The Government of Malawi has decided to start using soldiers from the Malawi Defence Force, (MDF) as a desperate measure to arrest the on going deforestation, which is threatening its forestry reserves.
The Ministry of Energy, Mines and Natural Resources, which by law has the mandate of administering the forests in Malawi, engaged the Ministry of defence last Friday into a memorandum of understanding that will see soldiers involved in addressing some of the shortfalls that are being experienced in managing forestry reserves by the Ministry responsible.
There is a network of 100 forest reserves covering 1.1 million hectares and communities who make use of them have already complained with the move taken by government to involve soldiers.
Membala Kayanula says he virtually raised his family from one of the forestry reserves to be protected by the soldiers and says what the government has decided to do, is inhuman.
"I have done everything in this forestry hunted animals for food, burnt charcoal or cut wood to raise fees for the school fees for my children, and now the government wants to start using soldiers to kill us for only trying to survive, I do not understand. What kind of government is this," he moaned when interviewed last Wednesday.
He says for the past 40 years he has benefited from the Dzalanyama Forestry reserves, which lies between the districts of Lilongwe, Dedza, Mchinji and some part of Zambia.
Defence Minister Davis Katsonga said the soldiers would be deployed in 16 forestry reserves stretched across the country where they will carry out designated forest operations that may include patrols around the forestry boundaries and forestry reserves.
"The soldiers will also help in pre-empting and discouraging encroachments into forest reserves, controlling unlicensed wood harvesters and charcoal production," said the Defence Minister.
He said the Memorandum of Understanding also says that the soldiers will from time to time hand over all culprits to the department of forestry’s designated officers so that the offenders can be subjected to the applicable provisions of forestry Act.
"There won’t be any shooting unless in cases where they will have to protect themselves from armed poachers," he said.
His cabinet colleague Henry Chimunthu Banda Minister of Energy, Mines and Natural Resources, said the soldiers would enhance his ministry’s capacity to protect the gazetted forest reserves and support re-forestation efforts in selected parts of some forest reserves in the country.
"Apparently one of the functions of the ministry is the effective and sustainable control, protection and management of forest reserves that play a vital role in water catchment protection, provision of wood, conservation of biodiversity and tourism but this was not being achieved," confessed Banda.
He said the major challenge being faced by Government in managing these reserves includes encroachments and illegal exploitation of forest produce and that this is pronounced especially in forest reserves that are located in densely populated areas.
"The existing low capacity to address forest management responsibilities tends to exacerbate the situation," he said.
He said the Ministry of defence would help in the additional capacity to step up forest restoration efforts in selected forest reserves through tree planting, management and protection.
He said the defence would also help to increase the capacity of Government to effectively control, protect and manage the gazetted forest reserves.
"The ministry of defence is expected to achieve this, through familiarizing themselves with the provisions of the National Forest Act as well as agreeing to regularly deploy specified numbers of its soldiers in selected forest reserves or parts of the reserves," he said.
Forest resources in Malawi cover an estimated 28% of the total land area of 9.4 million hectares. About 11% of this area is national parks and game reserves, 10% is in forest reserves and 7% is on customary land.
Most forests are in upland and hilly areas and along the rift valley scarps.
Principal Forestry Officer in the Ministry Ted Kamoto said forests, woodlands and trees play a significant role in the livelihoods of Malawians by providing fuel wood, poles, shelter, fruits, other non-wood forest products as well as providing refuge and habitant for wildlife.
"Forests and woodlands protect and safeguard vital water catchments, which are central to the survival of human populations in the country and dangers of destroying them are obvious," he said.
Plantation forests constitute about 1% of the total land area under forest cover.
Kamoto said one of the central issues in the forest sector today is deforestation, which is estimated at 2.8% annually.
"Deforestation is the removal of the tree or forest component from the ecosystem in order to create room for other agricultural or economic activities such as farming, infrastructural development such as roads, human settlements, fuel wood and charcoal production, etc," he said.
He said in Malawi this is spurred by population growth and the drive to attain higher levels of economic development due to poverty.
Kamoto said the forestry department in Malawi has a large number of vacancies at professional level at 37%, technical level at 50% and field level at 28% at Forest Guard level.
"The effect of inadequate human resources is obvious: up to 40% of the workload will not be fulfilled or alternatively, the few people that are available will be over worked," he said.
He said the issues of HIV and AIDS, brain drain, early retirements, etc, influence the high vacancy rate.
"It is therefore difficult for the Department to carry out its mandate effectively and efficiently. Law enforcement, which is very critical, suffers due to the reduced capacity and the soldiers will help in this area," he said.
"Over 90% of Malawians use biomass as a source of energy. Most of this comes from firewood and charcoal. The major consumers of firewood and charcoal are people living in towns and cities; flue cured tobacco farmers; the brick industry; large institutions like schools, prisons and hospitals," he said.
There has been low level of reforestation in Government owned industrial plantations in the past 15 years due to what Kamoto said financial constraints.