Around 1970, the then five-year-old Paul Nthambazile was fond of playing in a nearby forest with his two siblings, both older than him. While growing up in the area, he was not only oblivious to the value of trees, but it never occurred to him that the forest will one day be a source of his fortune and at the same time a symbol of struggle for his community and country.

Now, the decades-old man made forest is at the bone of contention between local and private timber milling companies. Experts and the government believe the problem has long been brewing.

Around 1964, the first head of state for Malawi, then Nyasaland, embarked on an ambitious project to turn one of the mountain ranges in the country into a forest. What followed was the planting of trees—mostly exotic pine—into 53,000 hectares of woodland, the first largest man made forest in Africa.

While the initial idea was to use the trees to support a potential pulp and paper industry, the government later leased the forest through concessions to private companies and indigenous Malawians, both sharing 60 and 40 percent of the forest respectively.

But heavy harvesting in the area has prompted the government to rearrange the agreements with the timber millers and on several occasions suspended harvesting in the forest to control deforestation.

Chikangawa forest lies within a mountain range in Northern Malawi. The Northern and Southern portions of the range are separated by a lower saddle of hills. The town of Mzuzu is located on the saddles western slope, and Malawi’s M5 Highway crosses the saddles to connect to Nkhata Bay, on Lake Malawi.

Over the years, over 400 plus Malawian timber millers have co-existed in the forests in Malawi until recently when the former claims they discovered their counterparts were being given a lion share. Since 2013, the two groups have been at loggerheads with the government forestry officials backing the foreign companies.

Forests in Malawi

Paul Nthambazale now a successful 40-year-old timber miller heads a 35-member group called Reformed Timber Millers Union, a brainchild of Timber Millers Cooperative Union which disbanded after the government cancelled their permits. After the group sued the government, they reached a consensus and came up with a new agreement which is running to date.

He recalled when they started having problems with the agreement in 2013. They were entitled to 10000 hectares of the forest but said the piece had only 2700 hectares of Pine trees and 500 hectares of Blue gum trees.

“The government told us that it was going to source trees from the other concessionaires because the government had no trees. The government officials admitted that they made a mistake by giving too much land to the other concessionaires. In 1999, the government started giving concessionaires to foreign based companies in huge areas, others up to 20000 of fully covered.

Thambazale and his colleagues have been staging protests by blocking other companies from accessing the forest in a move to force the government to give them an extra piece of trees.

He said they will keep on protesting until they see change not only in timber, but other businesses as well where he claims foreigners are being given preferential treatment. He believes some government officials are cashing in on the resources available in the forests in Malawi.

But According to Director of Forest Stella Gama, the 2016 forestry and the public sector reforms instituted by the government allow the Department of Forestry to engage the private sector in the management of forests in Malawi under forest plantations agreements or concessions.

“This is normal but also of advantage to the Ministry to ensure sustainable management of forests, improved industrial forestry and also enhance forest sector financing.  Since 1999, the Department has facilitated the signing and operationalization of a number of agreements with a number of private companies,” Gama said citing Raiply, AKL Timbers, Pyxus Agriculture, Kawandama Hills, and Total Land Care as having a stake in over 30000 hectares in the plantation.

Gama refuted allegations that the government is favouring foreigners and said the problem is rooted in harvesting more trees than the millers can replace.

Forests in Malawi

“Harvesting of the areas outside the Raiply Concession area has happened unsustainably considering that the licensees were harvesting more than what the Department could restore. It’s not correct to say that the government is favoring others.  It’s just that the mode of engagement is varied. Others opted for long term arrangements while the locals preferred short term licenses,” Gama said.

Clifford Mkanthama, Climate Change and Biodiversity expert said the indigenous loggers need to follow whatever was agreed in their memorandum of understanding but said the current protests are disappointing.

Mkanthama said there has been an argument that deforestation levels are reducing in the country although hinted this is because people don’t have trees to cut anymore and not necessarily because people have stopped cutting down trees in the forests in Malawi.

“They don’t have resources to harvest them. People are now scrambling for the little resources available and when it comes to timber in Malawi the land that has enough trees is the plantation,” he said, noting that most of the 53000 hectares of the pine trees has also been destroyed by fire and people.

“People who just harvest without replenishing through replanting have found themselves in an awkward situation that they don’t have trees to harvest.”

Charles Pensulo

About Charles Pensulo

Charles Pensulo is a freelance journalist based in Blantyre, Malawi covering topics such as climate change, food security, human rights, global development and governance. His work has been published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog.