Fire season in Malawi

The running background themes in the ASSETS workshop in Malawi last week were wood and fire. Everywhere we went- village, city and mountain- we saw piles of wood for sale, being collected transported on heads, backs, bikes and trucks, bundled as firewood or bagged up as charcoal. We were visiting Malawi in the ‘fire season’- the end of the dry period before the onset of the rains which usually arrive in November- farmers burn fields in anticipation of growing crops- although of late the rains have been unreliable. However, the most striking fires were not on agricultural land, but in and around protected forest areas.

Zomba forest reserve looms over the old colonial capital of Zomba City (home of our lead Malawian institution, Chancellor College, and our base for the workshop and fieldwork). The reserve rises to around 3000m and is protected as a watershed and a national timber resource, and harbours wildlife such as baboons and leopards.  The slopes of the mountain reserve  are blackened by widespread fires. Clement Chilima of the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi  suggested that people living outside of the reserve set the fires to reduce the value of the timber- charred poles have little value to the Forestry Department- so a free (but illegal) resource is created for firewood or charcoal production. A local guide told us that the fires are set to kill the trees so they can be harvested once dead and dry, and that small  fires are also set to assist hunting wild game- mice are a popular snack and a source of protein.

The consequences of the burning are profoundly negative.  Money is made (illegally) through the sale of timber, firewood and charcoal- the charcoal industry generates around US $41.3 million, or  0.5% of the national economy  (Kambewa et al 2007),  but the costs to wider society are wide-ranging and corruption is widespread.  Soil is washed from the slopes when the rains come, and the sediment clogs rivers and hydropower schemes (99% of Malawi’s inadequate electricity supplies come from hydropower and resources which could expand supply are committed to clearing sediment). Other forest produce such as traditional medicines or food are depleted (wild berries are plentiful, and harvested for sale and add important nutritional components to poor people’s diets), and wildlife habitat is destroyed. The forest ecosystem may be resilient enough to regenerate after a single burning event, but population pressure means that these fires are increasingly repeated events- pushing the forest towards a tipping point beyond which easy recovery seems unlikely.

The ASSETS project has started data collection with a pilot study in the village of Minama- a rural village north of Zomba. Our focus groups and participatory assessments  in the village identified charcoal burning as a key local  driver of environmental change.  Charcoal production is carried out by the poorest to generate some cash- and the poorest are more likely to depend on the forest as a safety net when times get tough- if rains fail or the prices of staple foods rise due to economic storms elsewhere. Wild food remains an important dietary component  and non timber forest products deliver essential money, even though much of the forest in Southern Malawi and across the region is gone, so making charcoal and setting fires is burning the safety net.

Last Friday, on the final day of our workshop we revisited Zomba plateau, looking for a case study village within the reserve. A huge fire raged on the hillside above a small settlement in an abandoned forestry compound- out of control and devouring a large area. As we came down from the mountain night was falling and we looked across the East Zomba plane towards Lake Chilwa (itself on the cusp of drying out due to failed rains and low river flows- the latter tied in with the loss of forest the rising populations and climate change). Beyond the edge of the city of Zomba and out to the horizon orange specks twinkled on the hills, and above us on the plateau more fires were starting.

Kambewa P., Mataya B,, Sichinga K. and Johnson, T. 2007. Charcoal: the reality – A study of charcoal consumption, trade and production in Malawi. Small and Medium Forestry Enterprise Series No. 21. IIED, London

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