as an unconditional release.

“In certain cases, such as apprehending breastfeeding women, detaining them along with their innocent children in police cells poses challenges. Consequently, we often grant them police bail. Nonetheless, this does not signify unconditional release; they still undergo the judicial process,” Botha says.

On the Government’s part, resources and the inadequacy of forest guards remain a challenge. This affects the frequency of patrols thus allowing illegal activities to flourish in the reserve.

“We are facing problems of encroachment or illegal charcoal production just because it seems, we have few field staff. Despite efforts to chase offenders away, the lack of patrol men and forestry guards allows them to return and continue causing damage, creating a perception of inactivity despite sincere efforts,” Nyandeni, the Assistant DFO says.

In contrast, Inkosi Ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V raises concern about the issuing of legal documents to individuals involved in illegal activities. This, he contends, poses a significant challenge to efforts to curb such activities.

Offering support to empower communities: Inkosi Ya Makhosi M’mbelwa (Picture by RoyalMedia)

“You will find that there are people that are coming with authentic department of forestry issued general receipts allowing them to cut trees and collect firewood and other products in the forests. I have stopped people that are collecting firewood and they show those documents then it is powerless for me to do anything because they have legal documents, so this has to stop,” Inkosi M’mbelwa says.

In response, Frank Nkondetseni, Public Relations Officer in the Ministry of Natural Resources and Climate Change says the Department of Forestry does not issue receipts for people to cut trees in forests but to collect dead wood and food products only from the forests.

“The Department of Forestry has advised all its officers to be very cautious when issuing general payment receipts to individuals who buy dead wood from forest areas to prevent abuse by some unscrupulous people who might abuse the receipts and cut down trees thereby frustrating conservation efforts,” Nkondetseni says.

The ray of hope

In the ongoing efforts to safeguard Perekezi Forest Reserve, a glimmer of hope persists, primarily fueled by the steadfast commitment of traditional leaders towards enhanced natural resource management and the transition to sustainable agriculture.

In support of improved natural resources management, in August last year, at the inaugural chiefs’ forum on natural resource management and transition to sustainable agriculture and livelihoods in Malawi, Paramount Chiefs, Senior Chiefs, and traditional leaders across the country signed a commitment.

Among others, they committed to stop encroachment of forest reserves and illegal charcoal production and promised to promote natural regeneration and reforestation activities.

Aligned with this commitment, Inkosi Ya Makhosi M’mbelwa V is steadfastly offering support to empower communities residing around Perekezi Forest, fortifying their grassroots initiatives.

He underscores the collaborative nature of the effort, stating, “This Co-agreement, we are just complementing department of forestry so that at local level there is somebody that is always watching. So, this time around, we want to come up with a way of doing enough patrols.”

The Mzimba Ngoni Paramount Chief, however, appeals to the Government for additional support.

“You know the communities just go there unarmed while those people involved in illegal activities are very dangerous. The Government should employ more forest guards with weapons that scare people away. If they can beef up what we are already doing in the communities by patrolling, I think joining forces will help us to mitigate this problem,” he says.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Climate Change through the Department of Forestry is also intensifying the enforcement of forest laws and addressing existing challenges to ensure the sustainable conservation of all forests including Perekezi Forest Reserve.

According to Nkondetseni, the department is working with different stakeholders including local communities to preserve forests, as they are aware that it is the responsibility of everyone in the country to protect forests.

“However, there are challenges such as inadequate forest guards. Last year, the Ministry recruited 300 forest guards now deployed to various forest reserves and plantations across the country to strengthen law enforcement against illegal human activities,” Nkondetseni says.

He adds: “The Ministry is aware that the number of forest guards is way below requirements and as such government will continue recruiting and training more forest guards to ensure that forests are adequately protected.”

Sustaining the gains

To ensure the continued success of conservation efforts, experts emphasize the ongoing participation of traditional leaders alongside government initiatives.

Clement Chilima, a former Director of Forestry, advocates for community involvement, highlighting the role of traditional leaders in channeling collective efforts.

Chilima asserts, “It is crucial to engage communities, and given the impracticality of involving every community member, the optimal approach is to leverage traditional leaders to coordinate community initiative.”

He emphasizes the need to persist in involving traditional leaders in areas where conservation efforts face challenges, enabling them to fortify their structures for community engagement.

In assessing the effectiveness of community-led conservation initiatives, Chilima observes that: “Communities play a vital role as they are present daily, making them the most effective contributors. However, shortcomings may exist in the system or structure, often related to a desire for monetary benefits.

“Therefore, you need to talk to the people right from the start and convince them that they do benefit. It is a matter of changing their mindset that forestry benefits are not always money. There are other benefits that they can get like stable supply of water, fertile soils and other food and non-food products that supports their livelihoods and if you instill that in the communities, they will be able to protect the thing, which benefits them.

In the ongoing efforts to preserve Perekezi Forest Reserve, the hope lies in the unwavering commitment of traditional leaders, community-led initiatives, and a call for stronger government collaboration to protect this vital ecological treasure.

The story is produced with financial assistance from USAID/ UKAID joint funded Modern Cooking for Health Forest Project (MCHF) supporting investigative reporting on forestry crimes in Malawi under the Forestry Accountability Journalism in Malawi initiative run in partnership with Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) and Association of Environmental Journalists in Malawi (AEJ) 

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *