Healing Malawi’s environment through natural regeneration

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Transitioning to more sustainable forms of agriculture remains critical, many current agriculture practices have serious consequences including deforestation and soil degradation.

But despite agriculture’s enormous potential to hurt the environment, it also has enormous potential to heal it. Promoting regenerative agriculture is one way of not just growing food but to progressively improve ecosystems.

Before 2015, when it comes to farming it was business as usual for Josephine Nyika from Kajikhomere village in the area of T/A Mzikubola in Mzimba. Routinely, she used to clear every shrub that has regenerated into her garden in preparation for making ridges for planting.

Blessed with thick forests that guaranteed normal rains, her business as usual way of farming was paying off. Each and every year, she was harvesting enough for her family’s consumption as well as for monetary earnings. Back then farming was a profitable business.

However, from 2012-2014 the scenario changed. Things started getting tough. The area started experiencing tricky rains. This was due to the depletion of forests through human activities resulting from population growth.

Studies show that forests have a direct impact on rain. As forests reduce in size they emit less water vapor which reduces rainfall leading to lower levels of water and other waterways. Deforestation also increases the rate of evaporation from water bodies already depleted by lack of rain.

At the same time that people in the area were enjoying normal rains due to forests that surrounded the area, some people saw the forests as their source of income. They ventured into charcoal burning, an activity that contributed to the devouring of forests that were once the pride of the area.

Not only that, the majority of people in the area depended on farming and with good rains and high yields guaranteed, they hungered for more. They started opening more new big fields which meant trees have to be cut to pave way for land for cultivation.

“With these human activities many trees were depleted and the depletion of trees contributed to climate change which resulted in tricky rains characterized by prolonged dry spells almost each and every rainy season,” Nyika told Capital FM.

“With droughts, our yields went down, for example, in 2014 I did not harvest much as I used to as at some point we experienced a drought which resulted in the wilting of most of my crops, and the crops failed to pick up when the drought was over,” she explained.

People in the area were duly rewarded for the pressure they have been putting on forests and in this situation; they started pondering for alternatives to their problem.

With climate change knocking on the door, increasing deforestation and droughts, the future looked very dark and scary for Nyika and residents of her area. It seemed as if solutions were further away than ever, and if there was one, it must be very sophisticated and ask for an enormous amount of effort, time and money.

But who says it needs to be this way? Sometimes the solution can be very easy. Sometimes you don’t need to fight nature; you just have to use what she provides. What if there is not only a solution for deforestation and agricultural degradation but also for poverty and malnutrition and that this solution is a sustainable one?

And that is just how Nyika and residents of her area learnt. As they were pondering for alternatives, came in Find Your Feet Malawi with a sustainable and innovative technology that would be the answer to their worries. It is called Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR).

The world Agro Forestry describes farmer managed natural regeneration as a quick, low cost, sustainable and easy-to-replicate technique to restore and improve agricultural, forested and pasture lands.

The technique encourages the systematic re-growth of existing trees and shrubs from tree stumps, roots and seeds. It can be used wherever there are living tree stumps with the ability to re-sprout or wherever there are seeds in the soil that will germinate.

Drawing from decades of research, FMNR uses farming principles designed to mimic nature. To build healthy soils and fertile, thriving agro-ecosystems, this approach incorporates a range of practices like agroforestry and well-managed grazing. Benefits of these practices include richer soil, healthier water systems, increased biodiversity, climate change resilience and stronger farming communities.

FMNR adapts centuries-old methods of woodland management, called coppicing and pollarding to produce continuous tree growth without the need for frequent and costly replanting.

Through the Sustainable Agriculture Lead Farmer Project (SALFP) implemented in Mzimba and Nkhata Bay districts with financial support from Development Fund of Norway, Find Your Feet introduced the FMNR initiative in Kazomba Extension Planning Area where Nyika’s area fall under.

All Nyika and residents of her area had to do was learning to do business unusual. While land clearing for cultivation meant removing all weeds and shrubs, this time around they were supposed to leave some.

“We were taught to be leaving some shrubs that have grown into our fields so that they grow into bigger trees as a way of restoring the trees which were depleted, and we followed that as it did not require much effort,” Nyika said.

She added, “In order to get healthy, well growing and fine shaped trees, the pruning and thinning of the regrowth needs to happen in a carefully selective ways. Correct pruning stimulates rapid growth and results in taller, straighter, more useful tree trunks.”

When Find Your Feet brought the initiative in the area, Nyika was more than happy to practice this new initiative and she became one of the Lead Farmers in promoting this technology.

“With trees being depleted and the challenges we were facing, I thought of the future and that is the reason I decided to practice FMNR so that we restore the trees for the better future of our children,” she said.

Her decision is however paying off. While droughts continue affecting her area, she is less concerned as FMNR is helping her harvest more despite the droughts.

“Since I started practicing FMNR I have seen more positives. The trees that have regenerated in my garden helps in keeping moisture such that despite continued occurrences of droughts, my field is less affected. Also, the leaves from the trees help in fixing the soil,” she said.

Sain Mskambo Project Officer for Find Your Feet (FYF) said they decided to promote practice of FMNR as part of natural resource management and conservation.

“Farmer management natural regeneration is one of the best ways to conserve natural resources and allow trees to grow. Trees tend to grow fast since they are already established and adapted to their environment,” Mskambo said.

But can this technology be a sustainable way of restoring the depleted forest cover?

The Malawi Government estimates that the country’s 8.4 million acres of predominantly natural forests are being depleted at a rate of 2.6 percent annually.

In Mzimba alone, the district is facing high deforestation rates estimated at 10-40 percent according to Forest Assistant Arden Ngoma. Ngoma said the rate of deforestation is growing fast as compared to past years where the rate was constant.

“Population growth is at the centre of this increase in deforestation rate,” Ngoma said. “Due to population growth there is high demand for infrastructure development, charcoal demand has gone up and agriculture expansion is going up, all these put forests at risk hence the increase in deforestation.”

But the country is not just staying idle. Efforts are there to restore forest cover with the tree planting exercise carried out each and every year leading the efforts.

However, this exercise has its own challenges in as far as survival rate of the planted trees is concerned. Of all the trees planted each and every year, about 40 percent of the trees die reports the Forestry Directorate.

Dry spells during trees planting time that results into many trees being planted late, animal grazing as well as wrong species matching contributes to these trees dying.

And that is where natural regeneration beat tree planting efforts. Find Your Feet’s’ Mskambo is of the view that FMNR and tree planting should be complementing each other for better results.

“Farmer managed natural regeneration should be promoted alongside reafforestation programs like tree planting so that communities benefit from both interventions in the short, medium and long term,” Mskambo said.

“We encourage natural regeneration as we believe this can complement the tree planting efforts. Natural trees grow naturally and are already adapted to the environment while exotic trees sometimes end up dying due to wrong species matching,” he said.

To achieve total FMNR results Mskambo said there is need for individual and community engagement. He says this makes sense, since the people living close to the land are also the first to benefit from it.

“One way to promote farmer management natural regeneration is to allow value addition, for example engaging communities in apiculture,” he said.



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